When people think of wines from California, their first (and second) thoughts nearly always focus on the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
This is as it should be, I suppose, because those were the regions that first garnered worldwide acclaim for the quality of their wines. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc bottlings rival the best that Bordeaux produces. More favorable weather and growing conditions means that Napa, unlike Bordeaux, can produce superior wines nearly every vintage. Throw in world-class bottlings of Chardonnay and Syrah, and Napa stands out as a superior producer of top-notch vino.
On the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas mountain range, closer to the cooler climes of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the wines produced are world-renowned as well. There, diverse microclimates have resulted in the planting of many different grape varietals — those best suited to the conditions. This has resulted in excellent examples of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and Gewürztraminer, along with solid examples of Bordeaux varietal reds and whites.
While these two North Coast wine appellations may have received the lion’s share of critical acclaim in the past, the Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) has quietly snuck up and is snapping at their heels.
The Central Coast appellation is the largest in size in the state of California. Rambling about 250 miles from Santa Barbara in the south to the bottom of the San Francisco Bay in the north, it contains more than a dozen smaller AVAs unique for their grape-growing conditions.
Cool Santa Barbara County, especially in the western-most Santa Rita Hills area, is home to some of the state’s richest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottlings, while a bit inland, in the eastern Santa Ynez Valley where it gets warmer, Syrah and Bordeaux varietals do quite well.
Just to the north, the Santa Maria benchland produces brilliant examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with some maverick plantings of lesser-known Italian varietals starting to get some critical acclaim.
A few more miles north brings us to Arroyo Grande and the Edna Valley. Abutting the Pacific Ocean, cool breezes produce a perfect climate for Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while some specific microclimates have proven a holy ground for world-class Syrah.
Less than an hour to the north is the Paso Robles AVA. This geothermally active region has a number of special growing areas suited to many different grape varietals. World-class bottlings from this region have been made from Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, as well as Rhone-style blends and Muscat.
Another hour’s drive brings us to the Santa Lucia highlands in Monterey County. A break in the coastal mountain range provides cooling fog inland many afternoons, resulting in perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Warmer areas also can produce Cabernet Sauvignon at a high quality level.
Farther to the north is the growing region of the Santa Cruz Mountains, home of the amazing Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon produced at Ridge Vineyards. The area also is renowned for outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Just below the San Francisco Bay is the wine region of the Livermore Valley. World-class Petite Sirah and Bordeaux varietals are produced there.
So… what’s the point of this crash-course in the Central Coast AVAs?
Simple: Your Humble Scribe is on a mission to imbibe! For the entire month of August, the Happy Cooker and I will be chillin’ and swillin’ all along the Central Coast wine trail. We’ll be stopping in at a couple dozen wineries while there and, the Wi-Fi gods willing, I hope to post reports on our exploits right here.
Some will be posted as we go, while other reports may have to wait until our return home. I plan to have up-to-the-minute reports from the winemakers and owners themselves, along with an occasional celebrity.
So strap in, Dear Reader, as we explore the Central Coast wine region. The adventure begins August 1!