There are thousands of Italian varietals to choose from, unlike the much planted noble grapes in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Planting these less common varietals helps you stand out among the crowd, like Marcello Mastroianni at an American film festival.
They used to be called Cal-Itals. You don’t see the word spoken much more, perhaps because it sounds like a low-fat salad dressing, and everyone knows fat is in now.
I still love it–because it is catchy and easily recognizable for what it is.
I almost called this post “Who’s Doing Cal-Ital on the Central Coast?” but decided to stick with the times…they are just called Italian varietals now. And “Cal-Ital” recalls Jane Fonda wearing leg warmers and eating angel hair pasta with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
Italian varietals are grown all over the Central Coast, so it is impossible to point to one geographical location or terroir that defines it.
Since there are so many varietals, it is also hard to pin down a flavor profile. Therein lies the strength: trying these wines can be unpredictable, a new adventure, a refreshing break from yet another oaky Chardonnay. You might find something more earthy, more funky, less lush, or less heady than you are used to…you just don’t know until you pop the cork.
Below is a list of everyone that I know of with an Italian focus on the Central Coast. The list is not scientific–some people do it exclusively, while others have maybe a Sangiovese and a Nebbiolo in their eclectic, part-French, part-Italian, (and sometimes part-Spanish) collection.
You have tried California Chardonnay before, and think perhaps you know what it tastes like.
The most common ones are oaky and buttery in style, (or were at their height of popularity, many winemakers are now trying a leaner style), and come from the Carneros region, an AVA shared by Napa and Sonoma.
But there are other regions that speak of their own soils and climate.
There’s something different about Chardonnays from the Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost sub-AVA of Santa Barbara.
Matt Kramer, critic and longtime contributor to Wine Spectator, praised them as California’s “most opulent Chardonnays” in his book New California Wine. He was impressed with their “massive fruit,” tempered by strong acidity, especially noting flavors of lime and coconut.
The fruitiness is especially intriguing, because it is not a characteristic classically associated with Chardonnay. Yeastiness, toastiness, and butteriness, yes, all products of vinification–Chardonnay is a grape that shows the winemaking process better than the fruit itself. But not fruit. Fruit is associated with Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc–zesty wines.
I set out to learn more. I bought myself a bottle of SM Valley Chardonnay, and I emailed several SM Valley wineries.
“SantaMaria Chardonnay is definitively full of citrus flavors: lemon, lime zest, maybe some bergamot,” says Laura Booras, general manager for Riverbench Vineyard and Winery.
“Of course, that’s just the fruit, so once you add in oak (or not) it changes a lot….Our Chardonnays tend to be leaner because it’s so cool here, with a big hit of minerality.”
Cameron Porter, estates manager for Presqu’ile Winery, distinguishes between different parts of the valley. He says the wine:
“varies somewhat depending on where you are in the valley. On the west end, where we are, the wines are taut and precise, driven by acid and wet-stone minerality. The fruit profile tends toward lemon zest/lemon curd, lime, and just-ripe tropical fruits.”
“On the northern/eastern end, where vineyards such as Bien Nacido and Cambria are, the wines have more weight without losing that balancing acid. The fruit profile starts to head more into peach and apricot, and the wines are fleshier overall.”
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Santa Barbara AVA is the transverse range, a range of mountains that run west to east from the ocean. The mountains along the West coast run north south for the entire length of the United States, then briefly turn inward here.
The ocean air funnels inwards, making the SB wine region one of the coolest in the state, despite its southerly latitude. SM Valley sits in its direct path.
“The SantaMaria Valley is an ancient riverbed that runs east to west instead of north to south,” says Booras.
The cool ocean air “means the valley has one of the longest growing seasons in the country and the grapes can develop a ton of character without being super high in alcohol.”
Norman Beko, owner and winemaker for Cottonwood Canyon Winery, observes another feature.
“We are at 500 feet elevation and have a micro climate which is strange because, historically, we receive about ten inches of rain less than the properties 60 feet west of our 78 acres. I believe this is because the ocean breeze which we receive about 1:00 p.m. daily, pushes the clouds away.”
Kramer talks about this battle between fog and sunshine distinctive to this location.
When he wrote his book, the SM Valley received 87 days of fog per year. The cool, moist ocean air creeps in, then duels with the inland heat, creating the fog, which ultimately burns off for part of the day.
The delicate balance between sunshine, fog, and the right growing temperature lend the wines a long growing season and an acidity that hits the sweet spot.
Porter notes that the west side of the valley is cooler, creating “brighter, leaner wines,” while the east is warmer as the ocean air is less prevalent, creating richer wines.
He also notes soil differences:
“The west end is essentially a giant sand dune. The northern/eastern half has much more clay and rock (shale, sandstone), which brings more body.”
Booras points to the soil for her Chardonnay’s flavor: “Sandy fossilized soils like ours provide excellent drainage which makes Chardonnay thrive as well, and lends the more minerally character.”
What are the current vintages like?
The Chardonnays currently released by Riverbench are “mostly 2015, another even year with little variation, so the grapes have tons of flavor and character. The wines are super complex,” says Booras.
“The 2014 vintage [the current vintage for Presqu’ile] has a generous character, with plenty of fruit, backed by great acid,” says Porter. They are also selling some 2013s.
Cottonwood Canyon is selling several vintages dating back to 2009, and had no comment on the latest vintage.
I opened up a bottle of Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, with fruit mostly from Santa Maria, to get a taste of this place.
The nose was toasted coconut, vanilla, clover, with a metallic minerality; while the palate was coconut, vanilla, lemon, and lemon thyme.
There was also the spirit of something distinctly SoCal present: I got an image of a pot of succulents paddling across a sunny swimming pool.
It seemed more fruit-driven than body/texture driven, and that’s the sense I got from interviewing these wine professionals, as well. More fruit, less butter–a refreshing take on an old classic.
And we thought we knew California Chardonnay.
P.S. I first tried the Chardonnay at a cool, but not cold temperature, and it sung. Then I put it back in the fridge, and it became austere and shy. It behooves us to remember that Chardonnay is best at slightly warmer than fridge temperature.
If you know the Central Coast, you know that one of the biggest names is Paso Robles, but did you know it could be further divided, like Napa?
In fact, it has 11 sub-AVAs. I’m not going to be that specific, but I will be splitting it in half: dividing the east from the west.
Paso Robles East is the area to the east of the 101, and encompasses more acreage, while Paso West is west of the 101 and closer to the ocean.
Paso East is known for producing more of the high-volume, cheaper stuff that comes out of Paso, so if you see a bottle for under $20 on your grocery store shelf, chances are it came from the East side.
According to Matt Kramer in The New California Wine, the west siders have formed associations to distinguish themselves from the eastsiders. The westside is known for more boutique, expensive, and craftsman-quality wine, and perhaps they want to protect their reputation.
The east side does have an association (The Wineries of 46 East), but who knows who started it. “The line in the chalky soil has unmistakably been drawn,” says Kramer.
Proletariat that I am, I identified with the east side. Who wants to spend $40 for a bottle of wine when you can get the spirit of the place for $20?
And according to Kramer, the weather of the east side supports the flavor profile Paso is known for: fruity, chocolatey and soft (low-acid) without being flabby.
Paso East has hot days and cool nights, with the average maximum being 93 degrees in July and August, and 52 degrees at night. The only other wine growing region that has a bigger diurnal shift is Washington’s Yakima Valley, according to Kramer.
Paso West has a big swing, too, but is not quite as hot. The grapes (in the east) ripen early and make for a round wine that appears lighter in body than, say a Napa wine.
In fact, according to a Paso wine pourer I talked to, the growing season is shorter in Paso than Napa. So while you might not get the depth or ageworthiness of a Napa cab, you’ll get an elegance and food-friendliness.
Then the cool nights encourage the grapes to retain acid, thus not becoming flabby.
Lindsey Pomeroy of WineFolly says Paso wines have “a surprising backbone of acidity that will make you sit up straight in your seat,” but I tend to agree with Kramer. I think they are soft. They have just enough acidity to make for a memorable wine. If you like that style, you will like these wines.
Cabernet is what the area is known for.
It has a history of Zinfandel, and also makes a lot of Syrah, but according to WineFolly, 55% of vines are devoted to Cabernet and Bordeaux varietals. In any case, the area is known more for reds than whites.
I opened a 2014 Robert Hall Cabernet for my taste of Paso East. I got it at my local grocery store for $14, so you should have no problem finding it, too.
According to the winery’s website:
Our 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is a product of several Paso Robles vineyards planted from the southern banks of the Estrella to the southernmost area of the “Creston District.” (Note: these are eastside AVAs–see map.) Here our Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have matured to full intensity on rolling sandy loam hills and terraces of the Estrella Basin and on the ancient uplifted sea beds found in the southern reaches of Creston. The fusion of bright fruit-forward Cabernet produced on a more generous loamy soil with intense fully ripe Cabernet Sauvignon from a sparse rocky site yields a blend with opulent fruit, intriguing complexity, and satisfying structure. (Another note: sandy soils make soft wines.)
My notes on this wine:
Nose: tobacco, fig paste, salty clay
Palate: Pomegranate syrup and dried rose petals, with a nice harmony of red and black fruit. Lighter in body than a Napa cab, almost like a Merlot.
Tobacco and dried roses give it a nice crunchiness, like an Italian wine. A nice surprise: more tannin than you typically get on everyday wine these days.
And on further reflection, I can also taste the chocolate that Kramer is talking about.
I have loved learning about Paso Robles East. Do you like Paso Robles? Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve been trying to gather up information for a few weeks now about just what is the Central Coast. But because it is divided into distinct subappelations, it is difficult to give it one identity. It’s easy to find information on Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz, but the Central Coast as a whole remains a mystery.
The Central Coast is one of the major AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, of California, along with Napa and Sonoma. But unlike those places, it’s quite large–at least twice as long north-south as those, and extending as far inland as Napa at places. To think of it in simple terms, it is roughly the area between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, along the coast, with patches of vine-growing areas intermixed with houses, beaches, malls and farms.
The problem with trying to find a Central Coast identity is its size–it contains warm and cool areas, and a multitude of soils and terroirs. Culturally one might expect the areas to be different as well–it includes the fast-paced San Francisco as well as the laid-back Santa Barbara. Writer William Ausmus described it as “a hodgepodge of appellations and subappellations–” nothing sticking them together except general geography.
It is much easier to explore the identities of the smaller AVAs. In fact, Ausmus recommended dividing the area into thirds–north, mid and south, corresponding approximately to the areas of Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County, and Santa Barbara County–for this very reason. Indeed, each of these regions has different specialties. Paso Robles in SLO County is known for cabernet, for instance, whereas Monterey is known for pinot noir.
The Central Coast first made wine in the 1700s, when the missions along the coast needed wine for sacramental purposes. Native Americans used to work the vines for the Spanish settlers. In the 1800s, commercial wine started to be produced in both Sonoma and Los Angeles,∗ though the Central Coast didn’t begin taking off until the 1970s, lagging behind both Napa and Sonoma.∗∗
The major areas (that you’ll hear about) in the Central Coast are Livermore Valley, Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Benito County, San Francisco Bay, San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County, Santa Clara County, and Santa Cruz Mountains. Most of those are official AVAs, but the counties of SLO, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara are not–they only contain smaller AVAs (such as Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara).∗∗∗
Of these areas, the best known are Paso Robles (in SLO), Santa Barbara (which gained in recognition because of the movie “Sideways”), and perhaps Monterey.
The Central Coast has less cult wines than Napa and Sonoma. This means that it is easy to get very good to excellent wines from anywhere from $20 to $80–you don’t have to pay that $200 price tag or get on a waitlist to get on the mailing list. It’s also easy to visit for the same reason–no reservations needed for tastings at most places.
Although it contains a multitude of terroirs, I like to think you can taste something of the spirit of the Central Coast in the wine. If you close your eyes and let it wash over you, you may taste the psychedelic spirit of Haight Ashbury, the entrepreneurialism of Silicon Valley, or the mellowness of early morning surfers in Santa Barbara.
For the complete California Wine Map that identifies all the appellations and subappellations, click here.
Until next time, happy drinking!
*Ausmus, William A. Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast, 2008, University of California Press.
This is the beginning of a blog I’ve had on my mind for some time. Living in Los Angeles, I’m close to the Central Coast and have visited a lot–so I’m in a convenient location to report to you about it.
What’s more, Central Coast wine is delicious, from Santa Barbara pinot to Paso Robles cabernet. It’s not as built up as Napa, so there’s always new wineries to discover. I hope that by reading this blog, you’ll want to try this area more.
I have the very modest goal of posting once a month. I work, and I still have The Diagonal Oenophile to maintain. And I get caught up in watching reality TV instead of doing what I should, just like everyone else. So one post per month is manageable to begin.
I hope to post informative articles about wineries to visit, as well as some history of the area. Maybe other things too, but that’s a good start.