Book Review: Adventures in the Wine Country

Moxie and Wine Book

 

There’s something about the wine books of yesteryear–the lack of full-color glossy photos leaves more to the imagination.

Today’s books are either full of the former, or so full of technical information there’s no room for contemplation.  We are an expertise-hungry body of enthusiasts who wants our knowledge now, conquering region after region or varietal after varietal on our armchairs.

Adventures in the Wine Country, Jefferson Morgan, 1971, is just such an imaginative book.  It follows the author as he gallivants around California, mapping out wine trails and opining on its history and customs.  It contains such gems as:

“The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and even the Chinese raised winemaking to a high art at the same time our less enlightened ancestors of Northern Europe, no doubt suffering from indigestion brought on by drinking crude beer and brackish mead, were painting themselves blue, shivering in caves and dispatching one another with stone axes before breakfast.”

And:

“Most important, don’t forget the corkscrew. One can be purchased, naturally, but why bother to lay out good money for an item you have at home. Remember, most stores are closed Sundays, and few sights are as pitiable as a man trying to coax a reluctant cork from a bottle of wine with the file of his nail clippers.”

As evidenced by this quote, the book is a slice of American history.

It was written at a time when Napa and the rest of California’s AVAs were still underdeveloped wine country, and places were likely to be closed Sundays.  Morgan recommends packing a picnic lunch wherever you go because there are no decent restaurants.  Today there are whole books devoted to California cuisine, so plentiful are the Michelin star offerings.

Areas covered in the book are the North Coast, Napa Valley and the Silverado Trail, Sonoma, Santa Clara and the “South Coast” (now called the Central Coast), and the Livermore Valley.

The section devoted to the Central Coast just covers the northernmost portion of what we think of as the Central Coast, or the parts directly south of San Francisco.  Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are nowhere to be found.

He doesn’t even go as far south as Monterey–though he briefly discusses the region, all the wineries he lists are in the Santa Cruz Mountains or Santa Clara County areas.

Of the six wineries he recommends for the “South Coast” tour, only Almaden, Mirassou and Bargetto still survive.  A testament to the difficulty of keeping an independent business alive, especially one devoted to a novelty good, as California wine was back then.

In the end, this is in no way a practical guide for wine touring in California.  What it is is a book of laughs, an escape with an erudite fellow from the hippie generation.  And for wine history lovers, a glimpse into what it was to tour Napa when your car would break down on the Silverado Trail and no one else would be in sight.

The book sells for just a few dollars used on Amazon.  Save it from the garage sale pile.  It’s worth it.

P.S. As I write this, Napa and Sonoma are in the middle of terrible fires that have killed at least ten people and demolished several wineries.  History goes on, and the landscape of wine country changes again.  I wish them all safety and a speedy recovery.

A Year of Petite Sirah: Stolpman Vineyards

So I’ve decided to start a Petite Sirah series–examining one PS per month for a year, all from the Central Coast.  What I’ve had so far I’ve liked, yet it’s still relatively unfamiliar to me, so I will be learning as I go.

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It’s probably unfamiliar to most of us, because it’s not as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or even Syrah, other major grapes that come out of California.  Yet its history and identity is tied intrinsically with this state.

You may know that Zinfandel is an iconic American wine.  Like Carmenere in Chile or Malbec in Argentina, it is a grape that came from an Old World country, only to find its best expression in the New World.

Zinfandel is the same as Primitivo in Italy, yet it is here that it has been refined and promoted to the point of being a household name–even a common drink to serve at Thanksgiving.

Petite Sirah has much of the same story.  It is a French grape, Durif, that arrived on California soil in the 19th century.  The variety is named after Francois Durif, a Frenchman who discovered a particularly hardy and robust plant among his Peloursin vineyards around 1880.  The plant had had a chance encounter with some Syrah pollen from a neighboring vineyard, which gave it its unique qualities.  Durif then propogated the wine and named it after himself.

“Petite Sirah” was originally a name for a favored clone of California Syrah in the 19th century, and over the next 50 or so years, was used interchangeably to mean Syrah and Durif, for reasons ampelographers have trouble unraveling.

To make matters more complicated, over the same period, Syrah and Durif were often planted together with other red grapes, and vineyard owners had trouble identifying, or didn’t place importance on identifying, the different grapes.

The variety still suffers an identity crisis today, with many people mistaking it for Syrah. (To read more, check out American Rhone, by Patrick J. Comiskey).

During Prohibition, Petite Sirah was a popular grape, because its hardiness meant it could be shipped in grape form to home winemakers all over the country (who said they were making grape juice!) For the same reason, Syrah grapes dwindled because they weren’t as tough.

Petite Sirah survived in these mixed fields in California while Syrah almost died out during most of the 20th century.

Post-Prohibition, it was blended with other red grapes to add color and tannin to wines, especially in the middle of the century, when Californian winemakers weren’t labeling the grapes on their wines, and even calling Petite Sirah blends “Burgundies.”

(This practice would have you out of a job today–red Burgundy is by law the Pinot Noir grape, and only from the French region of Burgundy.)

The grape was not oficially identified as Durif until the mid-90s, though there are some historical references to it being called “Duriff.” A UC Davis scientist, Carol Meredith, used then-new DNA technology to identify it as the French grape.

With that discovery was born an official interest in this plant that had been lurking in blends and “mixed black” vineyards in California for more than a century, and winemakers began bottling it on its own.  Some of them even put together an advocacy group called P.S. I Love You.

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With that history, I now bring you the first bottle of the series: Stolpman Vineyards 2014 Petite Sirah–Ballard Canyon.  A Santa Barbara winery renowned for its work with Syrah.

The  color is blackish fuschia, like squid ink mixed with Jamaica.  The nose has graham cracker, sandpaper, blood and brambleberries.

The palate is a satisfying overlay of black fruit with strong underlying red fruit, and that special contradiction so inherent in good red wine–appearing ripe and full while still dry and focused, not at all blowsy.  There is a weightless quality to the mid-palate finished by sharp, rusty, yet not unpleasant tannins.

On the second day, it tastes like tomatoes roasted in a clay oven, and Jagermeister.

About this vintage, Stolpman says:

The warm nights of 2014 led to further Petite Sirah blackness and coddled the usually fierce tannin. The 2014 wine is the most approachable out of all of our Petite Sirah bottlings – 2009, 2011, and 2012 vintages.  The Mediterranean weather created lush, supple wines that are approachable right out of the gate.

About the taste, they say:

The nose shows a ripe purple-black core with just a hint of zesty tangerine to make things interesting.  The wine is dense enough to reward the most ardent teeth-stained Petite Sirah fanatics.  

Perhaps because it is the most “approachable” of their bottlings, having riper tannins and a warmer vintage, that is why I like this wine.  I tend to be a sucker for softer wines that don’t go overboard into flabby territory.

If you get a chance, try this month’s Petite Sirah, from Stolpman Vineyards.  They also have a tasting room in Los Olivos, California.

Happy tasting!

-Carol

 

 

Why Aren’t More California Winemakers Doing Italian Varietals?

Recently I’ve been intrigued by varietals outside of the major grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Those grapes make some damn fine wines, but after a time, your palate desires something more adventurous.

Enter Italian varietals.  They are perfect for such a craving–there are thousands to choose from–Dolcetto, Nero D’Avola, Bosco are a few examples–and with them come a whole new inventory of flavors: grapey, funky, saline, floral…the list goes on.

Last week, I put together a list of everyone I know of focusing on Italian varietals on the Central Coast, Who’s Doing Italian on the Central Coast?  The list is small.  Under two dozen out of hundreds of wineries, which only points to how much of California is devoted to more historically established varietals like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

LouisLucas Viticulturist, CoOwnersm
                                                                                                             Louis Lucas is viticulturist and co-owner of Toccata in Santa Barbara

I asked people from these wineries why there aren’t more people making Italian wines on the Central Coast, and received a rich variety of answers, painting a picture of the state of affairs in California winemaking today. It comes down to economics, history, and winemaker preference.

Economics

“There is little price support,” says John Backer, founder and co-owner of August Ridge Vineyards in Paso Robles. “Folks who will pay $60 for a mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon hesitate to pay $40 for a top-quality Sangiovese.  So business-minded winery owners just don’t do it.”

Janis Denner, proprietor of Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles, points to the popularity of other varietals in her region.

“When the area was developed, Rhone varietals were planted and doing well.  As new vineyards were developed, the natural tendency might have been to plant the varieties with the proven track record and fruit that could be sold at harvest to other area wineries.

There’s low consumer demand, agrees John Ritchey.   The winemaker for Bottle Jack Wines in Santa Cruz says:

“My guess is because they are not mainstream wines for most consumers…and are somewhat confusing for consumers that aren’t already familiar with them or who don’t intentionally seek them out.”

2009.Nebbiolo.Rocca
Courtesy Palmina Wines

As an example, he adds, “I’ll get asked, ‘What’s a Sangiovese?’ a lot by the same person who is already familiar with Chianti.

Brian Terrizzi, founder and winemaker for Giornata Wines in Paso Robles, found that he had to educate consumers about the wines of Italy to make it work.

“Growth has been slow, but we have a solid following,” he says.  “We’ve kind of taken the hard, long road with Giornata and were prepared for this believing over time we’d be rewarded. It’s much easier to get momentum working with the better known varieties.”

History

Backer lists some of the developments in California winemaking  as the reason for low Italian plantings.

“It has to do in many ways with the triumph of wine marketing in France in the 1700’s, the resurgence of interest in the wine business in California in the 60’s and 70’s, and the way the industry has been dominated by gatekeepers since the mid-70’s.  People in California tend to forget (or ignore) the fact that the wine tradition in California is really Italian, not French.  The names say it all: Gallo, Mirassou, Cribari, Pedroncelli, Pesenti, Rotta, etc.  But the styles of wines are different.  The traditional Italian immigrant brought with them a working class, family approach to farming and wine making.  The Prohibition era shut many of them down and the few that survived (generally) produced jug wines that were fruity, slightly off-dry and simple.  The wine resurgence in the 70’s brought a different wine aesthetic and with it a long look down the nose at the style of wine then current and the varieties represented.  The likes of Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and a few other influential publications cemented in the mind of the public the concept that only Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot were to be accepted….'”

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Toccata vineyard, Santa Barbara

“There are not a lot of Italian varietals made, because there are not a lot of them grown here yet,” adds Vailia From, owner and winemaker for Desparada Wines.  “It will take more time for the Central Coast region to develop its varietal focus, as we are, and actually all of California is, a relatively new wine growing area.  We all have lots to learn about what works best where.”

“It’s still ‘early days’ in Santa Barbara County,” adds John Busby, general manager for Palmina Wines in Santa Barbara.  “We’re still in the process here of determining what grows best where.”

Winemaker Preference

Some winemakers found themselves entranced with Italian grapes and set out to make something different from the get-go. Steve Clifton, the co-founder of Brewer-Clifton in Santa Barbara and winemaker for many area labels, started experimenting with Italian varietals in 1995 after visiting his sister’s home in Northern Italy.  Thus was born Palmina.

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Steve Clifton is the founder, owner and winemaker of Palmina Wines in Santa Barbara

“Producing Italian varietal wines is a choice,” says Ginny Burroughs.  The office manager for Mosby Winery feels that many producers concentrate on French varietals “simply because those are the wines they want to produce, whether by personal taste or the fact that California started out with French varietals so they are more common.”

Still, with less than two dozen Cal-Ital wineries on the Central Coast, and a mass market that wants Cabernet and Chardonnay, one would have to believe it’s a brave choice.

“It really comes down to what wines the winemakers are passionate about making, and what they like to drink,” agrees Chris Kiranbay, office manager for Desparada Wines.

Brave, or Seizing an Opportunity?

Some wine professionals interviewed believe Italian varietals were made for California, and that by making them they are merely doing what is natural.

Clifton believes Santa Barbara is an ideal place for growing these grapes, because of its Mediterranean climate, and soil types similar to Northern Italy.

Colleen Thompson, public relations for Lucas & Lewellen (owner of Toccata), thinks that these wines are perfect for Californians, because they are low-alcohol and pair well with active lifestyles and healthy diets.

“Cal-Itals are typically priced right for every day enjoyment, which many health professionals consider to be essential to the healthy Mediterranean diet.”

Alas, most of these wines are available only to Californians, as they are sold locally. Desparada, Giornata and Palmina are the only ones available (among those interviewed) outside the state, and then only in scattered areas.  Other wineries ship their wines to out-of-state buyers.

Looking Forward

Though it may be an uphill battle, the time may be right for these exotic birds.  Xers and Millenials are looking for the next fresh thing on the boutique shelf.

“I am finding that the younger population are breaking this mold [breaking the habit of drinking only the major varietals].  They refuse to be told what to drink and are much more open to variety.  And much less willing to pay prices inflated by contrived market perception,” says Backer.

Well, this X/Millenial cusper is very excited about breaking the mold.  And my guess is that older wine drinkers, perhaps also worn out from decades of inflated Cabernets, are looking to have something different with dinner, too.

Because after all, there’s a huge variety of Italian varietals out there.

-Carol

 

Who’s Doing Italian on the Central Coast?

When I say “Italian,” I am referring to California producers of Italian varietals, such as Sangiovese and Teroldego.

When I say “Central Coast,” I am referring to the large AVA stretching from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.  You can see my  Introduction to California’s Central Coast here.

2009.Nebbiolo.Rocca
Courtesy Palmina Wines

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.

Paso Robles

August Ridge Vineyards

Bella Luna Winery

Clesi Wines

Desparada Wines

Giornata Wines

Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery

Pianetta Winery

Livermore Valley

Garré Vineyard & Winery

Rodrigue Molyneaux Winery

Santa Cruz

Bottle Jack Wines

Santa Barbara

Au Bon Climat

Carivintas Winery

Lepiane Wines

Mosby Winery

Palmina Wines

Santa Barbara Winery

Silver Wines

Toccata

Out of hundreds of wineries on the Central Coast, only a couple dozen are making Italian.  Isn’t that something?

Stay tuned for my next post, where wine professionals weigh in on why.

-Carol

The Distinctiveness of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

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.

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Courtesy Santa Barbara Vintners

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.

Flavor Profile:

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.

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“Santa Maria 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.”

Geography/Climate:

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 Santa Maria 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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.

-Carol

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.

Understanding Regions: Paso Robles East

Understanding Regions: Paso Robles East

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.

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Courtesy Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

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.

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Courtesy Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

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.

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Courtesy Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

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.

Paso Robles, California
Courtesy Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

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.

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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.

An Introduction to California’s Central Coast

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.

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Courtesy California Wine Institute

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!

-Carol

*Ausmus, William A. Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast, 2008, University of California Press.

∗∗”Central Coast.” Santa Barbara Vintners, 5/7/2014. http://www.sbcountywines.com/blog/Californias-central-coast.

∗∗∗”American Viticultural Areas of California.” California Wine Institute. http://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/avas