|California’s vast Central Coast wine region stretches almost 300 miles from the Monterey Peninsula in the north to past Santa Barbara city in the south along broad, lightly populated valleys and jagged mountain ranges that are underlain by a system of seismic faults that still regularly give the area severe jolts.
But what has really shaken up this rustic land is the sudden rush of outside interest in the wine industry. It began a few years ago when the wine royalty of Napa and Sonoma discovered the potential of the vast acreage in the upper Salinas Valley and in nearby Paso Robles, which lies midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They declared Paso Robles to be the Next New Thing, a place where they could grow practically any variety of grape and at any price level. Many of these northern wineries quickly bought old vineyards or established new ones here, and some even built new wineries.
Second, the movie Sideways – probably the best-known film seen by the fewest people – suddenly turned Santa Barbara County into a shrine for Pinot Noir groupies, with hordes of wine pilgrims suddenly flocking to rural tasting rooms on weekends and vacations to buy up bottles of the anointed nectar. It wasn’t always like this.
The History of the Central Coast
The Central Coast was once just an afterthought to California’s other wine regions, such as the North Coast (Napa, Sonoma, Mendoncino counties and the Bay Area) and the grape-rich Central Valley southeast of Sacramento. If anything, it was primarily known for vegetal red wines coming out of Monterey County with unwanted flavors of asparagus and bell pepper (a situation since cured by reducing crop levels and other vineyard techniques). But today the Central Coast has suddenly become the new kid on the vineyard block, known for both the quality and quantity of its wines.
Geographically, the Central Coast is primarily defined as three large counties which encompass several AVA’s or American Viticultural Areas – Monterey (Carmel Valley, Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, San Lucas, Hames Valley, Chalone), San Luis Obispo (Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, York Mountain), and Santa Barbara (Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, Santa Rita Hills).
In 2005, after an average-volume vintage in 2004, the Central Coast led all regions in volume increase of grapes produced. Production in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties was up 57.1 percent across all varieties of grapes, while Monterey was up 48.1 percent, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Beginning in the late 1990s, when there was a grape shortage, wineries from the North Coast and Central Valley started coming to Paso Robles to buy fruit and to plant vineyards,” says winemaker Austin Hope. “At first, the grapes went north, but now many are making the wine here as well.”
For years, Hope’s family sourced the Paso Robles grapes used in the popular Liberty School line of value varietal wines owned by Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards. Now the Hopes own Liberty School and have expanded its offerings to include Syrah from Paso Robles. Additionally, the Hope family produces the higher-priced Treana red and white, and Austin Hope has also started his own Rhone-style winery of the same name in the Syrah-rich hills on Paso Robles West Side. Meanwhile, the Wagner family that owns Caymus still holds a fascination with the south, buying much of the Pinot Noir for its new super-premium Belle Glos label from Santa Barbara County.
East Side vs. West Side
As Hope points out, Paso Robles’ East Side is a huge, hot, flat tableland that is ideal for making Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux style grapes. The soil here is mostly a sandy clay loam, and, depending on cropping and harvesting practices, can make prize-winning reds or cost-effective varietals in large quantity. Gallo, Robert Mondavi, J. Lohr, and Fetzer all have vineyards in the region. As with the San Lucas area in Monterey County just to the north, Paso Robles’ East Side has become a great source of medium-priced, high-quality Cabernet Sauvignons.
Paso Robles’ West Side is another story. Here, old-vine Zinfandel vineyards flourish alongside newly planted Rhone varietals like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache which love the volcanic hills (the area was wracked by a major earthquake just before Christmas 2003) and the cool ocean breezes that flow from the Pacific through the Templeton Pass. Justin, Peachy Canyon, and Tablas Creek pioneered the West Side premium wines. In recent years Sonoma’s Rabbit Ridge relocated its total operations here after initially buying grapes from the region, and Turley, which made its name and fortune with North Coast Zinfandels, bought the old Pesenti property on the West Side and the ancient vines that came with it.
At the same time, smaller boutique and mid-sized wineries sprang up with custom-made Syrahs and Rhone blends that have garnered high ratings and the prices to match – Linne Colado, Saxum, L’Aventure, and Denner among them. “Syrah grows very well here,” says Denner winemaker Brian Denner, “but I find it can be monosyllabic – all bass and mid-range with no treble.” As a result, he and others often blend in Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvedre.
Paso Robles producers, not satisfied to let the world beat a path to their doors, have also heavily marketed their brand by putting on a countrywide tour of major cities to spread the word to the retail trade, wine writers, and consumers about the breadth and depth of their offerings.
The Success of Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir country begins a few miles to the south near the city of San Luis Obispo, although there are also high-quality Syrahs made in selected areas here as well. As in next-door Santa Barbara county, the strong marine influence in San Luis Obispo makes for foggy morning, warm afternoons, and chilly evenings. “I’ve fought the idea that the new popularity of regional Pinot Noir is only the result of the movie Sideways,” says John Niven, director of sales and marketing of Baileyana, whose family pioneered the Edna Valley and now also does custom crushing for dozens of local wineries. “It was actually an alignment of the stars with many factors, beginning with an excess of Pinot Noir in 2000 which helped introduce the average consumer to a number of value-brand Pinot Noirs.” What was once a glut of Pinot Noir has now turned into a grape grower’s dream. “In the past three years, a gallon of Pinot Noir has gone from $8 to $12 to $15,” Niven says. “This year, it’s $20 plus.”
But others still credit the movie. “Our tasting room visits went from around 200 a week to 800 a week shortly after Sideways came out,” says Richard Doré, co-owner of Foxen winery in Santa Maria Valley. “It was overwhelming. Sales went up 100 percent, and after we ran out of Pinot Noir, they began buying our Syrahs and Cabernets as well.” Frank Ostini, whose Hitching Post restaurant in Buellton was one of the major locales for the movie, says his food sales went up 40 percent from the increased tourism. But the fact is that the winemakers in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties were ready to grasp good luck when it came their way. Richard Sanford, Jim Clendenin, Brian Talley, and Lane Tanner are all part of a small cadre of pioneering, quality-driven regional winemakers who believed the soil and climate of the Central Coast was made to produce Pinot Noir and have gone to great lengths trying to perfect it.
This spring, during the annual World of Pinot Noir festivities, several of them got together at the famous Bien Nacido vineyard for a seminar discussing vineyard management and how different clones produce wines with different tastes and textures.
“At Bien Nacido, the winemaker calls all the shots,” said vineyard manager Chris Hammel, explaining that the various wineries the vineyard sells grapes to usually work with the same distinct rows of vines. “Some leaf thin, some don’t. The way we treat Lane’s canopies are different than we treat anyone else’s,” Hammel explained. Tanner, one of the panelists at the presentation, added from the podium. “Chris even picks grapes for me in the middle of the night, if I ask him nicely.”
Many of the Pinot Noir winemakers say they’re increasing making their Pinots from different clones with different characteristics for added complexity. Not that these Central Coast winemakers want to totally shed their bucolic, pioneering reputation by appearing to be suddenly sophisticated.
Jim Clendenin, whose unruly long blonde mane reminds one of the sepia-tone photos of Wild Bill Hickok, relishes the rough and burly image. “I’m an inelegant man who makes elegant wines,” he says laughingly – and his track record at his famous Au Bon Climat winery bears him out. It’s an image that still applies to the rugged Central Coast and its lovely wines.
A View from the San Joaquin Valley
Fred Franzia, whose Bronco Wine Company is the fourth largest wine company in the U.S., has been making headlines for decades, but particularly in the last five years. After creating major industry shock waves with “Two-Buck Chuck,” Franzia ignited nationwide controversy with his very public fight with the Napa Valley Vintners over the right to use the name Napa on several of his wines produced from grapes grown outside the AVA. Recently, Franzia declared that no wine is worth more than $10 a bottle.
In addition to shaking up the wine world, Franzia knows a thing or two about growing grapes and making wine. And from his viewpoint in the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast needs to get its act together. “It’s the last priority of availability,” he said recently in a phone conversation from the Bronco headquarters at Ceres near Modesto. Whenever there’s a grape shortage in the big northern California wineries, he says, vintners look south – sometimes to Kern County, sometimes to the Central Coast. “Then they retreat,” he says, when supply catches up with demand.
The big problem, Franzia says, is that the Central Coast “doesn’t have a major-league winery,” such as his own eighteen million case facility in southern Napa, to make huge qualities of value wines; those that taste good but sell for $15 a bottle or less, preferably less than $10. Because many wineries who source from here can’t process the wines locally, they have to truck them several hours to someplace else, which compromises the quality, he believes.
There is also a matter of attitude, says Franzia, whose brands include Napa Ridge, Rutherford Vintners, Hacienda, Forest Glen, Coastal Ridge, Charles Shaw (aka Two Buck Chuck), and his brand-new Harlow Ridge. “Central Coast winery owners,” Franzia says, “don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Do they want to be Napa or Sonoma or do they want to be Central Valley?”
A few years ago, growers ripped out of Central Valley several thousand acres of Thompson seedless grapes – once a bulwark of the jug wine business. A classic case of grape glut?Franzia says no. “It’s the normal amount of attrition that happens in the vineyard,” he says, pointing out that as vines grow older, they become less productive. He says Bronco’s goal is to “replace or upgrade” 5% to 10% of its acreage each year. “The market changes every day,” Franzia says. “The people who buy wine change more than the gatekeepers.”
He boldly predicts that over 1/3rd of wine sold in the United States in five years will be in what he calls the “super value” category, under $10 a bottle, perhaps even $5 – exactly the place where Bronco has positioned itself. And Bronco won’t be looking to the Central Coast as a source of these grapes. “Growers in that area always have had a high-priced idea of themselves,” Franzia says. It’s only his opinion, of course, but then Fred Franzia has never been reticent to get in his two bucks’ worth.