Exploring California’s Central Coast

The highly regarded Bien Nacido Vineyard east of Santa Maria, Calif. Photo by Kirk Irwin.

The highly regarded Bien Nacido Vineyard east of Santa Maria, Calif., which specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Blanc. Photo by Kirk Irwin.

A Wine Lover’s Alphabetical Guide to California’s Best, Lesser Known Wine Region

Written by Carl Danbury

Of course I have been to Napa and Sonoma. If you enjoy wine as much as I do, the wine country of California’s North Coast typically resides on the top of one’s list. Like many of us who have visited, however, the memory of those visits is as dense as the morning shoreline fog in the Bay Area. Occasionally, both in tasting rooms and in restaurants, asperity outshines affability in some the haughtiest haunts.

The Central Coast of California, however, is a friend to the adventurer rather than the emissary. This wine region that stretches from above Paso Robles to Santa Barbara is an altruistic area where both the farmer and the cowboy could be friends and often are, one in which Rhone, Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals cohabitate with those from Italy, Spain and Germany, and most importantly where small, family-owned wineries can compete with large corporately driven wineries. Those factors make this area of California, which produces its own world-class, but often less-publicized wines, a tempting place to visit, one in which grandiloquence takes a backseat to accommodation.

After a direct flight from Atlanta to San Jose, I began my southward excursion through Salinas amidst the wineries of Monterey. Heading south on the 101, I was amazed at the acres upon acres of farmland, less than 100 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. Although late January isn’t peak growing season in the area, there was no mistaking that this is the veggie basket of the U.S., but the crop I sought was grapes. As I approached Paso Robles, I was immediately struck by the surrounding countryside that featured rolling hills, retro road signs and the striking countenances of vines smiling at the welcome sunshine.

Adelaida's walnut trees dot the landscape behind their winery in West Paso Robles.

Adelaida’s walnut trees dot the landscape behind their winery in West Paso Robles.

While downtown Paso qualifies as quaint, Santa Barbara County offers trendier tasting rooms with a similarly hospitable and pretense-free attitude. Allow me to take you on an alphabetical tour of the Central Coast, with notes and quotes from winemakers and representatives that have been engaged in the business for many years in the area.

Adelaida Cellars vineyards and tasting room occupies a gorgeous setting atop a hill surrounded by enormous walnut trees and rows of grapevines dotting the West Paso landscape. My guests and I were fortunate to attend a two-hour afternoon tasting event in their barrel room on a Sunday, where we tasted nine medal winners from eight different vintages with presenter and Adelaida’s wine educator Tony Hermann, and about 30 others. As with many properties in the area, Adelaida produces a nice selection of wines from grape varieties that appreciate warm days and cool nights, allowing for full expression of fruit and balance. The highlights of the tasting for me were Adelaida’s 2006 Pinot Noir HMR Estate and 2009 Syrah Reserve Anna’s Vineyard Block 6. Adelaida will host its Harvest Festival Open House, Oct. 18-20, to celebrate the fruit of their labor from the recent harvest. adelaida.com, 800-676-1232, ext. 19

WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING? Adelaida’s Pinot Noir HMR Vineyard 2006

Ken Brown has been a part of 37 vintages in Santa Barbara County, and specializes in producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Syrah.

Ken Brown has been a part of 37 vintages in Santa Barbara County, and specializes in producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Syrah.

Ken Brown is recognized as one of Santa Barbara County’s pioneering winemakers and innovators. He was among the first vintners to realize the tremendous promise for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this cool-climate appellation in the mid-1970s. He was also the first winemaker to introduce the Syrah grape, as well as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, to Santa Barbara County. After working and consulting for other wineries for 35-plus years, like Byron and Zaca Mesa, Brown, along with his wife Deb, began producing wines for his own label in 2005, focusing upon exceptional Pinot Noir from leading vineyards in Santa Rita Hills, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Garey, Rita’s Crown and several other select locations in the county. He also produces Chardonnay and Syrah, which in Santa Barbara County is similar in profile to the grapes grown in the Northern Rhone Valley of France. Brown is now completing his 37th vintage as a winemaker and may add Sauvignon Blanc to his offerings, the grapes of which were sourced from Vogelzang Vineyard in Happy Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley. Brown is contemplating distributing a small allocation of his wines in Georgia next year. kenbrownwines.com, 805-688-8561

WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING? Ken Brown’s 2010 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir 

Carl Bowker, Caliza Winery, focuses on Rhone varieties, which often takes detailed education of consumers who expect to taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay when they arrive at his tasting room at the very end of Anderson Road in Paso. He and his staff field these questions with ease: “What is Grenache?” “What is Mourvedre?” Caliza produces white and red blends, with a 100 percent Syrah and Viognier (his wife Pam’s favorite) as the exceptions, and their estate fruit is grown in the trellis method. Caliza also grows Roussanne, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Primitivo in their Templeton Gap vineyards, along with six clones of Syrah, a site-specific variety.

An integral part of the Central Coast wine experience is the presence of winemakers in the tasting room interacting with their customers, and those they hope to convert. Bowker believes that is part of the allure of the area. After years spent in the trade show services business, Bowker has successfully made the transition to winemaking, and numerous wine publications have extolled the virtues of several of his wines. I recommend three of his blends: Kissin’ Cousins, a marriage of Vigonier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc; Azimuth, a red blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre; and Cohort, which combines Syrah, Petite Sirah and Grenache. calizawinery.com, 805-237-1480.

WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING? Caliza’s 2010 Azimuth

Originally from West Texas, Don Brady has been the winemaker at Robert Hall Winery since 2002. Photo courtesy of Robert Hall Winery.

Originally from West Texas, Don Brady has been the winemaker at Robert Hall Winery since 2001. Photo courtesy of Robert Hall Winery.

Don Brady joined Robert Hall Winery in 2001 and bottled the label’s first wine in 2002. Originally from West Texas and a graduate of Texas Tech, Brady’s first job out of school was at Llano Estacado Winery, the largest premium winery in west Texas outside of Lubbock. Prior to coming to Robert Hall, he was director of winemaking at Delicato’s San Bernabe vineyard, northwest of Paso, in the AVA of the same name.

Brady makes a variety of moderately priced wines for Robert Hall, including Rhone blends like Rhone de Robles (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut and Counoise), Cuvee de Robles (with Petite Sirah added to the four varieties in Rhone de Robles), along with single varietals like Viognier, Syrah, Chardonnay, Orange Muscat, Merlot, Zinfandel and Brady’s favorite, Sauvignon Blanc. But make no mistake, Cabernet Sauvignon is king at Robert Hall, with 55 percent of total production focused upon the Bordeaux varietal. He also makes Vintage Port with a traditional blend of five Portuguese grapes – Touriga, Souzão, Alvarelhão, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz, which is fortified with the winery’s own brandy.

A conversation with Brady is like dialing up an old friend you haven’t seen in a few years. He is warm, enjoys talking about wines and the vineyards he oversees, but most importantly enjoys finding more about you, and the wines you enjoy. He also makes wines under his own label, Brady Vineyard, where he bottles Cab and Petite Sirah. A visit to Robert Hall Winery is educational and entertaining. Once your tour and a stop at the tasting room are complete, you can enjoy a game of bocce or enjoy a wood-fired pizza on the patio overlooking Highway 46. The winery also is a great venue for weddings and receptions. roberthallwinery.com, 805-239-1616

WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING? Robert Hall’s Rhone de Robles