by Lee Foster
Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Highway 101 lies a bucolic and sunny wine country, the San Luis Obispo County Wine Country, which is destined to affect positively the palate of every wine drinker. A traveler who enjoys wine countries will also find the area an intriguing destination to roam.
“Our positive effect on wine taste and price is a matter of basic economics,” says veteran grape planter, Howie Steinbeck, who has been guiding the viticulture scene here for the last 30 years. “We can plant the right grape in the right microclimate here for about $35,000 per acre. Compare that with buying an acre in Napa for maybe $150,000. We can deliver high-quality grapes, using the most modern technology, at a better price.”
The San Luis Obispo County region is a rolling hill country of grassland and oak trees, with plenty of available acreage for grape planting. The area is sophisticated but rustic, with wineries and restaurants managed by artisans who are not yet caught up in their celebrity status. The quantity of grape planting is also substantial–about 29,000 acres in San Luis Obispo County. There are now 217 wineries and about 100 with tasting rooms in two distinct areas–near the towns of San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. The vigorous Paso Robles wine area is the fastest growing and third largest California wine appellation. Wine grapes are the top agricultural crop in the county.
TWO GRAPE GROWING AREAS
The prime white wine grape growing acreage ranges southeast from the town of San Luis Obispo, stretching over a terrain that is sunny and dry, yet benefits from cool ocean breezes.
Edna Valley Vineyard, 2585 Biddle Ranch Road, is the pioneer in the modern period, developing crisp Chardonnays and smooth Pinot Noirs that captured a market. Winemaker Harry Hansen oversees the operation, which began in the 1970s. The winery tasting room offers a panoramic view of the vineyards.
“This is the best place on earth to grow Chardonnay grapes,” says Hansen, emphatically. “The climate is sunny, but the east-west orientation of the valley gives us the cool maritime influence of the ocean. We have a long growing season for the fruit to mature. Flavor starts with the fruit.”
Hansen has championed a “fruit forward” style of Chardonnay and eschewed a dependence on oak.
Edna Valley Vineyard makes a good starting point for exploring the territory. I counted on my map another 10 tasting rooms in this “white wine” part of the county. Also, if you long for a relaxing, back-country bicycle ride, without the likelihood that you will become roadkill, starting from the Edna Valley Vineyard parking lot would be an option.
Another nearby wine-touring stop is Baileyana-Tangent, 5828 Orcutt Road. The tasting room for these two wineries is housed in the historic Independence Schoolhouse. They have an outdoor picnic facility next to the tasting room. Baileyana’s strength is their Syrahs, Pinot Noirs, and Sauvignon Blancs. Tangent is the newest winery in the region, and it is dedicated to alternative white varietals. Try their Pinot Gris and a Spanish grape, Albarino.
The choice red wine grape region lies to the north, in the warmer Paso Robles area, where Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel flourish. The Paso Robles area is exploding in wine acreage. Ten years ago there were only 35 wineries, but today there are 170, with 26,000 acres now planted.
One pioneer here is Eberle Winery, at the Highway 46 East turnoff. Visit Eberle not only for its wines, but for its lavish deck overlooking the vineyards, where wine and food can be enjoyed. Eberle has tours of its entire operation, including caves deep in the ground. The winery offers wine tasting and catered food if you call ahead. Eberle is said to rank in the top 10 wineries nationally for the number of gold medals it has won at competitions. Gary Eberle has guided the operation for more than 30 years.
The legendary grape-planting godfather, Howie Steinbeck, has planted part of Eberle and many other vineyards in the Paso Robles region. He has his own Steinbeck Winery nearby, and supplies grapes to Eberle and other Paso Robles wineries. About 58 percent of the grapes from Paso Robles get sold to premium wineries outside the region, making Paso Robles’s robust red grapes the “secret ingredient” that boosts the reputation of many other select California wineries.
“The sandy, gravelly soil here is ideal for red grapes,” says Steinbeck. “Since the climate is arid, we can also totally control the water with irrigation. We love the long, dry harvest season.”
Paso Robles has several wine festivals to celebrate its reds, something to keep in mind when planning a trip. There is a Zinfandel Festival in March, focused on the early Zinfandel heritage of the area, and the Paso Robles Wine Festival in May. The May event is billed as the largest outdoor wine tasting in California. Appropriately, there is a Harvest Festival in November.
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY TOWNS
San Luis Obispo is the main town. Gradually, it is being rebuilt to conform to modern earthquake standards. Many major buildings in the downtown are being creatively recycled. A movie palace known as the Fremont is an Art Deco masterpiece.
Thursday night celebrations are the special time here. There is a large Farmers’ Market and an ample outdoor barbecue scene as the main streets are sealed off. Barbecue is king, and F. McLintock’s Saloon, 686 Higuera Street, is one of the lively purveyors. The McLintock chanters sing out your choice of beef, pork, or chicken to the appreciative crowd.
Wine tasting in town occurs at a revolutionary wine bar, Taste, 1003 Osos Street. You purchase a wine-tasting card and put the card into machines that dispense three ounces of hundreds of local wines. Slide in your card, position your glass, press a button, and out comes your three-ounce tasting. All the wines are from local wineries that are members of the San Luis Obispo Vintners group. Wines tasted are also for sale.
For lodging, try the Carlton Hotel, in the town of Atascadero. The Carlton is a modern hotel with all amenities, such as wireless. First built in 1929, the Carlton Hotel re-opened in 2005 after a complete makeover. Their restaurant, the Carlton Hotel Restaurant & Grill, is a dining leader, known for a spectrum of offerings, from steaks to sushi.
The other notable lodging is the flamboyant Madonna Inn, which is destination lodging as entertainment. Gaudy might be considered an understatement in describing the Madonna Inn, which is in San Luis Obispo. The decor definitely attracts customers and achieves a high occupancy rate, but is not to everyone’s taste. Each room’s themed decor can be purchased as a postcard. Think heavy red velvet and flamenco dancers. Think one-of-a-kind Americana.
For fine dining, consider Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive in Cambria, with its inventive and eclectic international menu. You might start with the Indian spiced lamb rolls or crab cakes and proceed to the Thai green curry chicken or the grilled salmon.
The main cultural artifact to encounter is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, at 728 Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo. The Mission was the fifth in the 21-mission chain, founded by Junipero Serra in 1772 and named after Saint Luis, Bishop of Toulouse, France. The original bronze bells of the mission can be seen up close in a garden courtyard.
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY OUTDOORS
Four state parks and nature experiences on the western seaside edge of the region offer a counterpoint to the inland vinous adventures.
Morro Bay State Park is known for a distinctive, dome-shaped, volcanic plug, called Morro Rock, plus its Museum of Natural History and a heron rookery. From the Museum you get a good perspective on the bay wetlands and on Morro Rock, one of the region’s nine ancient volcanic protrusions, known collectively as the “Nine Sisters.” Morro Rock is a nesting site for two pairs of rare peregrine falcons. The Morro Bay estuary serves as a critical environment for migratory birds resting on the Pacific Flyway.
Montana de Oro is a huge and rustic state park that could absorb hours of your time walking the seaside cliffs and perusing the tide pools at low tide. Named for the golden flowers that were evident on the hills as seen from the sea, the park is the best advertisement for the pleasing and pervasive ruralness of the region. The 8,000-acre holding is one of the largest in the state rark system in California.
The beach at Piedras Blancas now hosts thousands of northern elephant seals, part of the remarkable return from near extinction of this species of lumbering pinnipeds. Winter is the peak viewing period, when the elephant seal females give birth and mate. The large alpha males, which may weigh 5,000 pounds and reach 16 feet in length, stake out a territory, collect females, and defy all male intruders. The art of bellicose intimidation and the tactic of brutal encounter balance in an alpha male’s strategy. Some elephant seals will be present in all months. Seek info on the annual cycle of seal visitation from the docents in blue jackets who are members of the Friends of the Elephant Seals society.
Hearst Castle, the most famous of the county’s parks, was the palatial hillside home of newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst parlayed a mining fortune into a publishing, art-collecting, and movie-producing empire. At a time when Americans identified culture and grandeur with things European, Hearst purchased just about all the cultural artifacts, from monastery facades to tapestries, which were not nailed down in Europe. He brought them to California and installed them in his castle. Encountering Hearst Castle is a half day experience, at least, and by guided tour only. Year 2008 will be the 50th anniversary of Hearst Castle as a state park, attracting more than 30 million visitors. Allow time to see the big-screen movie “Hearst Castle, Building the Dream” to get a background perspective on the motivations and personality of Hearst, starting with his romantic look at European castles as an impressionable young boy. From San Simeon you could head north on Highway 1 to savor the scenic Big Sur Coast.
Lingering in the San Luis Obispo County Wine Country is a pleasant diversion midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Highway 101. There you can go to the source of an increasing number of tasty white and red wines. You can absorb the historic culture of the mission and the modern culture of Thursday night happenings in San Luis Obispo, a genuine and cozy town scene, where everyone seems to know everyone. Fine dining and coastside parks add to the appeal. Of course, if you are an armchair traveler, the San Luis Obispo County Wine Country is available at a liquor store or supermarket near you. Think appellations San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, with Edna Valley for fruity Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs and Eberle for robust Cabernets and Merlots.
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY WINE COUNTRY: IF YOU GO
The local tourism information source is the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, 811 El Capitan Way, Suite 200, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401; 805/541-8000; 800/634-1414; www.sanluisobispocounty.com.