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A Primer on California’s Central Coast

California’s Central Coast often takes a back seat in vinous prestige to its more famous (read: expensive) brethren in the north, Napa and Sonoma counties.  Maybe it’s because we don’t grow enough Cabernet. I guess Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah don’t carry enough cache?

Whatever the reason, the Central Coast region should not be missed, especially as the tunnel vision of many wine consumers keeps our prices reasonable, and not at the expense of quality.  In fact, Wine Spectator’s number one Wine of the Year came from right here in Paso Robles.  So if you haven’t acquainted yourself with the wines of the region yet, now is the time, before everyone else catches on.

The Central Coast runs from just south of San Francisco Bay all the way to Los Angeles, encompassing the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara County as well as numerous other smaller and sub-appellations.

Santa Cruz is a heavily forested, mountainous area just south and west of San Jose.  This is not a densely planted region. Area under vine measures in the hundreds, not thousands, of acres.  Nonetheless, this region offers wines of distinction comparable to the finest of Napa, such as Ridge’s Monte Bello Cabernet.

Next is Monterey County. The Santa Lucia Highlands on the northeast facing slopes of the Santa Lucia mountain range overlooking the Salinas valley floor are most notable here.  Home to such iconic vineyards as Garys’, Pisoni and Robert Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow, SLH is a bastion of rich Pinots and Chardonnays, as well as a handful of Syrahs.

Continuing south we hit Paso Robles.  If you like big, rich and spicy wines, Paso is for you. The 101 freeway divides Paso into a cool, hilly west side and a warmer, flatter east side.  Sure, there is a bit of a rivalry, but thankfully it has not turned violent.  Think: Zinfandel, Syrah, and even some Cabernet.

And finally, we reach Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara County is made up of three east-west running valleys. Santa Maria and Santa Ynez boast their own sub-American Viticultural Areas. Los Alamos is sans AVA.  This is Sideways country, so Pinot, along with its co-conspirator, Chardonnay, dominates.  Here you will find wonderful wines, styled from rich and ripe to dry and elegant.  The western half of the Santa Ynez Valley is actually warm enough to ripen some fabulous Syrah and Cabernet.

Hopefully you can use this primer to start exploring all the wines Central Coast has to offer, before California’s backseat region becomes the driver.