Friday, July 1, 2016

A Toast to the Central Coast of California



The drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco is about 7 hours.  In between these cities, lies one of the most beautiful stretches of wine country that you can find in the world.  The gateway to central coast wine country is the Pacific Coast Highway (ocean side) or “the 101" (inland) as it’s called in these parts.  If you find serenity in wine country the scenic wine trails in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties are well worth exploring.

Pick a month, any month to tour wine country on the Central Coast.  The weather doesn't change much all four seasons except for high heat in the summers where the Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfindel thrive.  It's always a good time to set out and visit.  Central coast wine country destinations continue to gain notoriety around the world, becoming one of the Golden State’s most popular tourism destinations with more visitors each year than San Diego, according to Visit California.

Two Nights in Santa Barbara County
It seems to me that most people outside the state seem to know four places in California:  Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara is called the “American Riviera” where cruise ships disembark and tourists come for the beachside resort community.

 Not everyone seems to know that 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara, wine country begins with the Santa Ynez Valley.  Miles and miles of vineyards come into view for another five hours of cruising on this highway, along with rolling mountain ranges and coastal views. 

There are five wine trails in Santa Barbara County, home to over 170 wineries.  I have often visited, the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail which takes you out of the city and deep into wine country with exceptional tasting rooms. 

 The region has become a famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. However as one of the coolest wine growing regions in California, over 20 different types of wine grapes are cultivated here.  The Wine Ghetto in Lompoc and the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara have popped up in recent years to give visitors a unique wine tasting experience.

Santa Barbara offers a full range of hotels and accommodations to fit any travel lifestyle.  You can venture into small wine country inns such as the Fess Parker Inn in Los Olivos or the Santa Ynez Inn.  The quaint towns of Santa Maria, Buellton, and Solvang can be relaxing overnight stopovers with wine and craft beers native to the region offered to those who are inclined to drink local.   

Two Nights in San Luis Obispo County

SLO County (as you can call it) is the halfway stop between LA and SF.

With more than 280 wineries, it is California’s fastest growing wine region. I have never seen congested traffic when traveling on the wine country roads in SLO County.  That doesn’t mean people aren’t coming.  The tasting rooms are always occupied.  It’s still undiscovered by some measure and frankly it takes a little more effort to reach these beautiful wineries that are about 3 hours from the big cities. 

In the middle of the state, SLO feels like quintessential California. The wineries have prospered located next to one of the most highly regarded wine and viticulture programs in the world at Cal Poly.

SLO Wine near the town of San Luis Obispo is one of the must-see wine trails in America with fewer than 25 wineries.  The wineries boast an average distance of just five miles from the ocean, which in turn yields remarkable wines.  Wineries are on the seafront side of the Santa Lucia mountain range where you can enjoy stunning views from the tasting rooms. 

Traveling north from San Luis Obispo over a mountain pass lies Paso Robles. Paso Robles was discovered as one of the great new wine regions of the world about 40 years ago with soil and climate that is ideal for growing vineyards.   That’s not a secret to wine drinkers in California. Since the region is dominated by boutique wineries, you almost have to come here to taste some of the best wines. 

Popular hotels such as Apple Farm in SLO and La Quinta in Paso Robles act as ambassadors for the region with complimentary wine tastings for guests in the afternoons.  For a true wine country experience, Biddle Ranch and Justin are among the wineries that offer accommodations on their property. 

Two Nights in Monterey County

The first time I visited the coast of Monterey County I could only describe it as Shangri-La.  There are so many places of earthly paradise such as Carmel By-The-Sea, Pebble Beach and Big Sur. The northern most region of the Central Coast, Monterey County attracts visitors for everything from whale watching to golf. Many include trips to some of the 80 wineries in the region.

I chose to have a guided, educational tour, with Ag Venture Tours to learn how Monterey County is known as “America’s Salad Bowl.” A large majority of the salad greens consumed in the U.S. are grown within this region due to the leafy crops which share the land with the vineyards.

Carmel Valley Road takes you to a village that is home to 20 tasting rooms.   Cima Collina, Bernardus and Talbott are but a few.   Farm-to-table restaurants and art galleries enhance the neighborhood.  Carmel-By-The-Sea has luxury inns, art galleries and tasting rooms, all within a short stroll of the coastline.   

Venturing into the vineyards, Hahn Estate provides a stunning view of the Santa Lucia Highlands as you enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay in their tasting room.   Some of the most well-known wine producers in California, such as J. Lohr got their start in Monterey. 

Just two hours from San Francisco, Monterey is growing in popularity as a first-choice wine country destination for many Bay Area residents. 

90+ scores from wine critics are most common among the cast of wineries along the central coast.  The tasting room fees range from free to $15.  The wines are not the most expensive from California just among the most hard-to-find until you visit. 

You can fly into Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria or Monterey to commercial airports.  I often travel on Amtrak.   Or pack up for a nice, long drive between LA or SF.   Taste and tour for yourself through this prime offering of California's abundant bounty of wine.

CAPTIONS (from top):  Santa Barbara County Vineyards; Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County; downtown Los Olivos;  Edna Valley along the SLO Wine Trail;  Chamisal on the SLO Wine Trail is renowned for their Pinot Noir;  Pismo Beach has wine and waves;  Halter Ranch Vineyards in Paso Robles; Hahn Estates vineyards in Monterey County;  Bernardus Winery patio in Carmel Valley

Republished from Delta Sky, September 2015, The Wine Traveler 

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