We Santa Barbarans enjoy the perks and pleasures of a world-class wine region right at our doorstep. But occasionally we like to explore new territory. Lucky for us, we don’t have to travel far. Wine adventures abound in southern San Luis Obispo County — aka SLO Wine Country — about 70 miles north of Santa Barbara via US 101.
Winemaking has deep roots here. Franciscan missionaries made the first local wines in the 1770s, and commercial winemaking in the region dates back to the 1880s. Tasting rooms cluster in beach towns from Pismo Beach and Avila Beach north to Cayucos. In the pastoral Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley — both official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — peaceful two-lane roads wind past vineyards, oak-studded hills, and unusual volcanic plugs that rise above the meadows.
This is a small, intimate region where you can drive to the next tasting room (there are nearly 30 in total) in less than five minutes. It takes only 15 or 20 minutes to drive from point to point anywhere in the designated area. This is also cycling heaven, with miles of bike paths and routes, including 34 miles of on-street bike lanes in the City of San Luis Obispo alone.
Most wineries here are small, family-owned wineries with limited production. “It’s the warm relationships, this rare, one-on-one interaction with winemakers, that makes our wine region so special,” says Heather Muran, executive director of SLO Wine Country. “You often find them pouring at the counter, and you hear the stories behind the wine.”
Many wineries are just minutes from the 101, so it’s easy to stop for a quick visit while traveling north or south. Better yet, book a room at a comfy inn by the beach or in the pastoral inland valleys and take your time to discover SLO Wine Country’s hidden charms.
Wines with Coastal Flair
Few grape-growing regions in the world lie so close to the coast, and the ocean shapes SLO Wine Country’s culture, terrain, and wines. “Our wineries are just five miles on average from the Pacific Ocean, so the prevailing marine conditions are very pronounced, giving the fruit a lot of time to develop rich, full flavors while maintaining structure, complexity, and balance,” says Mike Sinor, winemaker at Sinor-LaVallee Wine Company and Ancient Peaks Winery and board president of SLO Wine Country.
SLO Wine Country vineyards produce 23 varietals — an impressive array for such a small area. The region is renowned for producing some of California’s finest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, as well as remarkable aromatic whites wines. Rhône varietals such as Syrah and Viognier excel in the region, and Zinfandel and Bordeaux varietals thrive in the warmer mountainous areas. Most vineyards are certified Sustainable in Practice (SIP) growers.
Taste the Wines
Arroyo Grande Valley. Stunning ocean and vineyard views spill from the hilltop decks of Laetitia Vineyard & Winery. Check out the two rare Coquard wooden basket presses, made in France and still used by the winery today. At Talley Vineyards, taste award-winning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and picnic amid lush gardens near an 1860s adobe. Phantom Rivers pours tastes of its various vintages in a Craftsman-style house in Arroyo Grande Village, just east of the 101.
Avila Beach/Avila Valley. Several tasting rooms, including Peloton Cellars (owned by cycling enthusiasts) and Sinor-LaVallee (scheduled to open in December 2015) are steps from the beach in downtown Avila. Taste Biddle Ranch Vineyard wines in a spacious tasting room in the historic Avila Valley Schoolhouse, just west of the Avila Beach exit on the 101. Other Avila Valley wineries include Kelsey See Canyon Winery, Filipponi Ranch Cellars and Clesi.
Edna Valley. Owner-winemakers Don and Gwen Othman have immersed themselves in the Central Coast wine industry for over 30 years. Sample their distinguished, limited-production wines at Kynsi Winery, housed in a former dairy building on an historic ranch. Niven Family Wine Estates has six wineries, and you can taste them under one roof in the historic Independence Schoolhouse, built in 1909. Try aromatic coastal white wines and handcrafted Pinot Noir at Claiborne & Churchill, housed in one of California’s first straw-bale wineries.
Just up the road is Old Edna Townsite, which serves as the valley’s hub in the early 1800s. Today, the restored buildings house a deli and wine-tasting room owned by Sextant Wines, and vintage farmhouse rentals.
The atmosphere is decidedly 21st century at solar-powered Tolosa, where you can taste wines in several venues from its sleek hilltop perch near the airport. Other Edna Valley wine tasting rooms include Center of Effort, Chamisal, Wolff, Edna Valley, Autry, Saucelito Canyon Vineyard and Stephen Ross Wine Cellars.
The menus at Ocean Grill center around fresh local seafood (much of it direct from the nearby pier), produce, and wines. It’s across from the sand in Avila Beach, and window-walls let in the fabulous views while you dine.
Eclectic Novo serves up worldwide flavors by the creek in downtown San Luis Obispo. It’s a good place to fill up before, during, or after browsing the famed Thursday night Farmer’s Market.
Avila La Fonda. Boutique hotel in Avila Beach with 28 elegant rooms and suites inspired by homes in Spain and Mexico.