Before we leave for our next mini-getaway (Alpine Valley!), I thought it was about time to update the next California blog. I know, these are sloooooow going, but I will get around to putting them all up online eventually!
When you hear about California wine, you often hear about Napa and Sonoma. But our favorite spot to enjoy West Coast wine is the Central Coast area, which spans from Santa Barbara (if you’ve seen Sideways, you’ve heard about the wine there) and north up until just after Santa Cruz. We spend most of our time in and around Avila Beach, which is part of San Luis Obispo County. Although they are not as popular as their northern counterparts, the San Luis Obispo wineries are gorgeous and full of delicious wine. These signs help guide you around the area, so you make sure you’re getting to see and sample from every tasting room.
Our first stop this year was Claiborne & Churchill. They’re a small, family-owned winery, but we love their story. The owners were college professors who left academia to pursue the fine art of winemaking. What we love so much about this winery is all of the personal touches to the wine: one of the reds is the Runestone Pinot Noir, reflecting Clay’s teaching specialty of the old Norse languages (he’s the ‘Claiborne’ in ‘Claiborne & Churchill’). Another wine that we sampled, the ‘Clueless Red’ is a blend which features a crossword puzzle on the label to help you identify the varietals within (the blend itself is created at a wine club seminar). We loved their reds (bought a bottle of the ’09 Classic Pinot Noir), but we knew my fruity-wine-loving mum would adore their creamy apricot Pinot Gris, so we bought her a bottle as well.
(Before we get too far along, here’s my wine nerd tip for you: the little notebook you see me toting around in all of the photos is my ‘wine diary,’ which I use to record my tasting notes. When you’re touring wineries, I truly recommend doing this. Many places will have sheets with the tasting list on them – keep that too, if you can, but take your own notes, and be prepared for some places to have laminated tasting lists that you can’t keep. I bought this notebook from our friend Jeri’s fabulous business, Jude the Blackbird Productions. It is durable, with a sturdy cover and binding, and lined so I can keep all of my notes straight. Get yourself a tasting notebook now, because no matter how much you love something in the moment, it’s going to be hard to remember once you’ve been to more than a dozen wineries and tasted multiple wines at each one!)
Next stop was Chamisal Vineyards, a favorite of ours for the past few years. Chamisal brings a very earthy kind of feel to their wines (one of our favorites was their ‘dirty cowboy’ – a wine that truly stood up to that expert-sommelier evaluation of ‘leather’ in the taste). They also make a terrific chardonnay, and this was one of the first places I can remember really appreciating the difference between oaked and unoaked varities.
(I just threw this picture in for the hell of it. We bought a bottle of the 2008 Estate Grenache, one of those dangerously smooth and light blends that makes you feel like you haven’t been drinking wine all night!)
Next stop was another of our SLO favorites: Wolff Vineyards. Why do we keep coming back? Well, the wine is delicious and…
We love their dogs! This is Miss Brixie, a lovely black lab who inspired her very own wine! She’s a sweet girl who’s a little camera-shy, but always looks forward to pets and scritches when we come to the tasting room.
Oh, and there’s also this gorgeous view of the vines. Something about those Central Coast hills just makes my heart feel good. This is one of the most picturesque, happy-feeling tasting rooms I’ve ever been to. And the wines? Oh, the wines are wonderful! We love their Petite Sirah and their Syrah as well (if you’ve ever wanted a good barbecue wine, that’s a solid pick), but this year, we picked up a bottle of the Brixie’s Red, a nice blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Syrah, and Cab Franc. It has just the tiniest edge to it and a good bit of sponge. (I love spongy wines, for the record, and by ‘spongy’ I mean ‘full of tannins’ – we could do a whole lesson on tannins, except that I don’t fully understand them myself haha. I just love the spongy feel on your tongue with a good tannic wine. The Brixie blend isn’t too heavy on the tannins, but just enough that you get that feeling. Yum!)
Later that day, we headed waaaaaay out of the way to visit Laetitia Vineyards (you can check out our photos from that on our Facebook page), and on the way back, we swung briefly through Arroyo Grande (that’s Spanish for ‘big creek’ if you’re keeping score at home) and visited the tiny but cute Phantom Rivers Wine tasting room. They do some nice things with Mourvedre, both in blends and as a standalone wine (Mourvedre is one of those wines that has the word ‘gamey’ tossed around a lot, which I think is why it’s often used in blends with other types of grapes). We ultimately settled on a bottle of their 2007 Paso de la Luna, which is a blend of (primarily) Zinfandel, but also Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
And if all that wine tasting has worked up an appetite, you can pop in to the Branch Street Deli next door and order a giant pile of seasoned fries!
The following day, we headed north to Atascadero to attempt to hit a few wineries. I like to visit Atascadero from time to time simply because:
1) I love to say the word ‘Atascadero’ and
2) I know what it means, and that makes me feel smart (It translates from Spanish to ‘mudhole.’ There. Now you can feel smart too! I like to use the word Atascadero in daily life too, like, say, if we were out at McConnell’s Mill and it had just rained the day before, I could say, ‘Man this place is an Atascadero!’ which is WAY classier than saying ‘This place is a mud hole.’)
However, just a little ways away in a tiny place called Santa Margarita (that’s Spanish for ‘the patron saint of gettin’ drunk’ – err… something like that) are a few cute little tasting rooms like Ancient Peaks Winery. This place has a delicious Pinot Noir rose AND a Malbec (be still my little heart), some heavenly Zins, but what really sold us was their 2009 Merlot. This wine was dry, but had this soft finish to it, like hot-cocoa-on-a-cold-winter-day soft. I think this is the point of the trip where I started wishing we still lived in LA so we could have taken a few more cases of wine home with us…
(Sorry, had to put this here. No trip to Central Coast is complete without my obsessing about Pea Soup Andersen’s. And this time, we found a spot – on the lot of the Per Bacco tasting room – where you can actually pose with a Pea Soup Andersen’s billboard. And, you know, your Terrible Towel.)
Finally, we love to end each night in Avila Beach with a trip to our ‘first’ winery, Alapay Cellars. This is the first place where we started to *really* appreciate the fine world of wine. Back when we were Los Angeles County residents, we were members of Alapay’s wine club, which meant that three times a year, a magical box of wine arrived at our door! Gosh I miss those days (see that, Pennsylvania? I may love the hell out of you, but you HAVE to get over your archaic booze laws so we Yinzers can enjoy the finer things!).
Alapay is a small tasting room, but the staff is all amazing. They answer any questions, and consistently do that ‘awesome sommelier’ thing where you are slated to have a set number of wines, but as the tasting progresses, they say things like, “Oh wait, I have this other random wine open, you’re going to love it!” (Side note to any sommeliers who may be reading this – we wine lovers LOVE when you do that!!) Oh, and they have tons of cute wine merchandise, even for pups (Lucy has a ‘wine dog’ shirt from Alapay… except that she grew out of it a bit teehee). We always make room in our case for a few Alapay bottles, and we like to save stuff from their Reserve collection for special occasions (we always tote one of those to Sausalido for our anniversary dinner each November).
And so there you have it, our West Coast Winery tour for 2012! We actually visited quite a few wineries in addition to these, that we couldn’t fit into this entry, so you are more than welcome to check out our photo album on Facebook to see all of our SLO County winery recommendations! And don’t worry, there are still two ZinFest blogs to come about our northern pursuits in Paso Robles.