California’s Central Coast is emerging from the shadow of Napa and Sonoma as a go-to wine region. “There are plenty of wines from the Central Coast to match the different styles of cuisine in our restaurants,” says Kat Wojcik, director of bar programming and systems at San Francisco–based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. The company operates more than 70 restaurants, bars and lounges across 30 cities in the U.S., Caribbean and Europe. “The Central Coast is quite large and therefore includes multiple styles of wine and grape varieties,” she adds.
Stretching more than 250 miles along California’s coastline—from San Francisco County in the north to Santa Barbara County at the southern end—this vast region includes dozens of distinctive American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) across its 90,300 acres of planted wine grapes. Nearly 15 percent of the state’s total wine grape production is derived from the Central Coast region, which is home to about 360 wineries.
Finch & Fork at the Kimpton Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara focuses its wine list primarily on Central Coast wines, which are poured nightly during happy hour, as well as at a monthly “Sip n’ Swirl” event spotlighting regional wineries. Some popular options at the restaurant include Grassini Family Vineyards’ 2016 Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc ($14 a glass; $56 a 750-ml.), the 2014 Sandhi Santa Barbara Chardonnay ($16; $64), the 2016 Santa Maria Valley Presqu’ile Rosé of Pinot Noir ($12; $48) and the 2014 Babcock Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($17; $68).
The Central Coast’s vast stretch of land and diverse microclimates allow its winemakers to cultivate a broad assortment of grape varieties and styles. Working with 43 unique AVAs, the region’s winemakers have come to better understand the nuances of their local conditions over the years.
Justin Vineyards and Winery, located in the Paso Robles AVA in northern San Luis Obispo County, has defined itself through its flagship Bordeaux-style red blend Isosceles ($72 a 750-ml.). “Quality and consistency in the Central Coast appellations are higher than they’ve ever been as a result of understanding our growing conditions and which varieties do best in certain locations,” says Clarence Chia, vice president of marketing and direct-to-consumer at Justin. “Early in our founding, we discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties were right at home on the western side of the Paso Robles AVA. As a result, we’re able to create wines with great complexity and structure.” In addition to Isosceles, Justin has seen growing enthusiasm for its Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($26) and Justification, a Cabernet Franc–based red blend ($50). The winemaking team has learned that Syrah and other Rhône varieties thrive in Paso Robles as well.
Established as an AVA in 1983, with 11 smaller subdivision AVAs added in 2014, Paso Robles encompasses about 32,000 vineyard acres. Of those, 55 percent are planted to Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties. The region’s winemakers point to Paso Robles’ limestone-rich soil and extreme diurnal temperature ranges, which can vary by as much as 50 degrees between daytime highs and nighttime lows, as key factors in the local terroir.
All but two of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines’ 35 offerings are from its Central Coast vineyards in the Paso Robles and Arroyo Seco AVAs. The company sources grapes for the J. Lohr Cuvée Series of luxury Bordeaux red blends ($50 a 750-ml.) and popular J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet ($17) from its Paso Robles vineyards, while grapes for its other most popular wine, J. Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay ($14), come from Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. Earlier this year, the winemaker introduced a new limited edition J. Lohr Signature Cabernet ($100) in honor of founder Jerry Lohr, whose work helped raise the profile of Cabernet production in Paso Robles.
J. Lohr has recently expanded into white wine production, with the 2016 Flume Crossing Sauvignon Blanc ($14 a 750-ml.) sourced from its Arroyo Seco vineyards, north of the Paso Robles AVA. “Monterey is cool to begin with, and it has one of the longest growing seasons in California,” says J. Lohr CEO Steve Lohr. The company grows a number of grape varieties in Monterey, including the area’s reputed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Riesling and French varietals like Valdiguié. “These wines show a lot of nice tropical flavor because it’s cool here and we get a good amount of fog,” Lohr notes. “But perhaps the most important element is the wind, which is something very distinct about Monterey.”
With about 46,000 vineyard acres planted—compared to Napa’s 45,000 acres—Monterey is one of California’s largest premium grape growing regions, according to the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association. The area includes nine smaller AVAs: Monterey, Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe, San Lucas, San Antonio Valley and Hames Valley.
Scott Family Estate, part of the Rutherford Wine Co. portfolio, is known for its ultra-premium Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir ($30 a 750-ml.) and Chardonnay ($25). The company sees consumers responding positively to its association with Arroyo Seco as its current volume has grown to about 15,000 cases, focused primarily on-premise. “In Monterey, there’s a much better awareness than there was 20 or 25 years ago about what grows best where,” says Barry Bergman, vice president of operations for Rutherford Wine Company. “You have a huge maritime influence coming in off Monterey Bay. Our vineyards in the Arroyo Seco appellation have a soil profile of sandy loam, as well as alluvial deposits collected over thousands of years that come down from the hills. That’s a great soil type for our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production.”
Those two key grape varieties also dominate production further south in Santa Barbara County, which includes six official AVAs—Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos District, according to the Santa Barbara Country Vintners Association. Other popular varietals in Santa Barbara include Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others.
As winemaking along the Central Coast matures and its many sub-regions become renowned for specific grape varieties, wineries are looking at the luxury end with renewed confidence. A longtime presence in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Hahn Family Wines has made its name with an expansive portfolio of luxury California wines, led by its Pinot Noir. The Hahn SLH tier ($25 to $35 a 750-ml.) includes estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which represent over half of the company’s production. “Our high-end wines are performing the best, and that’s dramatically evolved over the past several years,” says Hahn president Tony Baldini. The Hahn family has deep roots in the region, with founder Nicky Hahn driving efforts to establish the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA beginning in 1988.
The company’s portfolio also includes the Hahn tier with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, GSM Red Blend, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (all $15 a 750-ml.); Lucienne, a collection of single-vineyard designated Pinot Noirs ($50); and Smith & Hook Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and Red Blend ($25). “We’re a family-owned, estate-driven wine company. We chase quality, not trends,” Baldini says.
J. Lohr has seen growth for its portfolio of Central Coast wines coming from the high end as well, led by the J. Lohr Vineyard Series that includes Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 a 750-ml.) from its Paso Robles vineyards and Arroyo Vista Chardonnay ($25), among others. “Those wines have all continued to grow in sales over the past several years,” Lohr says. “It’s been good for the Central Coast to have consumers appreciate the high-end wines coming out of the region.”
With the quality of Central Coast wines improving, companies are able to offer sought-after wines positioned at key price points. “With the growth in popularity of wines priced $15 to $25 a bottle, Monterey and the Central Coast can over-perform with the types of wines that get produced and sold for those prices,” notes Rutherford’s Bergman. “Because the cost of land down here is a lot less expensive than further north, what you put in the bottle out-performs in quality and in defining the style of the region.”
Room To Experiment
With consumers becoming decidedly more adventurous in their wine selections, Central Coast producers see a benefit to the region’s relatively low profile. “One advantage Central Coast winemakers have is that since the region is not as well known as some other appellations, it’s a fresher story,” Lohr explains. “People want to hear about it, and there are a lot of new things to tell them.”
In Los Angeles, the team at Ever Bar in the newly opened Kimpton Everly Hotel sees guests eagerly trying a variety of Central Coast wines. “So far, our 2016 Andrew Murray Cinsault Rosé ($11 a glass) and 2015 Andrew Murray Syrah ($12), have been the most well received, although all of our Central Coast options seem to be a hit,” says Ever Bar’s lead bartender Dan Rook. “The Murray offerings lend themselves perfectly to the ‘dip-your-toe-in-the-pond’ adventurous palate. The varietals are familiar, but these wines are layered with unique personality.” Other Central Coast wines featured at Ever Bar include the Liquid Farm 2014 White Hill Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills ($16 a glass; $63 a 750-ml.), Paragon Vineyards’ 2016 Tangent Albariño ($11; $43), and the 2014 Sans Liege The Offering Grenache blend ($15; $59) from Santa Barbara.
“There’s still a sense of discovery, as well as a recognition of our differences,” says Hahn’s Baldini. “The Central Coast presents something that’s respected, but also a little bit different and off the beaten path.” Hahn Family Wines is offering such innovations as a recently launched Hahn Family Winery Pinot Noir Rosé ($24 a 750-ml.) from the Arroyo Seco, featuring upgraded packaging and a screw-cap closure, as well as the new Red Blend under its ultra-premium Smith & Hook label ($25). For the past five years, Hahn has also partnered with keg provider Free Flow Wines, recently broadening its wine-on-tap offerings to build a greater on-premise presence for its wines.
Thanks to the Central Coast’s variations in climate and terrain, Scott Family Estate sees opportunity for winemakers to branch out and define themselves through further innovation. “The quality of fruit and the cost of land here in the Central Coast provide the right opportunity for winemakers to experiment,” Bergman says. “It’s up to them to maximize that potential.”
Refining Its Image
While the diversity emerging from the Central Coast portends a bright future, some say work still needs to be done in raising awareness. “We’re not a mandatory category quite yet,” says Hahn’s Baldini. “But we’re reaching the point of critical mass. As a region, we were alternative, and a little confusing. Now in Monterey especially, we’re becoming a go-to source of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other Rhône varietals.”
With the attractive prospects for land along the Central Coast, the region is poised for continued growth and expansion. “One advantage Central Coast winemakers have is that land is reasonably priced,” Lohr notes. “You can grow grapes that compete with the best in the world, and winemakers can make some of the finest wine.”
Consumers are also building the Central Coast’s bright future. “The appellation is huge, even monolithic, but over the years people have started to dig down within it,” says Rutherford’s Bergman. “American wine consumers are getting more knowledgeable all the time, and their knowledge base of counties and sub-AVAs is growing exponentially. It’s really up to us to advocate for the AVAs where we’re producing to get people to understand those regions and become more comfortable with them.”
Many in the industry see their decades of effort bearing fruit. “There’s still a lot of room for evolution, as well as experimentation with more grape varieties, but for now we absolutely see customers open to ordering Central Coast wines,” says Kimpton’s Wojcik. “The region is still developing, and it’ll be fun to see how it evolves.”