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California: Wine Tasting on the Central Coast

Shannon Essa (Shannon)

Most people, when asked about California Wine, will think "Napa" or "Sonoma." Nowadays, most of the state has vineyards and there are many wine-growing regions, but one of the best, and one that equals Napa and Sonoma in quality, is the Central Coast.

The Central Coast starts at Paso Robles in the north, and ends at Santa Barbara in the south. Paso Robles is a mere 3 hours drive south from San Francisco, and Santa Barbara is 1 hours north of Los Angeles. So visitors can fly into either city and rent a car to tour the coast or fly directly into Santa Barbara and go from there. The distance between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles is around 135 miles, or a little over two hours, and the drive along the coast is very beautiful. You'll drive along Highway 101 and pass through a few cities, each with its own charms and vibe.

Most wineries charge a small fee for tasting, but sometimes this is waived with the purchase of a bottle. It never hurts to ask.

Details for all the stops I list here are below in Resources. If possible, try to pick up Quick Access - Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles Wine Country Guide and Map. This folding laminated map shows all the wineries and has information about hours, addresses and phone numbers. There are free maps available in some tasting rooms, but this one is worth the price in that it includes everybody and shows the entire region.

For further reading, with lots of great restaurant and hotel recommendations and more winery details, pick up a copy of Kathleen & Gerald Hill's Santa Barbara and the Central Coast, A Food and Wine Lover's Guide.

Let's start in Paso Robles and move south.

Paso Robles

Paso Robles is rapidly changing, but still has a sort of old town Podunk feel. Downtown Paso has a lovely square surrounded by shops and restaurants. The main artery, Spring Street, is lined with inexpensive motels and the historic Paso Robles Inn as well as taco shops and auto parts stores.

Wineries in Paso are broken up into East of 101, and West of 101. Many wineries are along Highway 46, so pick up one of the free Paso Robles winery maps and use that as your guide.

Highway 46 East will lead you to large tasting rooms crowded with bus tours. Eberle Winery, EOS Estate, and Meridian are all along here. The highway itself is charmless with lots of semi trucks barreling their way to Bakersfield.

Highway 46 West is beautiful, and has some really good, interesting and fun winery stops. Leaving Highway 101 and heading west, you'll see the sign for Castoro Cellars, and that should be your first stop. They have a beautiful tasting room and make "Dam Fine Wine."

There are plenty of other stops on Highway 46 West, which will eventually lead you out to the ocean and San Simeon, where Hearst's Castle is.

Another winery any wine lover must visit in Paso, is Tablas Creek. Located at 9339 Adelaida Road, Tablas Creek is making some world class wine at a beautiful facility. The scenery alone is worth the drive out there.

Towards San Luis Obispo

Heading south, you'll cruise through the town of Templeton, and this is home to two wineries worth a visit: Turley Wine Cellars and Wild Horse Winery. In between the two tasting rooms is the two-block area of downtown Templeton, home to a couple of rough 'n tumble bars if you are getting sick of wine.

Past Templeton, you'll pass through the city of Atascadero, known for the insane asylum there. There aren't any wineries, but there is the new Carlton Hotel which is opening in the Fall of 2004, and an outlet mall.

You'll now come to the Cuesta Grade, a fairly insane, steep stretch of Highway 101. When you get to the bottom, you'll be in San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo is a sweet and charming city, with a Old Spanish and college town feel to it. The wineries here are fewer, and spread out. Most of the wineries are set back from the ocean, near Highway 227, a road that meets up with 101 on each end. Talley Vineyards is the standout here, with a remarkable tasting room (the architecture and feel of the place were very well thought out, and it shows) and great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Claiborne and Churchill is worth a stop if you like interesting whites, and Edna Valley Vineyards, while more traveled, is also worth a stop.

Many of the San Luis Obispo wineries are only open on the weekends, but these three are open every day.

Continuing south on 101, you'll drive through a rather bland area and through the city of Santa Maria. On the way, stop at Laetitia winery, just south of Arroyo Grande, and try some of their great Pinot Noirs and one of the only Sparkling Wines made on the Central Coast.

Once in Santa Maria, you can choose one of two routes. Continue on 101, or take the back road, Foxen Canyon Road. To get to Foxen Canyon Road, take the Betteravia exit in Santa Maria, head east, and then wind to the right and turn into Foxen Canyon Road. This road will take you into Los Olivos and the Santa Ynez Valley.

The Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara

The Santa Ynez Valley is one of the loveliest areas in California. Los Olivos and Santa Ynez are both nice little towns. Los Olivos, especially, is good for wine tasting because there are quite a few tasting rooms on one street. Taste at Longoria and Andrew Murray for sure, and hit the new Consilience tasting room. All of these, and many others, are on Grand Avenue in Los Olivos.

The Los Olivos Cafe is a great place to have lunch. Another lunch alternative is to drive west on Highway 154 (go down Grand and make a right at the highway) and stop at the Los Olivos Market to pick up a gourmet picnic lunch; continue west until you get to Roblar Road, make a left, and stop at Bridlewood Winery to taste and eat your picnic.

Brander Vineyard, near Bridlewood, has great Sauvignon Blanc and is also worth a stop.

From there, cross back over Highway 154 to Alamo Pintado Road, and go left. There are a number of wineries along Alamo Pintado, including Blackjack Ranch, one of the best wineries in the area. Alamo Pintado will take you right into the heart of Solvang.

Solvang is a very touristy, Danish style village. There are quite a few places to stay here, but the restaurants are just so-so. Copenhagen Drive is home to quite a few tasting rooms, so if you decide to stay in Solvang, spend some time on Copenhagen Drive.

From Solvang we head to Santa Barbara. But instead of Highway 101, head back to the 154. Mission Drive, the main drag of Solvang, will take you right there. Head towards Santa Ynez (not Buellton) and make a right on Highway 154, a few miles from town. Highway 154 takes you through an incredibly beautiful mountainous area and drops you right in the heart of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara is a cool, hip and extraordinarily pretty town. There are a couple of places to taste wine, too. Santa Barbara Winery is just below the foot of State Street and has some great reds. But the be all end all would be to go to the Wine Cask and taste Doug Margerum's wines. Doug Margerum is the owner of the Wine Cask, a restaurant, cafe, and wine shop in downtown Santa Barbara. He is very passionate about wine and is now making his own. You can try it in the restaurant (pricey, but excellent) or in the cafe/bar.

There is one more winery in the coastal hamlet of Summerland, a few miles south of Santa Barbara: the Summerland Winery. They have a nice gift shop and the town itself is worth a stop.

Resources

Books and Maps

Book: Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, Food & Wine Lover's Guide, Kathleen & Gerald Hill. Lots of great restaurant and hotel recommendations and winery details.

Map: Quick Access - Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles Wine Country Guide and Map. This folding laminated map shows all the wineries and has information about hours, addresses and phone numbers. There are free maps available in some tasting rooms, but this one is worth the price in that it includes everybody and shows the entire region.

Websites

www.wineappreciation.com: Wine Appreciation Guild

www.pasowine.com: Paso Robles

www.pasoroblesdowntown.org: Downtown Paso Robles

www.castorocellars.com: Castoro Cellars

www.bonnydoonvineyard.com: Bonny Doon Vineyard

www.tablascreek.com: Tablas Creek

www.turleywinecellars.com: Turley

www.wildhorsewinery.com: Wild Horse Winery

www.visitslo.com: San Luis Obispo for visitors

www.slowine.com: San Luis Obispo Growers and Vintners

www.talleyvineyards.com: Talley Vineyards

www.claibornechurchill.com: Claiborne & Churchill

www.ednavalley.com: Edna Valley Vineyards

www.laetitiawine.com: Laetitia Vineyards & Winery

www.syvva.com: Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association

www.longoriawine.com: Longoria Wines

www.andrewmurrayvineyards.com: Andrew Murray Vineyards

www.consiliencewines.com: Consilience

www.bridlewoodwinery.com: Bridlewood Winery

www.solvangusa.com: Solvang for Visitors

www.sbwinery.com: Santa Barbara Winery

www.margerumwinecompany.com: Doug Margerum Wines

www.winecask.com: The Wine Cask


Shannon Essa is a traveler through life who resides in San Diego. She co-wrote the guidebook Chow! Venice about eating and drinking in Venice, Italy. Read Shannon's blog Poptarticus and see her SlowTrav Member Page.

© Shannon Essa, 2004

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