Only a half a tank of gas away from Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo (SLO) wine country is what Napa might have been like in the 1970s, and how Santa Barbara was before the boom of Sideways.
About 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara’s famed Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley lies the lower part of San Luis Obispo County. Most people know this coastal stretch of the 101 as the Pismo Beach area — or if you’re a traveler who enjoys wine, as the place you stop to get gas while driving up to Paso Robles.
While there, you might take a moment to absorb the cool ocean air blowing in from the west, or observe the green hills to the east. But if you were to follow that cool breeze over those hills, you’d discover a stretch of wine country that you probably didn’t know existed.
So I ask you: If you’ve never heard of SLO wine country, why do you think that is?
Is it because its wine tasting rooms don’t resemble hotel lobbies? Is it because the wineries have never been featured in films? Or, maybe, just maybe, is it because it hasn’t been officially “discovered” yet?
The answer is obvious. It’s “D” — all three.
I thought about this while wandering the boardwalk one afternoon last week while in Avila Beach, a sleepy town nestled into a south facing cove, where the waves roll about knee high. Avila has hot springs, like Calistoga in Napa, and it's just as cute as Solvang in Santa Barbara County. And unlike other wine regions around California, you don’t need to make arrangements for the kids for a weekend wine country getaway.
With its swing sets and picnic tables in the sand, a boardwalk alive with music and laughter; children with melting ice cream cones, and tourists wrapped with souvenir beach towels, it’s hard to believe that Avila is in the heart of wine country. But right over the hills, looking back towards the ocean, there’s a completely different view.
Pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling and gewürztraminer roll endlessly through the valleys, separated only by a few scattered two lane roads. A cool wind blows in easy gusts and in some places, like the Laetitia Winery, trained falcons patrol the vineyards protecting the grapes from the other birds. And in the quiet moments between uninterrupted tastes of wine, you have to wonder why this place isn’t packed with tourists?
Right off the 101, the Arroyo Grande Valley, Edna Valley and Avila Valley stretch 14 miles north from the village of Arroyo Grande to the city of San Luis Obispo. What makes this chain of wine valleys different from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles is their proximity to the ocean, no one winery being more than five miles away. This allows the marine layer to burn off at the same time every day, and “causes afternoons to be filled with constant, cooling ocean breezes, something that pinot noir loves,” according to Mike Sinor, of the Sinor-LaVallee winery.
Sinor’s new ocean view vineyard, Bassi Ranch, is 1.2 miles off of the Pacific. It produces mineral-driven pinot gris and pinot noir filled with notes of ripe strawberry, red raspberry, plum skin, black pepper, spice and rich earth. Visits are by appointment only, since a tasting involves Sinor himself meeting you at his vineyards with glasses, wine and a card table.
Another wine worth seeking out while you’re up in SLO is Tolosa winemaker Larry Brooks’ 2011 Block 569 chardonnay, with its notes of toast and honey, golden apples and pears, with speckles of ginger and stone.
But wine isn’t the only thing going on here. This is the heart of a movement that’s fresher than farm-to-table, something the people of SLO call “farm-to-mouth.” And that idea doesn’t just apply to produce — it applies to seafood, too.
BJ’s Live Seafood, a small, family run fishmonger comprised of some live fish tanks, lots of ice, and a scale on the Port San Luis Pier, buys fish directly from the boats as they arrive. The fish goes to local restaurants, but you’re welcome to wander into their little area on the pier and literally pluck a cherrystone clam or oyster right out of the water to have shucked for your immediate enjoyment.
This place takes its food and wine seriously, with three different food and wine festivals happening over the next three months, starting in September with a four-day culinary event called Sunset Savor. October brings their sparkling festival: Bubbly Fest by the Sea. And with November comes Harvest on the Coast, a three-day wine and food extravaganza.
Be sure to check out this undiscovered wine country destination, with its miles of beaches and miles of vineyards, before the rest of the world gets hip to what’s going on just beyond the fence of our own backyard.