San Luis Obispo County Wine Country
El Paso de Robles (Paso Robles AVA) and San Luis Obispo (Edna Valley AVA) Wineries
Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, once primarily considered midway refueling stops for Southern California wine lovers on their way to the famed wineries of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, are now recognized as wine country destinations for enophiles from both north and south.
Commercial wine production began in SLO county at Ascension Winery (now York Mountain Winery) in 1882. The Edna Valley received American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation in 1982 as did the Paso Robles AVA in 1983. In the last 10 years both vineyard acreage and the number of wineries began to experience rapid growth.
With 26,000 vineyard acres, Paso Robles is the fastest growing AVA in California. The number of bonded wineries here increased from 35 to over 180 in the last decade. Many are young boutique wineries innovating with blends of the historically grown Zinfandel (1920s and 1930s) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1960s and 1970s) and especially the newer Rhone varietals; Sarah (first plantings in California), Viognier and Roussanne. Bordeaux blends remain popular, winning gold medals and top rankings by the Wine Spectator.
Further south beyond the city of San Luis Obispo the Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande Valley and Avila Valley make up what is known as the SLO wine region.
The marine influence of the Pacific Ocean is particularly evident here as there are no obstructions to cooling air flowing through Los Osos Valley into the traverse (east/west) Edna Valley. Soil consisting of a combination of marine deposits and volcanic remnants combined with what is typically the longest growing season in California allow just over 20 mostly small family-owned wineries to produce unique expressions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and more.
Wine grapes are now San Luis Obispo County’s highest value crop (about one third of the county’s agricultural production) and wineries attract over a million tourists to the region annually.
Annual Wine Events
The San Luis Obispo Vintners Association produces a Roll Out the Barrels Weekend at the end of April, a four day event that begins downtown in conjunction with the weekly Farmers’ Market and the Harvest Celebration Weekend in November featuring winemakers dinners and an Avila Beach event with wine tasting and auction, raffle, music and food.
The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance produces four traditional annual events; Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival the third weekend in March, with events celebrating the varietal that first brought the region to the attention of the wine world, Paso Robles Wine Festival the third weekend in May, one of the largest outdoor wine festivals in California is held in City Park downtown, Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend the third weekend in October, winemaker dinners, barrel samples, seminars, barbecues, live music and winery tours and Crave the fourth Friday of October, featuring food and wine pairings in a relaxed lounge-like atmosphere aimed at the millennial generation (21 and older).
Savor the Central Coast, was a new in 2010 food and wine event in partnership with Sunset Magazine at Santa Margarita Ranch and other locations. The event is designed to highlight the talents of Central Coast winemakers, chefs and artisanal food producers with unique culinary tours, celebrity chef demonstrations, and one-of-a-kind winemaker dinners along with awards, fireworks and more. Now in its third year dates for 2012 are September 27–30.
Santa Margarita Ranch and Ancient Peaks Winery
A visit to Santa Margarita Ranch—during ‘Savor’ or at any other time—is an enjoyable, educational experience. Ancient Peaks Winery, which along with the ranch is owned by three longtime local wine growing families, offers complimentary tours of the Margarita Vineyard and ranch on the first and third Saturdays each month. Their tasting room is in Santa Margarita.
Santa Margarita Ranch began as Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia around 1787 as an asistencia (sub-mission) to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on a site selected by Father Junipero Serra years earlier. Hogs, sheep and cattle were raised here and wheat and grapes for Mission wine were grown. The Asistencia—later converted to a barn—was the first stone and mortar building in the state of California. Margarita Vineyard, where the majority of grapes used in Ancient Peaks wines are grown, is the southern most vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. Five distinct soil types—one with oyster shells in an ancient petrified seabed—allow the winemakers to craft wines blending the same grape with a variety of flavors much like a painter might use shades of green or blue to depict landscape or sky.
Oyster Ridge is the name given to Margarita Vineyards top wine each year. The 2006 vintage contains Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), Petite Sirah (35%), Syrah (23%) and Zinfandel (7%). Also available are Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah.
Niner Wine Estates
Chronologically opposite to Ancient Peaks, Niner Wine Estates is one of the newer Paso Robles AVA wineries. Visitors to owners Pam and Dick Niner’s winery will find a large, bright, airy tasting room at the Hospitality Center equipped with a demonstration kitchen facility for visiting chefs and special pairing events. Though newly built the high peaked stone Hospitality Center and adjacent barrel storage room fit into the landscape like they had been there for decades.
A chance to help build a winery from the ground up was a major factor in attracting winemaker Amanda Cramer to the project. Her background in mathematics and chemistry teaching high school in Washington DC led her to explore the interconnection between agriculture, chemistry and artistry at UC Davis. Cramer’s experience at Chimney Rock and Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, D’Arenberg Wines in South Australia, Casa Lapostolle in Chile and most recently back in the Napa Valley at Paradigm Winery shines through in the truly state-of-the-art wine making facility and in Niner Wine Estates wines.
Varietals grown on the Niner’s 125 acre Bootjack Ranch include Sauvignon Blanc, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon with small blocks of Malbec, Carmenère, and Petit Verdot for blending.
In the cooler climate of the Edna Valley about 5 miles south of San Luis Obispo, Tolosa Winery produces select estate bottled wines from the top 10 percent of the grapes it grows on 720 acres. Half that acreage is in Chardonnay and another 40 percent in Pinot Noir. Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc take up most of the rest with smaller plots of Viognier, Petite Sirah, Pinot Gris and Grenache.
The winery, established in 1998, is named for nearby historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa which was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772. The tasting room, where you can both taste and purchase value priced Tolosa limited production wines, opened in 2004.
Tolosa Winery and Vineyard, like Ancient Peaks and a growing list of California wineries, is SIP Certified. Sustainability in Practice (SIP)™ certification goes beyond organic and biodynamic certification programs to include water and energy conservation, air quality, social equity, economic viability and other factors.
Pacific Vineyard Co. manages Tolosa vineyards (as well as those of many other wineries both in and outside the Edna Valley) while adhering to the principals developed over several years by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. In addition Tolosa Winery recycles, composts or recovers all waste and recovers and biologically process all water used in the winery for reuse in the vineyards drip irrigation system.
In 2009 Tolosa installed a high efficiency sun tracking solar power system. A dedicated performance monitoring page at Sun Power tallies the benefits of the system in power produced and converts the aggregate benefit into equivalent homes powered, CO2 reduction or vehicle miles not driven.
With San Luis Obispo County’s rapidly increasing number of wineries these types of sustainable practices will help ensure that California wine tourists, from both north and south, will continue to have a reason to make Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo final destinations rather than just refueling stops for many decades to come.