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by Andrew Chalk

Expert Editorial

Ask the American wine consumer to describe San Luis Obispo wine and they will likely tell you about the Paso Robles AVA, its pioneering role in growing Rhône varieties, its first class cabernet sauvignon, and the large number of startup wineries experimenting with pinot noir and any number of specialized grapes. But they may miss is the important work being done ‘over the grade’, on the other side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, in the southern part of the county adjacent to the Pacific Coast.

That is the preserve of the SLO Coast Wine Collective (the Collective) and the 30 wineries (out of 35 in the area) that are members. At the moment, ‘SLO Coast’ is a marketing slogan and a battle cry but the intention is to enshrine the area’s distinctiveness in an umbrella “SLO Coast” AVA. It would include the part of San Luis Obispo within five-ten miles of the Pacific Ocean. The SLO Coast is overlaid on two existing AVAs, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Some of the proposed AVA would be SLO County land that is currently not in either of those two smaller AVAs. In the interim, the Collective focuses on getting the SLO Coast better known among consumers and beverage professionals.

They have their work cut out if a couple of recent things are any indication. First, the October 15th, 2019  issue of The Wine Spectator, the largest circulation consumer wine publication in the U.S., lead with California Pinot Noir – The Next Great Red. The Spectator stressed coastal climate and discussed several Central Coast neighbors such as the Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills but did not mention Edna Valley or Arroyo Grande (I refer to these as the SLO Coast AVAs).

Why ignore the SLO Coast AVAs? It would be understandable if they made inferior wine, so I looked at the Wine Spectator’s own tasting notes of over 600 California pinot noirs in the aforementioned issue of the magazine. The average score for wines in either the Edna Valley AVA or the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA was 89.8. Other Central Coast AVA averages were Monterey (87.6), Santa Lucia Highlands (89.8), Santa Maria Valley (89.6) and Santa Rita Hills (89.8). In other words, the average quality in the SLO Coast AVAs was comparable to other Central Coast AVAs that were seen as promising areas for pinot noir.

The Wine Spectator may have been influenced by the highest scoring wines in each AVA, in which case the high scores by appellation were SLO Coast (92), Monterey (91), Santa Lucia Highlands (94), Santa Maria Valley (92), and Santa Rita Hills (93). Some of these areas have slightly higher maximum scores than the SLO Coast AVAs. There is a case for saying that wine growing areas should be judged by their highest scores. However, if their average is no higher as a result of the high scoring wines, it implies that there are low scoring wines offsetting them. Maybe an area’s overall suitability for a grape should be measured by the performance of the average winery?

The other factor explaining the omission of SLO Coast wines is that the area is small and consequently it got overlooked. One factor supporting this theory is that most of the wineries that I tasted at on a recent visit to the area were not even in the Wine Spectator’s results. Possibly for the same reason, the Spectator had small sample sizes for many AVAs.

Media aside, SLO Coast is almost a stealth region on the ground. On U.S. 101, the major road through the area, and one of the busiest freeways in the state, there is virtually no signage informing travellers of the vineyards’ existence.

Given its proximity to the population centres of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and silicon valley, and increased flights from the recently expanded airport (unfortunately coded SBP instead of SLO) the potential for increased onsite visitation is huge. Few wine areas in the world can have closer proximity to their airport. Outside the tasting room of Tolosa you can virtually count the rivets on the planes as they pass overhead. What those travellers will discover is an area with a funky beach scene, a good selection of restaurants, spectacular coastal beauty, and abundant wines.

Location

SLO Coast is defined as the seafront side of the coastal Santa Lucia Mountain range in San Luis Obispo County. It starts as a thin strip in the north (in Cambria, where the mountains are right up against the coastline) and begins to widen as you head southward toward Edna Valley and into Arroyo Grande Valley, which runs east-west.

Most important, is the Pacific Ocean to the west. The area is unequivocally maritime in climate with fog from the ocean blanketing many of the vineyards into the late morning. The Collective estimates that the average distance between member vineyards and the coast is five miles, making the influence of the ocean primal among climate forces.

Discussion of location also draws attention to SLO coast as a valley region with rolling hills but an absence of mountainside vineyards. Most of the SLO coast lies below 350 feet elevation. The constant ocean breezes provide the cooling that altitude otherwise might.

Terroir

Such is the ocean influence that SLO coast is ranked as region 1 (coolest) on the Amarine-Winkler scale of California winegrowing areas. Harvest can extend into November. The Collective actually considers it to be the coolest region in California, although they may find themselves in a food fight with the wineries of Santa Maria Valley on that question.

Winemakers of the SLO Coast emphasize the importance of ocean influence to achieve a long growing season in which the grapes experience a large diurnal range throughout the day. This gives them adequate time to achieve physiological ripeness.

The effect of the temperature profile is that cool climate grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir, albariño, riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot gris fare well. Grenache is widely grown but can struggle to get ripe. Likewise Syrah. I asked Frederick Delivert of Tolosa why he did not grow cabernet sauvignon and he said that he thought it unlikely to consistently ripen. Taking 2018 as an example: bud break was in March. Harvest started Aug. 23rd. His last pick was November 12th. The picking order was pinot noir rose->pinot noir->chardonnay->viognier->sauvignon blanc->2 week break->petite sirah->syrah->grenache. Zack Geers, winemaker at Claiborne & Churchill, confirms that he has the same late ripening issue with his Grenache.

Pinot noir is the SLO Coast grape doing the best in the market at the present time, followed by chardonnay. The importance of albariño is growing as it receives consumer recognition, but from a very small planted base.

If the climatic side of terroir can be singularly attributed to the ocean, the earth side is a tapestry of over 60 types of soil. As a result, a journey through a large vineyard is often a journey through separate lots distinguished by their soil. Different soil types support different types of grapes best so, for example, rich, heavy clay soil is planted with sauvignon blanc. Sandy soil is better for pinot noir clone 828, or the pommard clone. These two also thrive in the limestone tracts.

Grape Varieties

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is the most prevalent grape, being produced by most SLO Coast wineries. At a focused tasting of eight producers, Coby Parker-Garcia of El Lugar and Bill Kesselring of Peloton Cellars discussed generalities and specificities of the wines.

Coby Parker-Garcia stressed that the method of pinot noir winemaking in SLO Coast is no different than in other regions of California. Differences in the wines are accounted for by the terroir (soil and climate). What generalizations can be made about Edna Valley? The wines are characterized by high acidity due to the cool climate. This enhances their longevity. The best clones are the Dijon clones. Clone 667 performs poorly and clone 777 has a hard time with berry size. A majority, he estimates 70%, of winemakers inoculate their yeast. Only a few do wild fermentations. Growers pick on acid numbers, not brix numbers.  Bud break is relatively early. There is a relatively long growing season with cooler temperatures. Among the many soil types, grapes grown in sandy soils produce more intense aromatics. Those in clay, more structure. As to marker differences between Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley there really aren’t any. It may be a little warmer in Arroyo Grande due to it being further inland. Were consideration of separate AVAs to be done today, it is not clear that they would be approved.

The first wine that we taste is the 2016 Effort Pinot Noir from Edna Valley ($30). Effort is one of three brands from Center of Effort, a peculiar name that conjures up images of a Dickensian home for orphan boys who failed their winemaking exams. In fact, it refers to the point in a sail where the wind’s force is greatest. The brands, in increasing order of price, are Fossil Point, Effort, and Center of Effort. The wines (above Fossil Point) are all estate, an area of approximately 100 acres that is the old Corbett Canyon facility. That estate is mainly sandy soils which contributes to bigger, more aromatic wines in which color saturation is not a problem. They use 20-30% new French oak. 

2016 Baileyana Pinot Noir – Halcon Rojo, Edna Valley ($35). This winery is owned by the Niven family. John Niven was one of the pioneers planting in the Edna Valley. The grapes originate from the Firepeak Vineyard (the name of the wine refers to a particular lot in that vineyard) which was planted 20 years ago. He chose chardonnay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, gewürztraminer, riesling, and zinfandel. It is a sign of how early he was in SLO Coast terroir knowhow that now the vineyard consists of chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir, and syrah- a complete changeover. The soils are all volcanic, comprised of heavy clay. The wine was aged in 30% new French oak. The wine is, in Coby’s words, “easy drinking”. He attributes the sweet vanilla and toast notes to the oak.

The effect of clay soils was evident in the 2017 El Lugar, Rincon Vineyards, Arroyo Grande Valley ($48). The Rincon Vineyards are 8 miles from the ocean and therefore warmer. The volcanic,  clay-dominant soils produce more structured wines from the Swiss clone Talley 2A vines. The grapes are given a 3-4 day cold soak and 15% are fermented whole cluster. Coby uses the same cooperage with all red El Lugar wines and toast levels (medium to medium-plus). The wine is aged in 30% new oak for 11 months. Once in barrels the wine is not moved and sees no punchdowns or pumpovers. 

The effect of extreme low temperatures is evident in the 2016 Cutruzzola Vineyards Pinot Noir, Giacomo Reserve, San Luis Obispo County. The Giacomo Vineyard is in the far north of the county, almost as far as Cambria. Bill Kesselring describes how, at 7am, the fog is so think as you drive through your vineyard that you cannot see the hood of your truck. By 10am it is clear. But at 4pm the fog rolls back in. Extreme weather patterns see temperatures exhibit a diurnal swing from 55oF to 85oF in a day. The vineyard is sandy loam on rock planted with 4 clones of pinot (667, 828, pommard, 115) and riesling vines. It is a scant producer, yielding 1.5 tons/acre if lucky. Irrigation is from a spring underneath a sycamore tree. This wine is fermented with native yeast, undergoes 10% whole cluster fermentation and is aged in 30%-50% new French oak. The result is powerful wines.

Mindy Oliver

Mindy Oliver

All of the wines exhibit accomplished winemaking and they would acquit themselves well in a tasting with pinot noirs from other regions. Their relative lack of publicity and the outdated AVA setup in the area may be to blame for their anonymity.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay styles reflect the cool climate of the SLO Coast. Less exuberantly fruity than Sonoma and generally crafted in a leaner style. That said, they do not vere as far to being reserved as the wines of, for example, Chablis.. Good examples are Biddle Ranch Vineyard, Chamisal Vineyards, Edna Valley Vineyards, Filipponi Ranch, Kelsey See Canyon Winery, Laetitia, Oceano, Sinor-LaVallee, Talley Vineyards, and Tolosa.

Albariño

For sheer enigma, the progress of the Spanish albariño grape in the SLO Coast warrants ongoing attention. Plantings, only 55 acres (2018 data), account for 20% of the albariño in the state. Far from being a one off there are at least nine wineries working with the grape.

The Niven Family, owners of Tangent, made the biggest investment in albariño, planting 45 acres in their Paragon Vineyard. They based the investment on research that included interviewing Spanish winemakers.

I asked Mindy Oliver from albariño producer Croma Vera some questions about albariño in the SLO Coast.

AC: How does SLO Coast albariño compare with albariño from Rias Baixas, the Galician region with which the grape is most usually associated? 

MO: I feel there are more similarities than differences between Albariños from Rias Baixas, Spain and the SLO Coast wine region.

Similarities: richness on the palate, viscosity, tropical aromatics, citrus flavors, salinity/minerality

Differences: SLO Coast Albariños exhibit more high tone aromatics such as boxwood, guava, passion fruit and even an herbaceous edge.

In terms of climate, O Rosal in Rias Baixas, and SLO Coast vineyards both have a ridge of mountains separating the seashore from the vineyards and similar annual temperatures throughout the growing season. However, rainfall is three to four times higher in O Rosal than here.

AC: How big a part of Cromo Vera’s sales did she see albariño becoming?

MO: The popularity of Albariño is on the rise as more wine drinkers are discovering it. It is our most requested and top-selling wine at our tasting room. A few years ago, many of our customers had not heard of Albariño. Now we get customers seeking us out specifically for our Albariño. Why? Albariño is a white wine that appeals to both red and white wine drinkers, which I believe will continue to propel its rise in popularity. It’s nice to see the interest in one of my favorite Spanish grapes.

AC: Is there was anything else that she thought was important that the media say about SLO Coast albariño?

MO: What’s unique about our wine region: The ocean’s close proximity and influence creates our longer growing season, allowing Albariño to ripen to full flavor while preserving acidity. This is what makes our wine region ideal for growing aromatic, vibrant white varietals such as Albariño.

This is an exciting time to be making wine in this region. Our region is beginning to earn praise as more and more wine consumers are discovering not just the beauty of the area and the warm hospitality, but the high quality of our wines.

Here’s a quote from our winemaker:

‘Albariño is well-suited to maritime climates such as ours. Our cool climate, with close proximity to the ocean, preserves the intense tropical aromatics that Albariño is best known for.’

Jeremy Leffert, Winemaker, Croma Vera

Here are reports on some albariños tasted….

Croma Vera made a 2018 albariño Spanish Springs Vineyard and appellated San Luis Obispo County. It has aromas of lemon and grapefruit. The zesty flavors on the palate make for a wine that is not barren or characterless. The grapes were whole-cluster fermented in stainless steel. Not subject to malolactic fermentation. Ageing was conducted in stainless steel and neutral oak for four months but sur lie (on the expired yeast).

Stephen Ross Wine Cellars also uses fruit from Spanish Springs Vineyard. They age in stainless steel sur lies but the 2017 underwent 100% malolactic fermentation. The result is what the winery calls “mid-palate juiciness”. It still has abundant acidity, flavors of lemon, and a complex nose of citrus, fig preserves, and herbaceous hints.

Tangent, 2018 Stone Egg Albariño was fermented in a concrete stone egg which is thought to promote circulation of the wine, adding more flavor and depth. The fruit was the best grapes selected from the Niven Family’s Estate Paragon Vineyard. That is one of the largest single plantings outside Spain. This wine is fermented and aged for a total of 9 months entirely in an egg-shaped concrete tank. The results are a richly fruity wine (lemon, peach, apricot) with medium plus body.  

All of these wines are well made and suggest that albariño has a long-term future in the SLO Coast. With the increase in consumer interest in the grape the commercial environment should be supportive as well. One of the most remarkable comments that I heard in my time on the SLO Coast was Mindy Oliver’s response to my question asking how big albariño is:  “It is our most requested and top-selling wine at our tasting room”. Compelling.

An Odd Duck

Claiborne & Churchill Winery deserves special mention by virtue of its singular mission being so out in left field – to make Alsatian style wine. If was founded in 1983 by recovering academics, Claiborne (Clay) Thompson and Fredericka Churchill Thompson, from Michigan. Clay had a dream to start a winery and came to Edna Valley where he was hired as a cellar rat by Dick Graff at Edna Valley on the strength of his Harvard Ph.D. in languages because Graff was a fellow Harvard man (degree in musicology). He learned winemaking and set about pursuing the goal of a winery dedicated to the wines of Alsace, initially making the wine in Edna Valley’s cellar. Hence, today Claiborne & Churchill produces gewürztraminer, pinot gris, pinot noir, and riesling because of their Alsace connection. They also make chardonnay (but not as a sparkling wine as in Alsace), syrah and grenache to support market demand. With only 8,000 cases a year, things are distinctly artisan.

A tasting of their 2018 Dry Gewürztraminer, Central Coast ($24) reveals a wine that is one of the few domestic gewürztraminers that can legitimately refer to Alsace as its muse. Even the aromatic element of lychee is there in the nose. This wine would be ideal with many Thai or Vietnamese dishes.

The 2018 Dry Riesling, Edna Valley ($24) displayed a floral nose and lemon and apricot in the mouth. It should prove versatile in the face of multiple foods from fish to clams or mussels, pork, and Thanksgiving turkey.

A Notable Vineyard

There are many lieu dites (named vineyards) on the SLO Coast, but one name crops up as often as all the others put together: Spanish Springs Vineyard. It is only 91 acres, however, I found the following current (or recent) customers (a list that is likely not exhaustive):

  • Biddle Ranch Vineyard – 2016 Pinot Noir;
  • Claiborne & Churchill – 2017 Syrah;
  • Cromavera – 2018 Albariño;
  • Evening Land – 2010 Pinot Noir;
  • Oceano – 2017 Chardonnay, 2018 Pinot Noir;
  • Olsen Perry – 2015 Chardonnay;
  • Peloton – 2017 Pinot Noir;
  • Stephen Ross – 2017, 2018 Albariño, 2017 Pinot Gris;
  • Wonderwall – 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 Pinot Noir;

Located in San Luis Obispo county, but not in any AVA, on Spanish Springs Drive just off Price Canyon Road, Spanish Springs Vineyard is 1.2  miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is sandy loam soil and, by way of example, its block 1 is on a 7.6% slope with a southeast (146.01o) aspect and 112 feet elevation. It receives an average 2088.43 growing degree days (making it Region 1) and a growing season average temperature of 59.7oF. Referring to plantings, pinot noir is clones 828, 2A, Mt Eden, 114, Pommard, 943, and Swan. Chardonnay clones are Wente and Musque. Original planting dates were 2007-9 in a high density VSP formation with 1361 vines per acre on 8×4 spacing and drip irrigation. Farming practises are sustainable. Farmer and manager is George Donati who may be, from the standpoint of the wine consumer, the most profound behind-the-scenes architect of the wines of the SLO Coast.

An Assessment

SLO Coast wines reflect their coastal climate, the diverse grapes that the vignerons grow, and the skills that the winemakers bring to their craft. They hold their heads level, on average, with other Central Coast wines the area’s small size has prevented it getting the recognition that it deserves. As consumers taste more of these wines I expect this to change.

My accommodation and flight costs were paid by the “SLO Coast Wine Collective”

Andrew Chalk

About the Author:

Andrew Chalk is a Dallas-based author who writes about wine, spirits, beer, food, restaurants, wineries and destinations all over the world.  His articles have appeared in Wine Business, Wines & Vines, Go-Wine, The Daily MealJohn Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet, Somm Journal, Wine-Searcher.com, Palate Press, and Modern Lifestyles. He has also written for The Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, and Food and Beverage Magazine.  A full listing of his recent articles can be found here. He is the author of the book Top Texas Wineries

He recently started his own blog, TheChalkReport. He holds the WSET Level 3 certification in wines and spirits, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification from the Society of Wine Educators and the Italian Wine Professional certification. He is a 2016 recipient of an open fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

He has judged at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo Wine Competition and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition.

When not writing he can usually be found participating in his favorite sport of soccer. He also likes cooking, at which he is lousy, but enthusiastic.

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