Like a kid digging to find the mystery prize in a box of Cocoa Puffs, I seek out surprises. New wine regions provide prospects, as I hope something extraordinary jumps into my glass. San Luis Obispo, an emergent wine region in central California, not only surprised, it shocked. I arrived poised for average wines, but what I tasted were unexpectedly high-quality pinot noirs, syrahs and chardonnays worth outing. San Luis Obispo (SLO) lies about an hour north of Santa Barbara’s wine country, nestled in rolling green hills planted with 3,000 acres of grapes. The 24 wineries — a quiet, humble bunch — have great climate and soil on their side. Unlike most areas on the Central Coast, the chilly nights and warm days — after the thick fog from nearby Pacific Ocean blows off — create ideal conditions for the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes that prefer cooler weather. But the mild weather also affords the longest growing season in California, allowing the grapes to hang longer and develop better characteristics.
The best-known appellations (or AVA — American Viticulture Area) in SLO are Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys. Millions of years ago, these areas lay beneath the ocean, and the unique leftover mixture of rocky marine sediment and volcanic soil presents a challenge to a grapevine’s rooting system. The stress intensifies flavors and lowers vine yields, providing better, more nourished fruit.
The winery community is a mixed bag of both family-owned and behemoth enterprises. Baileyana, owned by the same couple that seems to own everything else in SLO — the Nivens — makes wine for many other wineries across the West Coast. Christian Roguenant, Baileyana’s friendly French Burgundian winemaker, receives grapes from different winemakers who don’t have the facilities to keep up with their volume. He then creates as many as 350 different wines. For Baileyana’s label, Roguenaut concentrates on the Firepeak Vineyards brand, using estate fruit from their Edna Valley property.
Edna Valley Vineyards, also owned by the Niven family, is the oldest winery in SLO and spurred initial interest in the area. Edna Valley, like many other SLO wineries, concentrates mostly on pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.
At Talley Vineyards, which also produces Bishop’s Peak, the family rules. Brian Talley’s grandfather started growing vegetables in Arroyo Grande Valley in 1948 and the family planted vineyards in 1982. For the Talley label, they use estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir; and get different fruit from warmer regions like Paso Robles for their fun, value-priced Bishop’s Peak label.
There are plenty of other quality-driven, up-and-coming SLO wineries to be on the look out for, namely Domaine Alfred, Tolosa and Laetitia. With additional winemakers moving into the neighborhood, we’re sure to hear of others in the future. It’ll be nice to find additional prizes at the bottom of this box; maybe I’ll collect the whole set.
Recommended San Luis Obispo Wines
Baileyana 2001 Chardonnay San Luis Obispo/Monterey Elegant, smooth-talking chard. Smells like buttered mashed potatoes, and opens up into citrus, minerals and pear. Very, very nice wine for the price. $18. 3 stars.1/2
Baileyana 2001 Pinot Noir Firepeak Vineyards Edna Valley “Ooh, ooh, ooh” was all I could say. Gorgeous, soft, ripe cherries with roses and a straight-up dose of acids and tannins. Age-able and impressive. $38. 4 stars.
Bishop’s Peak 2001 Zinfandel Paso Robles Raspberry jammy, with lush blueberry and a slight hint of green pepper. Not an over-the-top, alcoholic zin, but balanced. The flavor finish lasts forever in your mouth. $16. 4 stars.
Talley 2002 Chardonnay Arroyo Grande A solid chardonnay if I’ve ever had one. Melon, tropical fruit and slightly buttered vanilla that creates fun for the tongue. $27. 4 stars.
Edna Valley Vineyards 2002 Syrah Paragon Vineyard A wine for everyday that you won’t tire of drinking. Wild cherry peppered with spice, and a touch of freshly polished leather. Affordable and medium-bodied. $15. 3 1/2 stars.