The Central Coast prides itself on being off the beaten path, even though this is becoming less and less the case as the area gains notoriety and vineyards continue to sprout up like wildflowers. One can easily find wines of equal caliber to their better-known Napa and Sonoma counterparts, but here you’ll find a much more laid back, less touristy feel. The area offers breathtaking rolling green hills, cool ocean breezes, Mediterranean-esque weather and rich soil—making it an ideal spot for growing grapes. [While Santa Barbara is considered central coast, there are a ton of wineries and we’ve decided to focus our attention a little further north where you are truly “off the beaten path.”]
Start your journey in Santa Cruz, where Bonny Doon Vineyard is putting blends on the map. Its flagship wine, Le Cigare Volant (flying cigar in French) is an earthy, richly perfumed red wine blend that emulates a Chateauneuf du Pape blend from the Southern Rhone Valley. Randal Grahm, owner and executive winemaker, depicts the current vintage as having “deep ruby and bright purple highlights, aromas of spiced meat, kirsch, mushrooms truffles and dark chocolate, with tastes of red fruit, sweet spice and an extended savory finish.” Bonny Doon’s multiple Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varietals were all inspired by Grahm’s world travels. If he can’t find something he likes in this country, he’ll start making it himself. Bonny Doon were one of the first vineyards to use screw caps and took on the ambitious target of making all their wines 100% biodynamic. Tasting room manager Ed Moya says that “Grahm realized great wines are made first and foremost in the vineyard, and so he started treating it as a self-sustaining ecosystem where everything is harmonious with nature.” Stop by its full-scale restaurant, the Cellar Door Cafe, at which Chef Charlie Parker (protégé of Iron Chef winner David Kinch) serves local farm to table food and fresh meats butchered by Parker himself.
Continue south to Monterey’s Tudor Wines, at which you will find a hush hush classic: perfectly balanced Pinot Noir that is a gem to stumble upon. This ripe but not over ripe wine is what Tudor describes as a “brightly correct Pinot that actually tastes like a real Pinot, not a Syrah.” Critics have been known to give big points to Pinots that taste like Syrah, but Tudor is going for the real deal: a Pinot that doesn’t have too much alcohol, but rather a silky mouth feel with voluptuous fruit flavors. Describing his winemaking approach, Tudor says he didn’t consider cost or hitting a certain price point. “We’re just trying to make the best Pinot. We only want perfect fruit from the best-managed sites.” You can’t cut corners with Pinot, as it lowers the quality. This is why Tudor uses what they call the “Rolls Royce” of barrels from Francois Freres, whose extra tight grain wood has been dried for three years. Staying true to the authentic Pinot fermentation process, the vineyard uses small scale, hand punch down, open-top fermenters. As Tudor says, “winemaking should just be about making sure the wine doesn’t go bad. When winemakers try to get artistic is when they really screw it up.” You can almost taste the Tudor philosophy when you taste the Pinot—that good winemaking simply means not screwing up good fruit and letting the wine make itself.
Tudor’s new tasting room recently opened in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Its flagship wine, the Tudor Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir is made exclusively from vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County) and can be found in many of the top restaurants and resorts in the area including The Lodge at Pebble Beach and The Inn at Spanish Bay.
Further down the coast in Edna Valley, Alban Vineyards makes what many consider to be the best Viognier in California. As one of the original Rhone-style wineries in the United States, Alban has helped to bring Viognier out of obscurity, claiming its rightful place in the American wine drinker’s lexicon. This white Rhone varietal is full-bodied, fresh tasting, with nice balance, depth and concentrated flavors. Remembered for its complex aromas hinting of apricot and peaches, this wine is just the right amount of floral with low to moderate acidity. Their cool climate location and use of malolactic fermentation helps to counteract the high acidity, high alcohol and over-luxuriant flavors that Viogniers tend to be chastised for.
8575 Orcutt Road
Arroyo Grande, C.A. 93420
Bonny Doon Vineyard
328 Ingall Street
Santa Cruz, C.A. 95060
Tasting Room: 831/425-4518
Cellar Door Café: 831/425-6771
3905 State Street
Suite 7, Box 118
Santa Barbara, C.A. 93105