“These are fun wines,” commented Jim Winston.   Winston was leading a tasting at DB Fine Wines in New Canaan of six reds and three whites from California’s Central Coast wine region. Driving the point home, he called them “smile wines.” 

Central Coast vineyards overlooking the Salinas Valley

It’s a day’s drive from one end to the other of this massive and diverse region – from the Santa Cruz mountains just south of San Francisco all the way to Santa Barbara. With valley and hillside vineyards, coastal and inland acreage, and a wide range of temperature and rainfall, just about every variety of wine is produced there.

In the north, Ridge Vineyards in Santa Cruz makes Monte Bello Cabernet, a sought-after cult wine. At the southern end, pinot noir and chardonnay are the stars. In between are enclaves of Rhône varietals, pinot noir microclimates, and mile after mile of commercially farmed valley floor vineyards for the big brands. 

Morgan Central Coast wines

Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to visit many parts of the Central Coast, sampling the wines and hospitality.  

We memorably visited Ridge to taste their rare cabernet along with their famous zinfandels and stopped by Bonny Doon’s mountain tasting room to sample Randall Graham’s quirky wines. 

One beautiful afternoon we picnicked among the Morgan Winery pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands overlooking the Salinas Valley. Our host explained how the unique microclimate and exposure created some of the best fruit in the Central Coast. 

Around Paso Robles, Rhône varieties like syrah, grenâche and roussanne thrive. Tablas Creek Vineyard, with a partnership connection to the Rhône Valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, makes some of the Coast’s most highly-praised old-world style blends along with new-world varietal bottlings.  

Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County at the southern end of the Central Coast, is populated with tasting rooms from around the region. 

There are well-known coastal destinations like Pebble Beach, Monterey, and Carmel.  Inland, small towns like Los Olivos and Paso Robles have become chic wine-country hot-spots. There are fabulous restaurants and hotels across the region. 

The view from the famous Lodge at Pebble Beach overlooking the 18th hole

At the tasting, Winston was showcasing the diversity of grapes and winemaking in the region.  “There’s nothing this evening that will challenge Napa,” he explained. “But the wines are enjoyable and have personality.” 

Three of the wines were made from Rhône varieties. As Winston explained, before the ascendancy of Bordeaux, Rhône wines, particularly the syrah-based wines of the North, were regarded as the greatest wines in France. These grapes thrive on the Central Coast.

Winston had three top picks:  

Railsback, Frères Comme Vous Voulez Rouge ($43), a ,grenâche/syrah blend from the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard. Winston called it, “A complete wine where less is more.”  

Stolpman “Crunchy Roastie” Syrah ($32) from Ballard Canyon, an excellent example, with the typical “meaty” character and a complex aroma that invites a sip. 

Reading through pinot noir

He was thrilled with the old world style of Presqu’ile, Santa Barbara County pinot noir ($29).  “You should be able to read through it,” he said of pinot noir’s naturally light color. Despite being pale, the wine was complex, elegant and packed with flavor. 

Sean Minor cabernet from Paso Robles ($20) was “a happy wine” – light, fresh, “juicy and friendly.” (I ordered a few.)  

Of the three whites tasted, I got excited about Bishop’s Peak, San Luis Obispo chardonnay ($18).  This burgundy-style chard – mineral with no oak – was balanced, fresh and drinkable. ( I ordered more.)

Lots of different wines can be made on the Central Coast, where innovative, dedicated wine makers are trying their hand and making impressive wines. 

Give me accessible wines like these any day, wines with character, style and a sense of place.  And if you get a chance to visit, grab it!

Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.