California’s main coastal freeway, U.S Highway 101, serves as the artery that connects Los Angeles and San Francisco. Barreling through Pismo Beach at 65 miles per hour, travelers hardly can be aware that some of the Central Coast’s most coveted wine regions lie just a mile or so east.
These areas, the Arroyo Grande Valley and the Edna Valley, are exceptional examples of cool-climate growing regions.
As always in California, geography shapes climate destiny.
Just to the inland north of the Arroyo Grande and Edna valleys, Paso Robles can be baking hot in summer.
However, when you drive south through the dramatic Cuesta Grade and cross the coastal mountains, the hills level off around Morro Bay. Suddenly, just around a bend, there it is—the Pacific Ocean, massive, blue and coolly pristine.
An Ocean of Difference
The prevailing westerly winds that sweep across the Pacific bring in moist, cool air year-round, providing summertime’s “natural air conditioning.” In July, the average high in Arroyo Grande Village is just 75 degrees, with nighttime temps falling to the low 50s.
The Arroyo Grande appellation does, however, extend far enough inland to get very hot. Here, warm-climate varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are grown. Yet, there are few wineries, and quality has not been definitively established.
The region is young as far as grape-growing goes. Edna Valley became an AVA in 1987; Arroyo Grande in 1990.
For the previous century, both areas were viticultural backwaters. Their rolling fields were planted to row crops or were pastureland. But a few pioneers, sensing the possibilities, eventually succeeded in putting both appellations on the map.
In the Arroyo Grande, one of the first was the French Champagne house of Maison Deutz, which planted 300 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay close to the coast starting in 1982. Back then, people believed that sparkling wine would be a big seller in America, especially as the Millennium approached.
However, Americans did not fall in love with sparkling wine as an everyday drink, preferring to reserve it for New Year’s Eve and weddings. Maison Deutz gave up, and the property passed into other hands. But the grapes remained.
Today, the resulting Laetitia Vineyard & Winery is the appellation’s biggest producer, crafting high-quality Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in addition to sparkling wines.
Not far away, Talley Vineyards belongs to a farming family that arrived in the valley in the early 1940s. They successfully grew beans, cauliflower and broccoli, but in the early 1980s, added grapevines.
Brian Talley, the third generation, recalls how his father planted every variety he could find, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling, because he wasn’t sure what would work.
It turned out that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourished.
Today, Talley’s bottlings are among the best in California. The winery has done more than anyone else to boost the area’s reputation among serious connoisseurs.
Following the Mission Trail
Grape-growing in the Edna Valley dates back to the Spanish missionaries. Its modern era began in 1973, when the Goss family planted their Chamisal vineyard, named after a white-flowered plant that grew on the chilly, windswept plain.
The winery went through a transition, briefly becoming Domaine Alfred before reverting back to Chamisal Vineyards. About the same time, the Niven family began their Paragon Vineyards. That little startup launched a family of wineries, including Baileyana and Tangent.
Nowadays, there are only three wineries in the Arroyo Grande, and about 13 in the Edna Valley, making these two of the smaller coastal appellations. (The Arroyo Grande, however, is about twice the size of Edna Valley.)
A Tale of Two Valleys
Both valleys are cool, with Arroyo Grande being slightly warmer, although it depends where you are with respect to the air flow. The grapes and wines of choice remain Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
In general, Edna Valley offers the purest fruit. Few wines grown in California possess such a telltale signature of varietal typicity and juicy acidity.
Indeed, Edna Valley is a hotbed of the unoaked wine movement, especially in whites; they’re so rich, they hardly need barrel influences.
Tangent has enjoyed wild success with stainless steel-fermented, screw-topped Albariño, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Edna Valley wines also are often values—their affordability, deliciousness and low alcohol make them sommelier favorites.
Edna Valley does have one outlier, Alban Vineyards. Winemaker John Alban, having fallen in love with the wines of the Rhône Valley while a student at UC Davis, began planting Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier in 1990, followed a year later by Grenache.
Giving Rhône a New Home
The wines have enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim, which has sent their prices soaring. There are only a few “cult” wineries in California known for Rhône varieties, but Alban surely tops the list.
Talley and Laetitia account for nearly all the production from Arroyo Grande Valley, although a few wineries are lucky enough to be able to buy fruit from Talley, and occasionally from Laetitia.
Arroyo Grande Pinot Noirs tend to be firmer, darker and slightly heavier than those from Edna Valley, due to the extra warmth and, possibly, heavier soils. They also tend to be more expensive. But an Arroyo Grande Pinot, well-stored, will reward aging.
Most wineries have tasting rooms, although beyond tasting, there’s little for the tourist to do in either Edna or Arroyo Grande valleys. The Nine Sisters—distinctive volcanic cones that dot the landscape—are favorites among photographers and rock climbers. Nearby Morro Bay, with its eye-catching, 581-foot volcanic plug rising from the sea, is a big tourist draw.
Of Beaches and B&Bs
Down the coast, Avila Beach is one of those old, slightly funky beach towns that retains an air of sleepy opulence. It boasts many high-quality resorts and spas. The most charming village in the region, Arroyo Grande, offers hints of old California with B&Bs, wine bars and restaurants.
The area’s top wine-oriented event is the two-day World of Pinot Noir (WOPN), held every March (and co-sponsored by Wine Enthusiast). Activities center in and around the upscale Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, poised on a bluff overlooking rocky crags and white sand beaches.
WOPN (pronounced “woppin” by adherents) has become the premier Pinot Noir festival in California, attracting top producers from around the world.