The Best Vineyard Views in California
Extreme geography is the modern mantra of wine, but nothing is more challenging and beautiful than vineyards with ocean views. From treatises on the influence of fog to mission statements about steady seaside breezes, “coastal” has been a frequently repeated buzzword over the years.
As it turns out, there are several vineyards along California’s Central Coast within sight of the Pacific Ocean. These discoveries come at a strategic time, as there’s a movement to establish a new coastal appellation in San Luis Obispo County. Being proposed this year to the federal government as the SLO Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), the district would include county vineyards on the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
This new AVA would comprise everything from Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley in the south to the coastal flanks around Cambria and San Simeon, just outside of Paso Robles in the north. The bulk of plantings are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the region also contains healthy doses of other varieties, like Syrah, Grenache and Riesling.
Coastal-designated appellations exist in Northern California, but this proposal is the first from the Central Coast.
There’s a kinship of sorts in these extreme settings, whether in SLO or to points north and south. The resulting wines aren’t always similar, ranging from rich and juicy to light and lithe. But the vines all compete against the elements for survival. That struggle requires meticulous effort in the vineyard and passion in the winery.
And that formula usually results in excellent wines.
—Photos by Brian P. Hall
Aaron Jackson, raised in Cayucos, launched Aaron Wines with a focus on Petite Sirah from Paso Robles in 2002, when he was just 19.
Over the next decade, Jackson, who trained in winemaking at Cal Poly and earned his Master’s degree from The University of Adelaide in Australia, worked for producers like Four Vines and ONX Wine.
It was during this period that he realized that there were a handful of extreme coastal vineyards throughout San Luis Obispo County. These include Riven Rock (between Cambria and Paso Robles), Spanish Springs (just behind Pismo Beach) and Derbyshire (bottled as Derby West), where grapes struggle against the salty air to get ripe on the gently sloping coastal foothills just south of San Simeon.
In 2012, he launched a brand to showcase these properties, Aequorea Wines (Latin for “of the sea”), producing very structured, powerful wines.
Early one morning during the 2015 harvest, Jackson hiked up a steep hillside to look out over the Riven Rock Vineyard and toward the fog banks at the edge of the Pacific.
“It makes me think of David Hirsch and guys like that who were going out on a limb to farm really inhospitable places,” says Jackson. The challenges include a constant fight against mildew, incredibly low yields, and, since coastal areas are more temperate, ensuring that the grapevines go dormant.
“We have to dig real deep into our viticultural knowledge base, and black magic, too,” says Jackson. “The vines are definitely not stoked, but there’s a distinctiveness to these sites.”
He’s become the young, energetic face of the movement to establish the SLO Coast AVA, which is also supported by veteran winemakers like Brian Talley. Jackson believes that there are a wealth of reasons why this new appellation makes sense.
“I grew up here,” says Jackson, “so this is really about exploring and pioneering my backyard.”
In 2002, Don and Charlene Stolo found a 53-acre farm just east of Cambria that was home to nine struggling acres of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay.
“The truthful irony is that we bought it to retire,” says Don, an Orange County cabinetmaker whose only prior experience with wine was drinking it. “It’s a beautiful spot, but the dang thing had a vineyard. It was a mess—even the front of the barn didn’t exist—but I could see it had good bones. I’ve never worked harder in my life.”
The Stolos launched their brand in 2004, and have since planted another 20 acres, including some Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. They also built a sleek winery and tasting room, which required seven years of wrangling with the California Coastal Commission over permits. Winemaker Nicole Bertotti Pope produces about 1,500 cases a year, including a remarkable Syrah whose gamey and peppery notes are reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie.
“It’s tough to grow Syrah up here,” says Don. “But when you get it, it’s good.”Don and Charlene’s daughter, Maria Stolo Bennetti, left a career as a wine broker in San Francisco to become general manager in 2008. She’s a primary player in the appellation proposal, and she also created the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, which links together 10 tasting rooms and wineries from Morro Bay to Cambria.
Looking out over their family’s bucolic spread, Maria says, “It’s about what we had hoped it would be when we started.”
In 2013, Mike Sinor decided it was time to buy his own land and turn his Sinor-LaVallee brand, which he founded in 1997, into an all-estate program.
His choice: The Bassi Ranch, just over a mile from the ocean and perched alongside Highway 101 just inland of Shell Beach. Why? “The proximity to the ocean,” he says, explaining that soils are oceanic and that the ridge that sits in front of the vineyard blocks the weather just enough so that the grapes can ripen.
“I just felt I really could make some special wines here,” says Sinor, who found success working for brands like Byron, Domaine Alfred (now Chamisal) and Ancient Peaks, where he is director of winemaking.
The vineyard, originally planted in 2001, is now 30 acres, half devoted to Pinot Noir and the remainder split between Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Albariño. Sinor stopped selling fruit to other wineries in the 2015 vintage—fortuitous timing, since yields were so low that he didn’t have much to work with anyway. It now all goes into the 2,000 or so cases of his own wine, which he sells at his Avila Beach tasting room.
Sinor is diligently exploring the vineyard’s potential by varying his picking dates, making multiple lots and producing both brooding and brisk styles of wine.
“From these 15 acres, I made 44 Pinot Noirs,” says Sinor of his one-ton lot experiments. The best results are shared with wine club members through a white label (the lighter wines) and a black label (darker ones).
“My wine club members get to watch me figure out this vineyard,” he says. “They’re definitely liking both.”
Ben Lomond’s Best
In 1945, Amos Beauregard, a retired Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy, purchased an old 13-acre vineyard near Bonny Doon. His descendants continued to farm the land and expanded their vineyard holdings closer to the ocean. They sold grapes while building a small grocery empire.
In 1983, viticulturist Jim Beauregard, who’s planted about 350 acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, roughly 30 percent of the entire appellation, established the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA.
In 2000, his son, Ryan Beauregard, the great-grandson of Amos, started making wine under the family name.
The most extreme site is the 17-acre Coast Grade Vineyard, where Pinot Noir vines grow about 1½ miles from the ocean at 1,300 feet. “The mountain pops out of the ocean,” says Ryan.
He also makes wines from the original Beauregard Ranch (12 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and the family’s Bald Mountain Vineyard (33 acres of Chardonnay).
In 2008, the family purchased the facility and tasting room of Randall Grahm’s original Bonny Doon Winery, and now use about 80% of the fruit they farm. “We’re very traditional,” says Ryan. “We just stick with what works. We’re very in tune with the land.”
John Benedetti used to make beer to share with winemaker friends in the Santa Cruz Mountains until they suggested that he try winemaking in 2008. He soon founded Sante Arcangeli, named after his great-grandfather who settled in Pescadero, site of Benedetti’s tasting room.
In 2010, he discovered the five-acre Split Rail Vineyard. Originally planted for David Bruce in the late 1980s, it stares at the Monterey Bay from about 1,700 feet in the mountains above Corralitos and Watsonville.
Within five minutes of seeing the vineyard, Benedetti was ready to buy the fruit, even before he learned it was planted with cuttings Martin Ray acquired from Paul Masson.
He’s steadily built a portfolio of coastal sites, including the nearby Lester Family Vineyard, the Beauregard’s Bald Mountain north of Santa Cruz and sites in the Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast.
“They all have that fog blanket that creeps up from the ocean, cools things down and lets me make the Pinot I want to make,” says Benedetti of his lean, fresh, high-acid wines. “I like letting these sites show their cool-climate nature.”
High in the Santa Ynez Mountains above the seaside hamlet of Carpinteria lies Paredon Vineyard, where views extend from Santa Barbara’s waterfront to Anacapa Island across the channel.
Planted in 2001 with Grenache and Syrah, the vineyard is tended by Ryan Carr, who pours his namesake wine as well as the Paredon brand at his winery and tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara.
Climatic conditions present numerous challenges. Yields are less than one ton per acre, the mildew pressure is constant and the vines must be tricked into dormancy with two prunings.
Though confronted with difficulties regarding growing grapes on Paredon Vineyard, Carr remains determined. “The hope is to get it in track for a proper season,” he says. The rewards from this site come in the form of some of his best wine: “The Grenache is incredible.”
West of Sta. Rita Hills
Winemakers in the Sta. Rita Hills love to claim how close to the ocean they are, but there are two vineyards closer than all of them: Duvarita and Cebada. They sit west of the appellation, closer to the city of Lompoc, and with views of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s seaside rocket-launching towers.
Several winemakers source Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from the 26-acre Duvarita Vineyard, including veterans like Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard and up-and-comers like Graham Tatomer and Ernst Storm.
It was planted in 2000 by Doug Braun of Presidio Winery, but purchased by Brook Williams (previously of Zaca Mesa, Kendall Jackson and Beringer) and his siblings in 2012. He’s also planting a new vineyard next door.
“It is at a higher elevation than Duvarita and has a nice view of the ocean,” says Williams.
The nearly eight acres of Pinot and Chardonnay vines planted in 2005 are only part of the equation at Sandy Newman’s Cebada Vineyard, where blueberries, green tea, mulberries, hardy kiwis and other crops pay most of the bills. A passionate plant lover whose winery is in her garage, Newman also makes a sweet yet zesty blueberry wine and plans to put in some Pinot Meunier for her sparkling program.
She enjoys the challenge. “Doing horticulture is what wine is,” she says.
- 1The Local’s Ocean Ways
- 2Hidden Behind Cambria
- 3Betting on Bassi
- 4Points North
- 5Points South