Looking over lush grapevines from a shady winery patio, SLO Wine Country Association executive director Heather Muran described a recent visit from an internationally regarded wine critic.
It was Josh Raynolds’ first-ever visit to San Luis Obispo’s wine country for his first-ever comprehensive tasting of the region’s wines for Vinous. When he was done, Muran said, he vowed to come again next year and every one after.
“Why haven’t I discovered this before?” Raynolds exclaimed.
It’s a common reaction among visitors who find their way to the San Luis Obispo wine region. With just 30 wineries, it’s relatively tiny compared to the much larger — and more visible from the highway — wine regions to the north and south of San Luis Obispo. By comparison, Paso Robles is home to about 300 wineries.
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“We’re a blip compared to that,” Muran says. “You can take the highway right through here and never know you’re right next to wine country.”
But word is getting out. Wine Enthusiast magazine named San Luis Obispo one of its top 10 wine destinations for 2018.
Local wineries are luring visitors with upgraded amenities and new tasting experiences. And an effort to encompass vineyards along the county’s coast from San Simeon to Nipomo promises to further highlight the region’s cool-climate wines.
“People are discovering what locals have long known,” said Muran, whose organization serves as a trade and marketing association for San Luis Obispo-area wineries. “And the region just continues to blossom.”
Small but dynamic
The modern era of winemaking in San Luis Obispo County dates to the early 1970s — 200 years after the priests of Mission San Luis Obispo grew grapes to make sacramental wines — and the local wine industry hasn’t changed dramatically since.
The vineyards for what are now Wolff Vineyards, as well as Chamisal, Baileyana and other Niven family wines, were all planted near San Luis Obispo in the early 1970s, establishing the core of the Edna Valley.
The region became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, followed by the neighboring Arroyo Grande Valley a few years later. Over three decades, the number of San Luis Obispo-area wineries has grown to about 30.
The past few years have seen new developments that are drawing new attention.
In 2017, both Tolosa Winery and Edna Valley Vineyard unveiled multi-million-dollar renovations with upscaled decor and expanded spaces for wine club members and other VIPs. They’ve both added new visitor experiences including a barrel-tasting loft at Tolosa and food pairings at Edna Valley.
Next up on the renovation front is Center of Effort, the Corbett Canyon Road property that was the region’s first modern winery. It’s now undergoing a complete transformation under owners Bill and Cheryl Swanson, who acquired the winery a decade ago.
The extensive project, which includes major capital improvements to the production facilities, is slated to be completed at the end of 2018.
It aims to retain the character of the original buildings while modernizing the space with a new 7,500-square-foot hospitality suite with private tasting rooms, conference space and a demonstration kitchen as well as outdoor courtyards and patios. All are designed to maximize mountain and vineyard views.
Several other wineries are embracing the area’s temperate weather and scenic views with expanded or improved patio space. And weekly music series have proliferated.
New wineries have joined the scene, too. Biddle Ranch Vineyard debuted its modern farmhouse-style tasting room on 20 acres at the corner of Route 227 and Biddle Ranch Road in 2016.
Meanwhile, little clusters of tasting rooms have opened in San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach and the Village of Arroyo Grande, making it easy for visitors to sample wines from exciting newcomers including Timbre Winery and Croma Vera and industry veterans such as Sinor LaVallee’s Mike Sinor and Qupé’s Bob Lindquist.
Cool is hot
It’s not just the visitor experience drawing attention. It’s the wine, too.
Those in the know have been calling San Luis Obispo wine country one of California’s best-kept secrets for more than a decade, but it seems the rest of the wine world is finally catching on.
Two wines from the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys made Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 wines of the year the last couple years: Talley Vineyard’s 2015 Oliver’s Vineyard chardonnay at No. 45 in 2017 and Center of Effort’s 2014 Effort pinot noir at No. 38 in 2016.
Niven Family Wine Estates’ Tangent 2014 Paragon Vineyard sauvignon blanc made the magazine’s Top 100 Best Buys list in 2016.
Two elite publications, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, conducted their first-ever comprehensive tastings of San Luis Obispo wineries in the past year or so, a strong indicator the area has arrived as a world-class wine region.
Meanwhile, wine and travel writers from around the country have been hailing the region as storybook wine country.
The attention is driven in part by spirited outreach efforts from Muran and the SLO Wine Country Association — though she is quick to point out such efforts would be for naught if the quality wasn’t there.
“They see our people, the quality for the price and the overall experience,” Muran said. “It’s one of a kind.”
Another factor? Cool-climate wines have come into vogue in the national culinary and sommelier scenes, and the San Luis Obispo coast is about as cool as it gets.
Here, cool climate and coastal influence go hand in hand, with vineyards an average of only 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Ocean breezes and coastal fog make for a long, cool growing season that produces crisp chardonnays, succulent pinot noirs and racy exotic whites such as albariño, grüner veltliner and gewürztraminer.
“Coolest, closest, longest,” is John Niven’s shorthand for the region — as in, the coolest in the state, closest to the coast, with the longest growing season. He’s Niven Family Wines Estates’ vice president of sales and marketing.
It’s a difference people can taste in the wines: vibrant mouthfeel, energetic acidity and long finishes.
“On the edge of ripeness, you can achieve greatness,” said Sinor-LaVallee winemaker Mike Sinor.
It’s that coastal connection that got winemakers inside and outside San Luis Obispo to consider expanding.
Promising vineyards keep popping up just outside the borders of the two AVAs. Bassi Vineyard in Avila Valley, which Sinor purchased in 2013 and been revamping, boasts views of the Pacific from its highest points, while Spanish Springs Vineyard is a straight 1.5-mile shot back Price Canyon from the oceanfront.
Others lie farther north, including Stolo Family Vineyards in Cambria — whose 2014 Estate syrah also made Wine Enthusiast’s 2017 Top 100, at No. 27 — and North Coast vineyards tapped by Paso Robles winemaker Aaron Jackson for his Aequorea label.
Wines from these spots invigorate the “ultra-coastal” chatter among oenophiles but are stuck in somewhat of a no-man’s land — unable to identify their origin on labels beyond “San Luis Obispo County” and unable on their own to make much noise in the wider marketplace.
“We’re so similar in climate and geography, and we all make the same things,” Muran said. But there was no easy way to promote two separate AVAs plus all the outliers.
So a few of the vintners, spearheaded by Jackson, Sinor and Talley Vineyards’ Brian Talley, banded together to petition the federal government to create a new AVA encompassing the length of the county’s coastline inland to the Santa Lucia mountains. The Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys would become sub-AVAs to this new SLO Coast region.
“We’re basically doing the opposite of Paso,” Muran said, which was established as an AVA — the state’s largest — in 1983, then carved into 11 smaller sub-AVAs in 2014.
The SLO Coast application is in the queue, though it could be years before it’s officially approved.
That isn’t preventing SLO Wine Country from rebranding its efforts under the SLO Coast Wine banner and broadening its umbrella to promote coastal wines and wineries from San Simeon to Nipomo.
“SLO Coast wine,” Muran said, “is something you’re going to be hearing more about.”