The Wine Blog

Savor the Central Coast

October 21, 2013


by: Amy Ullman

What does “California wine” bring to mind? Cult Cabs of Napa? Sinful Zins of Lodi? Sparklers of Los Carneros?

California is legion with legendary, high profile wine regions, but some of our favorites reside in the big ‘ol undersung appellation of California’s Central Coast.

Read on for five fun facts about this deliciously diverse region.

It’s Long. Really long.

California’s Central Coast stretches from San Francisco all the way to Santa Barbara county, spanning some 250 miles of coastline and 100,000 acres of vines.

How, pray tell, could a region that large maintain ANY stylistic consistency?

The one thing that all of these regions have in common is their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, they all feel its cooling influence.


It Ain’t So New World, Afterall

Screen_Shot_2013_10_21_at_1.19.38_PM088f31bdd7a1The first vines in Santa Barbara were planted in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries who sought to grow sacramental wine. However, thanks to the 3 consecutive punches to the US industry—Phylloxera disease, the Great Depression and Prohibition—the region wasn’t associated with fine wines until the 1970s. (Don’t worry, the vines the missionaries originally planted were nothing to write home about.)

Santa Barbara is the Coolest 

Screen_Shot_2013_10_21_at_1.24.30_PM96be826e3610Oh, the wonders of the micro-climate! No need to check a map, Santa Barbara county is indeed located in the southernmost part of the state, yet the AVAs within the county—Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and the Santa Ynez Valley—boast some of the coolest temperatures in California. The secret, according to Laura Booras, General Manager of Riverbench Wines, is Santa Barbara’s “unusual orientation.  The valleys in the county sit between two mountain ranges which run east to west instead of the more typical north to south, funneling in cool ocean air and breezes.”

They Say Ciao to Stereotypes


Are you ready to have your mind blown? Some growers in the Central Coast are now experimenting with Northern Italian grape varieties that are rarely seen outside of their home country, including Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Refosco, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Sangiovese. These grapes will thrive because, according to Steve Clifton, wine-maker at Palmina Wines, the AVAs of Santa Barbara are mirror images of the wine regions in Northern Italy.

They grow way more than Pinot

Santa Barbara is famous for its Pinot Noir, made famous by the film Sideways (AKA the film that created a generation of Merlot haters). The Pinots from this area are fleshier and fruitier than their French and Oregonian counterparts, creating wines that are spectacular even when young. And like a slightly safer version of Bonnie and Clyde, Pinot Noir rarely goes anywhere without its partner in crime Chardonnay! The Central Coast is no exception to this rule. The cool climates of Santa Barbara allow for the creation of lean, elegant, and smoky Chardonnays that are generous on minerals and complexity.


Yet these two are just the start of the grapes that thrive here.

Thanks to the great diversity of soil types (clay, loam gravel, limestone etc), the Central Coast has something for everyone. For example, warmer areas of the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles kill it with Bordelaise varieties. The outcome is beautiful fruit that shows more restraint than their neighbors to the north in Napa.

Other warm weather varieties fare equally well in the area. The Syrah here is plush, jammy, ripe, and even more elegant when blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre. This holds true for white varieties as well: Viognier, the darling of the Northern Rhone appellation of Condrieu, has found a home away from home in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The pairing was so perfect that even “The King of Condrieu”, wine-maker Yves Cuilleron, decided to partner with  Morgan Clendenon of Cold Heaven Cellars , known now as the”Queen of Viognier”, to produce a stellar example of this grape variety that combines Rhone and California grown grapes.

The wines of Piedmont owe much of their character to the cool weather of the Alps and the warmth of the Mediterranean, just as the Central Coast is greatly influenced by the cooling of the Pacific Ocean and the warmth of nearby desert winds. It is this tension and interplay of warm and cold that produces such stellar wines. Furthermore, Point Conception, the area where the Santa Barbara Channel meets the Pacific Ocean, marks the point at which the Alaskan and Chilean currents meet. The joining of these currents results in a lot of fog that blankets the vineyards, much like it does in the Piedmont. Looking for proof of the fog factor? Nebbiolo, the rockstar grape behind Barolo, Barbareso and Langhe, takes it’s name from the word “nebbia,” which is Italian for fog.

So there you have it: 5 enlightening and inspiring facts about one of our favorite wine regions. Now go get your sip on!

Amy_Ulllman_e1374835166279Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.