|We had half a case of zin, two bottles of viognier, three bottles of kick-ass syrah, a bottle of over-oaked chardonnay and a custom-made Styrofoam Buddha statue named Lenny. Thus adequately equipped, in the great tradition of Magellan, Lewis and Clark and the early astronauts, I, and resident Buddhist Mark "Swanky" Suwannakom, set off in a rented '97 Dodge Neon (i.e. Chariot of the Gods) to take on California's Central Coast.
If Napa is the conservative big brother of the wine industry and Sonoma is the more wild, creative younger brother, then surely the central coast is the bastard stepchild. Though equal in every way to its more famous relatives, the central coast lies in relative obscurity. Even the name "central coast" is an insult -- a vain attempt to pigeonhole 300 miles of coastline, three counties and 12 broad official viticultural regions into a nice simple phrase. I wish someone would tell me what warrants considering Paso Robles, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Olivos the same region. It's a pity too because there are some damn fine wines being made all over the central coast, and not all of it is Chardonnay.
DAY 1 - MONTEREY
The sun was out, our sunglasses were on, and we were flyin' up 101 on our way to Monterey. We didn't get the CD player option from the rental car company like we wanted, so instead of listening to classic Pixies we were forced to blast one of the many Spanish-language radio stations of Monterey County. As we twisted through the rolling hills I enlightened Swanky (the resident non-wine drinker) on "proper" wine etiquette. "Whenever possible," I told him, "use the phrase 'this wine has delightful undertones of ripe gooseberry on the palate.' And always get a very serious, contemplative look on your face as you take your first taste -- I recommended trying to remember the last time he saw anything funny on SNL. Also," I added, "use the word 'palate' as much as possible." Mark nodded, and I could tell he was ready.
With Lenny firmly attached to the dashboard and watching for trouble, we found our way through the country backroads to Paraiso Springs Vineyards, which sprawls 600 acres along the foothills of Salinas Valley. We were careful not to let the panoramic views, sweeping hillsides and clear topaz sky distract us from our mission -- we were there to drink wine! We must remain focused (for the sake of journalistic integrity of course). Paraiso Springs did not disappoint. Although all their white wines were good, the two standouts were clearly the pinot blancs (Monterey County and their Reserve).
The Monterey County pinot blanc almost demanded an indecent-exposure charge. As you drank it, the flavors started slowly, sneaking up on you until WHAM! It threw open the trenchcoat and showed you everything it had. Then ran away. Mark, who's from L.A. and used to this sort of thing, was forced to blurt out, "Pinot blanc is awesome!" Paraiso Springs' reserve pinot blanc was equally intriguing but very different. Assistant winemaker, family member and all around cool guy, David Fleming, explained that they use a different block of grapes for the reserve wine, different fermentation techniques and new French oak. They also leave the grapes on the vine much longer for higher ripeness because, as with Michael Jordan, 'It's The Hang Time Baby!'
On the red side of things there were some clear standouts. Paraiso Springs is excited about syrah in the way all winemakers should be excited about the wines they produce. And they have good reason to be. Their syrah is rich with berry and plum flavors that are accentuated with just a touch of oak. (Note: Although there were only 200 cases of the 1996 produced, production is being increased, and future vintages should be much more readily available).
The final exceptional wine we tried was both unique and yummy (yummy = very high praise). Paraiso Springs makes a late-harvest pinot noir which, we found, comes with official instructions. According to Fleming, "Late-harvest pinot noir is best enjoyed when served over your significant other." Good to know.
With this sensual knowledge still burning in our minds, Mark and I fled the Salinas Valley to further explore Monterey County. Our next stop brought us to Chateau Julian and a screeching halt -- screeching because Mark and I got a little too involved in the Spanish love ballad on the radio and maybe, just maybe, I was going a tad too fast.
Okay, I'll be honest. As we approached the winery from the parking lot, Mark and I were troubled by the beautiful chateau-style building before us. French Chateaus in California are like bear tracks. If you see tracks there's a good chance there's a bear lurking in the bushes nearby. Likewise, if you see a French-style chateau in California wine country, there's a good chance there'll be wine snobs around lurking in their Lexuses (less viscious then bears, but just as scary).
Luckily Mark and I had nothing to worry about. Chateau Julian has achieved a most delicate and impressive level of elegance without being pretentious, this being reflected in the attitude of those working there and the wide variety of wines that they make. Among Chateau Julian's nationally distributed labels, the standouts were the 1995 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (not to be confused with their more limited production private reserve wines) and the 1995 Emerald Bay Zinfandel, which was filled with jammy, fruity goodness.
Regarding the private reserve wines, they were all great. But I especially recommend the trebbiano as a nice alternative for those tired of drinking cabernet and merlot. And any one of the private reserves go excellently with Chateau Julian's line of privately-made cigars. (How's that for a segue?) The Chateau Julian walk-in humidor is a must-see, and any one of the cigars is a great way to end an evening in Monterey. Trust us.
With cigars in pocket, Mark and I were ready to make the final wine stop of the trip at A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row. This place features wines from more than 30 local wineries, most of which we didn't have a chance to see. What better way to end the day than to drink wines from the wineries that we'd missed. (We could think of a few better ways to close the day, but the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders were nowhere to be found, and where in the hell were we going to find a slip-and-slide at this hour?)
A Taste of Monterey claims to be "One of California's most beautiful tasting rooms." This is like Bill Gates claiming that he has "a little money." One entire wall of the room offers plate-glass windows that provide an unobstructed view of the bay from Monterey to Santa Cruz. Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe it. While admiring this view, General Manager Robyn Rauh poured us a fabulous selection of Monterey County wines. Although all of the pours were impressive, the clear standout was the Pavona 1996 Pinot Blanc, which was yummy by itself but begged for a good seafood dish to really reach its full potential.
The sudden thought of seafood reminded us that, although we'd survived all day on wine, water and some little cubes of bread, it'd probably be a good idea to have some real food. Our uncanny knack for picking exceptional local food (and good directions from Robyn) took us to Peppers MexiCali Cafe, where we met Pavona Winery owner Richard Kanakaris and his girlfriend Hazel. I was impressed not only by the large selection of food (a full page of just specials) but also by the restaurant's winelist, which noted very reasonable prices. Despite the diversity of choices, Mark and I chose the Jamaican curry prawns with mango salsa fresca, which caused us to wonder if we hadn't been spending just a little too much time together. These troubling thoughts aside, we enjoyed a bottle of Bernardus 1995 Sauvignon Blanc and a bottle of 1994 Pavona Zinfandel, which was provided by Richard. Overall, not bad for day one.
DAY 2 - PASO ROBLES
With the resiliency of youth, Mark and I arose to take on yet another grueling day of vino. Recent reconnaissance suggested Dover Canyon was the best place to start.
Whenever I'm near Paso Robles, Dover Canyon is a mandatory stop. They've got it all. Great white wine, incredible reds, a deli and, if you're lucky and your timing is right, bar-b-que compliments of winemaker/owner Dan Panico. The hand-picked eclectic deli includes fresh-baked breads, Danish havarti with caraway, imported aged provolone, quesa manchega (soft, firm Spanish cheese), pesto Jack, summer salami and smoked salmon. This, combined with the fab wines, creates a holistic wine-tasting experience.
Like any responsible crew of legitimate reporters we did our research ahead of time and had a highly selective hierarchy of places to go and people to see in order to provide the complete story. That's why our next stop in Paso Robles was Darkstar Winery to check out their "International Tacky Wall Clock Wall of Fame." As impressive as it was, owner/winemaker Norm (just Norm) promised us it was only the beginning.
To accentuate his clocks, Norm makes a small but impressive selection of great reds, including merlot, cabernet, zinfandel (which we didn't get to try) and Ricordati -- a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The selection of fine wines and impressive wall clocks presented Mark and me an opportunity to do an unprecedented wine/clock pairing.
It's our professional recommendation that the Darkstar 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon is best enjoyed while reading the time on the "young dancing Elvis" clock. The cab is all American (oak that is) and according to Norm gets better every day -- just like the real Elvis (who is still alive today -- we're quite sure of this). The Darkstar 1995 Merlot, which Norm refers lovingly to as his "little harlot," can only be fully appreciated while getting the time from one of his two Marilyn Monroe clocks -- a "dancing Marilyn" and a converted Marilyn Monroe record clock. The merlot is sexy and full-bodied but Norm claims sometimes slightly temperamental. The final wine/clock pairing would have to be his 1995 Ricordati with a Coo-Coo clock. Both have a traditional focus that yields highly detailed and complex experiences that you simply don't get with other lesser clocks/wines.
From Darkstar we made a necessary pilgrimage to Cider Creek, my favorite non-wine stop in all of California wine country. Cider Creek pursues excellence in all things related to apples -- with minor homage to other select fruits -- with impressive focus and creativity. They have apple tarts, apple fold-overs, apple nut bread, cherry cheese puffs, caramel apple crowns and other inspired confectionery creations. In addition, they have the best apple cider around, which you can get straight (for purists like me) or with cherry, raspberry, pomegranate or strawberry (for blatant hedonists like Mark). If you go wine tasting in Paso Robles and you don't stop here, the apple cider Gods will be very upset!
After stocking up on apple-inspired goodness, Mark and I drove like madmen to San Luis Obispo so we could make it to our final stop of the day, Claiborne & Churchill. This small winery makes Alsatian-style wines -- dry gewurztraminer, dry riesling and dry muscat. The operative word here, in case you missed it, is dry. Don't let the fact that 90 percent of California gewurztraminers and rieslings are made like pancake syrup deprive you of the experience of tasting these wonderful dry potables.
There are three reasons why everyone in America should be forced to try Alsatian-styled wines, especially from producers such as Claiborne & Churchill: 1) They provide unique flavors and components that you don't find in any other wines (the '96 C&C riesling has been described with "jasmine and pears"); 2) Alsatian-style wines go with foods that most other wines don't go with well (Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American -- especially the spicier versions of these) and 3) Because I said so, dammit! End of diatribe.
After a long day of wine drinking we decided we needed a couple of beers to wind down, so we headed to Spikes. Many people tell me, "No, I don't drink wine, I'm a beer drinker," as if combining beer and wine would be akin to some freakish, volatile science experiment. Either libation by itself is fine, but put them together and BANG!, it's lights out. Bullshit.
I love beer, and Spikes is my secret mistress of love. Wait, that didn't come out quite right. Oh well. Spikes has all the essentials for a relaxing evening -- beer and onion rings. They have more than 60 beers from around the world to choose from, and if you're planning to come back a couple of times, you can start working on your Spikes "Around The World" card. Upon downing 40 different beers, you can earn prestigious Spikes prizes -- 1 card = plaque and T-shirt; 3 cards = personalized mug; 5 cards = cooler mug, etc. (The next time you stop by Spikes, find the "WineBoy" plaque and think fondly of me.)
For those interested in something a little more romantic than a brew pub, there are two great options in San Luis Obispo. The first, and most economical, is to grab a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza from Palindromes and a bottle or two of your favorite zin and head to Montona DeOro state park to watch the sun set. Option number two is a stellar Italian dinner on Buena Tavolas' back patio. (Try to get Adam as your server.) Great food, great wine and killer ambiance.
DAY 3 - SANTA BARBARA
Zaca Mesa Winery epitomizes this laid back attitude while producing some of the coolest wines in Santa Barbara County. Zaca makes a wide variety of wines, but the focus in recent years has been on Rhones. They're also my pick for having one of the best wine clubs around and easy winners for the best voice mail system (805/688-9339). Their wine club consists mostly of premium, specialty wines that are only available to wine club members and offer a range of interesting varieties, such as mourvedre, cincault and grenache (the really good, big and red type) that you'd have a difficult time finding anywhere else. The club is free to join, and both the monthly and bi-monthly options are great deals that'll bring some of the best wines of the central coast to your door.
The town of Los Olivos is just a hop, skip and a jump (honest, we counted) down the road from Zaca Mesa. In my estimation Los Olivos is currently composed of art galleries, one-third delis and one-third winery tasting rooms (of smaller producers that don't have tasting rooms at a winery), which makes it a very interesting place to visit. Among the wineries represented downtown are Longoria, Andrew Murray, Los Olivos Vintners and the Los Olivos Tasting Room (home to wines from Au Bon Climat, Il Podre Dell Olivos, Vita Nova, The Hitching Post, Nichols, Qupe, Ojai, Lane Tanner and Kaylra). All these tasting rooms offer a wide selection of wines to help you wind down from your hectic weekend. More importantly though, they help you change your pattern of wine-food-wine-food-wine-food-wine to a more relaxing pattern of wine-food-wine-food-art-wine-food-wine. My recommendation to my t
raveling companion was, "It's all about syrah and pinot noir, baby!" The three must-try syrahs are the Andrew Murray, Qupe and Ojai. (If you can find the Bien Nacido reserve syrah from either Qupe or Ojai you're doubly lucky). For pinot noir, try Nichols, the Hitching Post and any wine from Lane Tanner. Good luck in Los Olivos. With 12 wineries in one block you might need it.
In need of more adventure, my companion and I traveled west to Sanford Winery. Reaching Sanford is like going on a mini-safari. First you have to drive out into the sparsely populated countryside between Buellton and Lompoc, where you experience acres of vineyards on your left. Then, you turn onto an unpaved, well-traveled dirt road and drive toward a scrubby patch of trees with no destination in sight. This brings you to a fork in the road, where you turn left and drive through (yes, THROUGH) a small creek before making your way up the hill and around a corner to the Sanford tasting room. The venue is located in an old wooden structure that's filled with a broad, esoteric blend of books as well as with some of the finest wines in Santa Barbara County. Sanford produces a sauvignon blanc, three different chardonnays, two pinot noirs and an interesting, impressive rose called pinot noir vin gris. (Don't skip over the vin gris just because it's pink. Try it. You'll be more than pleasantly surprised.)
Now that you're relaxed after two days of intense, X-treme, full-contact wine tasting, you're ready for a stop at perhaps the best wine-oriented restaurant in California -- the Vintners Bar & Grill. I must admit up front that I'm extremely prejudiced on this fact because, well, I run the wine program at Vintners. Therefore, it's probably better to let the facts speak for themselves. Vintner's carries more than 200 wines from more than 110 wineries (every winery in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties), all available by the glass. The restaurant has the lowest wine markup of any that I've heard of in California -- retail + $3. Vintner's has the only two wine stewards between Monterey and Santa Barbara (Gerri Diamond and me), and one of the most talented chefs on the coast, Paul Kwong. If that's not enough, then I think your expectations are a bit too high.
With a great sense of satisfaction, Mark and I end our three-day excursion with the knowledge that, through personal sacrifice we've made the world a better and easier place to drink wine. Always looking to the future however, we see the great expanses left unexplored. In the interest of time we missed more than a hundred wineries in our fast flight down the coast, and, as Mark pointed out, "That would take us at least another weekend!" Oh well, such is the dedication to journalism.