“The Central Coast is too diverse to be categorized as one singular wine-production region,” notes Arthur Hon, wine director at seasonal and ingredient-focused restaurant Sepia in Chicago. He says that the area has such a wide range of grapes, soil types and microclimates that it can successfully produce everything from chardonnay and pinot noir to Italian grapes and Bordeaux blends and Rhône varietals. He carries approximately 15 wines from the region, priced from $50 to $150 dollars a bottle.
“You can find delicate varietals [both white and red] that are planted in the colder parts of the Central Coast, and more hardier grapes [especially the reds] that are grown in the warmer parts of the regions,” notes Hon. He addition the region is home to a lot of unusual Italian grape varietals, such as sangiovese, vermentino, aglianico, arneis, nebbiolo and that the Rhône Ranger movement—that introduced syrah and viognier, among other grapes from France—to California, started in Central Coast.
The highly diverse region is home to close to 700 wineries, according to data from the 2013 Central Coast Wine and Viticulture Symposium, which was held in Paso Robles in March of this year. The counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara have seen a 16 percent increase in growth between 2009 and 2012 in winery numbers, with the majority of brands tracked producing less than 5,000 cases, according to the Central Coast Symposium.
Diversity, value and what is perceived to be a more down-to-earth approach shown by the region’s producers have all served the growing region well, according to operators. The “Sideways” effect of the 2004 movie hasn’t hurt the region’s appeal either. “Guests that do prefer the Central Coast wines prefer them for the great prices [for now] and the broad range of varietals and winemaking styles,” Jason Sherman, the “wine guy” from Brennan’s in Houston, a single-unit Texas Creole restaurant. He adds that it is also a region where winemakers can experiment and make a new start. His restaurant carries 33 wines from the Central Coast.
Value and Prestige
The expansive region has been both a great source of value wines for operators as well as home to a handful of emerging expensive, cult brands. “The most expensive are wines from vineyards like Bien Nacido, Sanford, Pisoni, Cargasacchi, Sea Smoke etc.” says Jeff Gregory, general manager of restaurant FT33, a seasonally inspired restaurant in Dallas. He carries four wines from the region.
However he adds that the, “Quality is excellent for the price if you know who and what to look for.” He adds that some of the cool-climate wines are outstanding as well as many of the appellation’s Rhône and Bordeaux blends. He also says that wines from the region also offer a great variety of by-the-glass options. Sharman seconds the fact that a wide range of values and higher-priced wines that are available throughout these appellations. “In most cases, they are very well priced,” he notes of the region’s wines, however, “Syrah from Paso Robles has reached some staggering prices as of late.”
Despite the wide spectrum of wines these appellations produce most operators tend to list them by varietal, as they find few consumers are shopping their lists by region, other than Napa and perhaps some sub-regions of Sonoma, like the Russian River.
How Central Coast Wines are Doing Off-Premise
“Customers are looking for value and quality in wine,” notes David Jabour, president of the 75-location, Austin-based chain Twin Liquors. He notes that as the prices of wines from other California regions increase, “Customers are finding and searching out wines from alternative areas like the Central Coast.”
The chain carries approximately 175 Central Coast wines, priced from $7 to $85. The top varietals remain chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, according to Jabour. He adds that one of the area’s strong points is its ability to “grow many varietals well in various locations.”
Jabour is not alone in his support of the region’s wines. Mike Jordan, domestic wine buyer at the San Francisco-based, three-location K&L wine merchant chain, says that he thinks, “The Central Coast will continue to improve over the near and long term and offer our customers fantastic wines.” K&L currently carries 44 wines from the region, price from $13.99 to $60.
Blend Versus Single Varietal
The Central Coast is known not only for the great diversity of grape types that grow well there, but as a region that has also been successful in producing single varietal wines as well as blends. Gregory says the majority of what his restaurant carries is single-varietal wines.
Some of the region’s top varietals on-premise, according to a handful of operators, include many of the Rhône whites, such as marsanne, roussane and viognier, according to Sherman. Chardonnays and syrahs are also attracting a lot of attention.
“I love the way that they pair with food and they have a style that is uniquely their own. They are obviously California [wines] but have a nuance that is often lost in other AVAs,” notes John Wright, sommelier at 550-room InterContinental hotel in San Francisco. He carries 20 to 30 wines from the region on his hotel’s wine list, which is home to Italian restaurant Luce. He says that the bulk of them are hand sells. “They have an acidity that is often lacking [in other wines], a vibrancy of fruit that is refreshing.”
The future of the region looks bright in many aspects. “A continued focus on great farming, varietal correctness and wines that are honest representations of their site will continue to push things forward for the region. I see more and more wine drinking turning to the Central Coast wines each year and I can’t see that changing any time soon,” says Gregory. Hon adds that brings a uniquely diverse perspective to the California winemaking scene.
It is also the independent character of many of the producers that has helped to set the region apart. “It is a vibrant area with cutting edge winemakers that are willing to make the best wine possible, not make the best wine that critics tell them they need to make,” says Wright. He concludes that the region, “In another 20 years could easily rival or surpass Napa.”
Value and terroir continue to be sorted out in eyes of many operators who are trying to sort out new values and flavors from many emerging California regions.
Central Coast Fast Facts
Major AVAs: Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara
Growing Conditions: very diverse given the large area of the region.
Popular varietals: Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grow well here, in addition to pinot noir, zinfandel as well as Rhône varietals. It is an extremely flexible region given its wide geographical expanse and diversity of microclimates.
Major vineyards and wineries: Au Bon Climat, Laetitia Vineyard Winery, Qupe Wine Cellars, Kendall Jackson