Food & Wine Thursdays: A Central Coast Wine Making Renaissance

For a long time, Paso Robles was a punchline for wine geeks. The region built its reputation on giant, powerful red wines–Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and California Rhone Blends–which routinely pushed alcohol levels past 16% ABV and routinely received 90+ points from major wine critics in the mid-2000s. At their best, they were solid, pleasurable wines in a style I didn’t particularly prefer. At their worst, they were headache inducing monstrosities that tasted more of NyQuil mixed with Cherry Coke than wine.

Regardless, Paso Robles in particular and the Central Coast as a whole was a region largely eschewed by import-oriented wine geeks who looked toward the cooler climates of Northern California and Oregon for their food-friendly and geek savvy domestic wines.

But quite a bit has changed in the last few years and the Central Coast is experiencing something of a Renaissance led by a cadre of young wine makers in their late 20s and 30s. Many of these wine makers are Central Coast natives wh spent their careers working in the cellars and vineyards of some of the region’s largest wineries and are only now beginning to launch their own projects.

There is something to be said about the climate of the Central Coast, especially the more inland (and less expensive) growing regions where many of these wine makers are sourcing their grapes. It is quite hot and, as a result, many of these wines are still higher in alcohol than most imports. Although few are still making wines which routinely exceed 16%, their red wines do tend to be between 14.6-15.2% but with the structure, balance and acid that I found to be absent from the Parkerized behemoths of 2005.

What’s more notable than the nominal decrease in alcohol (I’ve never been one who inherently looked askance at a wine solely for its alcohol level) is the use of unconventional grape varietals and blends other than the Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre “California Rhone” that had dominated the Central Coast. Spanish and Italian varietals–most notably Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera–are becoming increasingly common and oft-neglected Petite Sirah from inland San Luis Obispo County is being made into some of the region’s most interesting red wines. On the blending front, while some are looking toward the Cabernet and Merlot-based “Meritage” Bordeaux blends, most are making their own unconventional blends, experimenting with the Central Coast’s unique climates and microclimates to determine the best Central Coast blends autochthonously, without looking to Old World tradition.

White wine is still a struggle, with thick, flabby Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne-based blends predominant. Interesting inroads are being made, however, with Chenin Blanc and unoaked or neutral oak-based Chardonnay. Wine makers are also looking to “kitchen sink” white blends, allowing for less ripe, higher-acid grapes to offset the powerfully aromatic but often unfocused nature of the white Rhone varietals when overripe.

This Renaissance is still in its earliest stages; many of these wine makers are only on their third or fourth vintage, but it’s very encouraging to see experimentation taking place which embraces both terroir and realities of 2012 wine making instead of the received wisdom of an earlier, more naive California wine scene. Because really, despite the soil similarities, Paso  Robles simply isn’t the Rhone Valley.

Some interesting wineries new(ish) wineries from the Central Coast to take a look at: Field Recordings, Ethan, Antic, Folkway, Broc Cellars, Atonement Wines, Broadside, Tooth & Nail, Black Sheep Finds (there are a LOT more) and a shout out to a couple of the big(ger) guys doing the same thing: Qupe, Bonny Doon, Tablas Creek (mostly California Rhone, I know) and Liocco.

Please comment below for more info or specific wine recommendations.

Disclosure: I sell wine and I live in California. At points past, present, and future I sold/sell/will sell wines from the Central Coast. Some of the wineries mentioned in this article were/are/will be those wineries. I am also friends with Central Coast wine makers and winery employees whose wineries may also be mentioned in this article. This article is meant to be subjective, informative and biased. Utilize at your own risk. 

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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