A Toast to the Central Coast!

California’s storied region is the place to explore changing tastes in wine

If you want to go to the source of wine trends in America, it’s only a day’s drive away, in and around California’s Central Coast. Right now, for example, the area is abuzz over albariño, viognier and other boutique grapes, whose popularity is spreading to wine shops and restaurants near you.

“What makes the Central Coast hot,” says master sommelier William Sherer of Aureole at Mandalay Bay, “is how so many winemakers there are converting conventional vines, such as merlot, to trendier grapes.” Albariño is a dry white wine from Spain now being cultivated in this area, and with tapas bars being a hot commodity in Las Vegas, this varietal is becoming popular, too. You can get a good taste of it at Clavo Cellars (315 S. Main St. in Templeton, ClavoCellars.com), which has a ’09 Paso Robles Albariño, Olé. Vineyardist Neil Roberts grows his grapes between Paso Robles and Creston and uses oak rather than stainless steel for flavor. The wine has a complex citrus profile and nice mineral notes. You should also try a delicious ’09 viognier in Clavo’s tasting room.

In the heart of the Edna Valley, fans of German-style varietals should make a beeline to Claiborne & Churchill in San Luis Obispo (2649 Carpenter Canyon Road, ClaiborneChurchill.com), started in 1983 by a pair of linguists from the University of Michigan, Claiborne Thompson and Fredericka Churchill. He taught Old Norse, and she taught German; their wines speak for themselves.

They produce about 10,000 cases per year, the majority of which are the ever-popular rieslings and dry gewürztraminers. The winery also produces Edna Valley pinot noir and chardonnay, Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon, syrah and a port-style wine called PortObispo. In the charming tasting room, $5 gets you six to eight wines. Buy a bottle ($20-$40) and the fee is credited to the purchase.

Sustainability is also a new mantra in the food and wine world, and many wineries in the area pay strict attention to the concept. A good example is the Hearst Ranch Winery & Tasting Room (442 SLO San Simeon, HearstRanchWinery.com). Most people who visit this area go to the Hearst Castle in the hills of San Simeon, so you know you’re coming up here anyway.

The winery was started by businessman Stephen T. Hearst, great grandson of William Randolph Hearst, and philanthropist Jim Saunders. The men use sustainable agriculture to produce their portfolio of wines. Both men are well-known supporters of nature conservancy and historical preservation.

These wines, made from local fruit, are stunning, starting with their Glacier Ridge chardonnay at $25, and ending with their Bordeaux blend The Point, a hefty $70. Don’t miss the Lone Tree cabernet franc as well, which sells for $35. This varietal was recently proclaimed a rising star in California, which means you’ll soon be hearing a lot about this one back home, too.

If You Go …

Getting there: San Luis Obispo is a six-hour drive from Las Vegas. Air service is available to Monterey via US Airways or on Allegiant Air to Santa Maria. Check online for rates, but Allegiant is generally less expensive.

Where to stay: The area is dotted with small hotels, B&Bs, and other hostelries. It’s a treat to stay on the coast, in hamlets like Cayucos, so quiet you can hear the ocean roar. At On the Beach Bed and Breakfast, 181 N. Ocean Ave., rooms start at $149. (805) 995-3200.

Where to eat: Try the roast chicken and California cheeses with that pinot noir at Hoppe’s Bistro and Wine Bar (78 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, 805-995-1006). In beautiful Cambria, closer to San Simeon, Black Cat Bistro (1602 Main St., Cambria, 805-927-1600) is the ticket. Chef/owner Deborah Scarborough is renowned locally for her stuffed fried green olives.

What not to miss along the way: Central Coast may be the most diverse area in California for wine tourism. The Edna Valley alone has dozens of tasting rooms dotting its green hills, and along the coastline are sand dunes, sea lions and San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle (along Highway 1, 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo; visit HearstCastle.com to make a reservation.)

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