Some of California’s best wineries are found off-radar along the Central Coast. It’s the Napa you don’t know about - and it’s paradise for the travelling wino...

Gilroy’s fertile soil and topography reminiscent of Tuscany.Gilroy Welcome Center

By David Webb

On the southern edge of Silicon Valley, where server farms have faded to garlic farms and the high-rises of San Francisco have eased to the rolling hills of Santa Clara Valley, the city of Gilroy harbours a delicious secret.

“Santa Clara Valley is California’s first premium wine production region,” says an enthusiastic Katherine Filice, PR rep for Gilroy and local resident for a quarter-century. I soon learn that Italian immigrants settled this area in the late 1800s - its fertile soil and topography reminiscent of Tuscany - and founded the now-vibrant winemaking tradition in and around Gilroy. Some even skirted 1920s-era prohibition by making wine for the Catholic Church… exclusively for use at Mass, of course.

Gilroy’s 21 wineries are just an introduction to the vast vineyards of California’s Central Coast. Less famous than Napa Valley, yet arguably more accessible and definitely more affordable, the hundreds of wineries within Monterey, San Luis Opisbo, Santa Barbara and Ventura County comprise the largest wine-producing region in the state. And they also prove a perfectly tempting theme for my wife and I to string together a weeklong road trip from SFO to LAX.

Southwest of Gilroy, California’s Pacific Coast Highway travels like the flight path of a bumblebee towards San Luis Opisbo County, where, incidentally, several dozen wineries are dotted around the base of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. Further on, after the impossibly twisty highway has finally eased, Santa Barbara County tempts us to pause for its trademark Pinot and Chardonnay.

Santa Ynez Valley is a refreshingly affordable alternative to Napa.Visit California

The wine scene throughout the county’s Santa Ynez Valley is what you want Napa Valley to be: affordable and accessible. In fact, the area may be more Napa than Napa itself - the Oscar-winning Napa-set film Sideways was actually filmed in the regional towns of Buellton, Solvang and Lompoc.


Drunk on Info

california central 1Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery

Norman Beko is the first local winemaker to welcome us. Proprietor of Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery, located near the town of Santa Maria, Beko is a computer-graphics-specialist-turned-wine-scientist with 26 years of impassioned viticulture experience.

“We make wines that age a long time,” explains Beko. “We have some of our wines that we started in ’89 and they’re still drinkable… As our wines age, the tannins soften and the acids soften and the fruit becomes more prevalent. It’s more of a French wine than a California-style wine.”

We begin our tasting with three Chardonnays - one aged in stainless steel, another medium-oaked and a third that has spent 18 months in American oak. The flavour profile of each is distinct. We finish the flight with a 2009 Barrel Select Chardonnay that Beko states will reach its peak in “10 to 12 years”.

From the homey tasting room, Beko takes us into his wine cave - a drilled-out subterranean cellar where his vino is barrel-aged and the heavy fruit profile is revealed. For only $5 beyond the standard tasting fee, any visitor can tour this humid, wine-scented cavern and taste a Pinot right from the barrel.

Back at the tasting room, we continue our tasting with two Pinot Noirs – one fruity, one earthy - followed a chocolate-scented red blend and finally a 40-month-aged, soft-and-balanced Syrah. In our two-hour tour, Beko gleefully imparts more knowledge than we could have ever hoped to retain. This is typical; Cottonwood Canyon has a reputation for leaving guests drunk with information, if not with booze.

“It’ll be amazing what will happen when I figure out what I’m doing,” Beko jokes as we depart.

Sustainable Sips & Sea Breezes

Presqu’ile Winery, Santa Maria.Presqu’ile Winery/Adrian Gregorutti

Nearly next door, and open to the public for only a year now, the impressive Presqu’ile Winery is the opposite side to Cottonwood’s coin. We enter through stone gates, drive alongside 30 hectares of certified sustainable vineyards - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah - and arrive at the newly-constructed marvel of masonry that is the tasting room.

“This is actually one of the older wine-growing areas in California, we just don’t have the notoriety that Napa has gotten,” explains Brian Evans, wine club manager and head chef at Presqu’ile. “In this area, we can pretty much grow any varietal of grape very well… Pinot Noir does great, Syrah does great… as does Chardonnay.”

Evans proceeds with a flight that leads from a fruity 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, to a 2012 Chardonnay with hints at brioche, to a Rose of Pinot Noir that changes how we view Rose. A spicy 2012 Pinot Noir rounds out the tasting. Outside, a sea breeze cools the California sun and Presqu’ille’s expansive patio beckons. We could have stayed all day.


One Serious Vino

Sitting about an hour north of LA, Oxnard’s Rancho Ventavo Cellars is the final stop on our Central Coast wine tour. Located in the city’s Heritage Square, within a 112-year-old, impeccably-restored historical home, Rancho Ventavo’s tasting room typifies Ventura County wine culture: fun and social with affordable fees - $10 buys a healthy taste of five wines plus a souvenir glass to take home.

Rancho Ventavo sources grapes from all over the Golden State. Our engaging hosts, Bill and Denise Smith, guide us through an all-red flight that starts with a light 2007 Santa Barbara County Merlot, followed by a quintessential 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from nearby Paso Robles, then an earthy 2006 Central Coast Petite Syrah, to a fruity 2008 local Syrah, before finishing with both the winemaker’s and my own favourite: a 2006 Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills. Robust and with a 16.4 per cent alcohol content, this is one serious vino. There were only six bottles available from this batch when we arrived and five when we departed.


Napa Incognito

Yes, California’s Central Coast is like Napa Incognito - well known to wine-loving locals, yet off-radar for Canadians. For us, though, the secret’s out. You might say we heard it through the grapevine.


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