San Luis Obispo - California's Hidden Wine Country

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Whether you can see it at a given time or not: everything connects.

From the crest of this hill you cannot quite see the ocean, but we’re close enough to smell it. I’m wondering if that scent, the ambient perfume on the air, part saline, part seaweed, part chaparral, is actually influencing the flavor of the chardonnay in my hand or if this place’s extraordinary proximity to the Pacific and the soil of this vineyard, which is full of sand and sandstone deposits, is making me taste seashells.

The movie Sideways put Santa Barbara’s wine country on the map (and wiped a lot of merlot vines off of it). Paso Robles has started to get more attention. Tucked between the two regions and much less talked about is San Luis Obispo, which has a small, but diverse and thriving, wine scene all of its own. If you are the kind of person who likes off-the-beaten-path cachet in a wine, this is an area you need to visit—or at least virtually visit by popping a cork or two.

Part of the unique terroir of SLO has to do with its proximity to the Pacific. Most of the grapes grown here are within just a few miles of the coast, and SLO boasts one of the longest growing seasons in the world. Partly it’s the unusually diverse array of soil types, some of which are themselves unusual. Part of it also has to do with people who are passionate about what they are doing but refuse to cop an attitude about it. As it turns out, you can taste that too.

Bucolic and small scale, SLO is both interesting in its long winemaking history (the Spanish Franciscans who built the California Missions started it!) and highly forward-thinking and modern. The 30 or so wineries in the region are turning out a lot of excellent beverages. Some tasting rooms are sleek and elegant. Some are rustic. Some are a weather-beaten picnic table under a fig tree. The dominant grapes of this region are the tried and true coastline-lovers chardonnay and pinot noir, but many varietals thrive here, from Albariño to Zinfandel. The spirit of this place is a complex mosaic of interconnection – it’s collaborative rather than competitive, and extremely welcoming. Most wineries in SLO are artisanal, family-driven, and very sustainability-forward. SIP certification is the norm, and biodynamic practices, water catchment and recycling systems, and dry farming are widespread. If your inner wine snob is also a climate-concerned treehugger you can feel good about wine that comes from this region.

For those who don’t have ready access to a Sideways weekend in this lovely spot, you can still get your paws on their stuff. You’d have to work really hard to get a sub-par Pinot out of this town (Center of Effort, Niner, Stephen Ross and Kynsi all deserve a mention), but as always, I’m drawn to the ones that defy the norm. So, some of my draft picks are:

Sinor LaVallee

Mike Sinor knows his shit—literally. The Compost King of the region farms biodynamically in true Rudolph Steiner agri-mystic style, and will happily unearth a cow horn packed with manure for you to inspect. (I am the kind of gal who is probably very lucky not to be living in 17th century Salem Massachusetts, and even I do not completely understand the magic of biodynamics). “I do this for one reason,” he says. “Experience has taught me it makes the wine taste good.” I suspect it’s not the only thing that makes his wine taste good – growing estate fruit on ancient sandstone with an ocean view and getting his hands dirty at every step of the process are probably at least as important as his cow-dung cornucopias in the quest to make wine Taste Good. These guys pour themselves into their work; it is a passion first and a business second. If you’re buying wine from Sinor-LaVallee you can’t make a wrong choice, but the 2013 Chardonnay is beach in a bottle, honeyed but not heavy, with subtle tropicals on the nose to complement the marine note. The 2013 Syrah is an eye-opener with the crispness and restraint that characterizes most of the wines grown in this area, and notes of pepper, berries and mint. You’ll notice the label incorporates images of the family’s thumbprints, and that pretty much says it: this is hands-on, truly artisanal wine and it is a thing of beauty.


With Cal Poly in town, it’s not surprising that many winemakers in SLO had first careers in engineering and sciences, and this is probably one of the reasons that its commitment to environmentally respectful winemaking is so strong. Laetitia’s Selim Zihlka has a background in wind power, and his winery is focused on sustainable practices in the field and renewable energy in the winery. Oh, and they’re making great wine, too. They make killer pinots, and a very nice chardonnay among other things, but what I really love is their sparkling wine. The 2012 Brut Rosé is a beauty, with very fine effervescence and subtle florals, a pronounced cherry character and a hint of something like fresh pastry (brunch, anyone?).

Zocker and Tangent

The Niven Family Wine Estates encompasses a number of labels, including Baileyana, True Myth and Trenza as well as Tangent and Zocker. They are all worth your time. I am calling these two out because they are doing lovely things with wines that deviate from the dominant pinot noir and chardonnay presence in the region. Zocker (the word means “gambler” in German) took a chance on an Austrian grape not much planted in California, where Chardonnay tends to rule: Grüner Veltliner. In the Danube Valley this grape is often grown alongside Reisling on very steep rocky slopes. SLO is rich in steep, rocky slopes, so they gave it a shot, and it paid off in an incredibly food-friendly, light-bodied white wine with the minerality and acidity that defines most SLO wines. Tangent, meanwhile, has also toyed with aromatic whites including one of my personal viti-fetishes, Grenache blanc. Winemaker Christian Roguenant has a remarkable enthusiasm for exploring the unique personalities of each grape, not only post-crush, but how it behaves in the vineyard and how the type of soil it grows in plays a role in how it grows up. All the Tangent wines I have tasted are lovely, but I especially dig their California take on the Galician mainstay Albariño. Liquid sunlight, a rounded, vivid, intensely flavored but not overpowering wine with a beautiful white flower nose, and hints of apricot and almond as well as a strong citrus note.

Saucelito Canyon

Of all the vineyards in SLO, this one is the farthest from the ocean, and the shift in microclimate is just enough that Zinfandel thrives here. In fact, when Bill Greenough got his hands on this property he was surprised to find a Zin vineyard that had been long abandoned and covered over with weeds. Those vines turned out to have been planted in 1880, and they are still making killer wines. Dry-farmed and more or less off the grid as well as off the beaten path, this place is an amazing example of the living sermon that grapevines seem determined to preach: struggle builds character. Even up in this canyon the weather is quite cool for this grape, and the result is that the often gigantic and jammy Zinfandel expresses itself with remarkable restraint and nuance here. The 1880 Reserve Zin is gorgeously structured and unfolds slowly – the hallmark blackberry note that lets you know you’re drinking Zinfandel is there but not dominant. There is cherry, and spice, and a hint of something cola-like. There are herbs and something a little bit rose petal. This wine is a kaleidoscope, a testament to hands-on stewardship, and a joy to drink.


Especially if you are traveling to SLO, put Sextant wines on your list, not only for terrific Pinot noir and Syrah but for one of the quaintest settings ever, as well as Kelsey, where a pre-winery history of apple farming has led to a secret-weapon dry hard cider in addition to well-crafted wines. It’s also a family friendly spot and wonderful for a picnic. If you are only traveling by bottle, check out SLO Wine for details on all of the region’s producers—you can connect with any of them there if your local wine-provider doesn’t carry something you’re interested in.

Like I said: everything connects. Some places just make you more aware of it than others, and San Luis Obispo is one of those places.