“Many of the wineries of California’s Central Coast are still young, but their potential to produce great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah are enormous. In a decade, the top viticulture areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well known as Napa and Sonoma.”
~Robert Parker, August 2006
Little more than 30 years ago, the Central Coast - defined as Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties – were nothing more than a loose aggregate of beachside towns, tract housing, mom and pop eateries and lone motels. There were few reasons to visit, unless you preferred an idyllic stroll along the Pacific Ocean or the gentle rolling hills of the rural valleys. No one wanted to live in isolated communities that offered no real amenities, other than nostalgia and nice views.
Shopping and culture were nearly non-existent, unless you counted the decaying missions, strewn across California like pebbles one tosses about to find their way home. When founding wineries like Eberle, Chateau Julien, Fess Parker and Santa Barbara Winery first started planting grapes in the early 1970’s (other’s had done so before them, though not on a large scale), there was no discernable understanding that within three decades, the small towns would morph into tourist destinations filled with high-end real estate, world class vineyards and exceptional restaurants.
Today, the sheer number of wineries is staggering. The Central Coast is home to more than 300 of them, with more coming on line all the time. Whereas regions like Napa and Sonoma took decades to understand their soils, microclimates, preferred rootstock and clones, the learning curve on the Central Coast became truncated, affording greater opportunities for innovative winemakers in less time.
The Central Coast is one of the last refuges for maverick farmers and risk-taking winemakers, proving that California soil is adaptable enough to grow almost anything. There have been miss-steps of course, anxious wineries rushing to compete with veteran producers and failing in the process. But wineries from the Central Coast have learned quickly. Interestingly, throughout the growth spurt of the last 10 years, wineries were not failing at an alarming rate, as I had suspected they would. Grape gluts one year and astronomical prices for fruit the next slowed the rate, but did not diminish it. Apparently there's plenty of room at the table.
In the coming months I will look at not only the major players, but the small,
off-the-radar producers whose passion is the driving force behind the success of the entire region. The Central Coast is an amalgam of beautiful scenery, an increasingly sophisticated food scene, wineries hitting their stride, a rich history, unique climate and a favorable terroir. Certainly there are vanity vineyards, those planted by people who have time to kill and money to spend, but the majority of wineries are family owned operations, eager to farm the land and make the best wine they can. The change has been exponential.