Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 Podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Talbott Vineyards. At Talbott Vineyards, we focus on crafting estate-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Monterey County, Santa Lucia Highlands. Our Sleepy Hollow vineyard is located in one of the coldest grape-growing climates in California, ideal for these two varieties. Here, the brisk wind and fog rolling off Monterey Bay create a long growing season, producing fruit-forward wines with spectacular acidity. We listen to Wine 101, we know what acidity is all about, right? Building on a nearly 40 year legacy of meticulous craftsmanship, Talbott continues to produce highly acclaimed wines of distinction.
In this episode of Wine 101, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers tackles the sprawling Central Coast AVA and narrows in on a particularly exciting region: Paso Robles. Within the Central Coast, there are 28 AVAs that produce more than just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That said, these varieties thrive in a special way along the 280-mile coastline, with unique ways of securing high acidities.
Part of what helps Central Coast grapes is the steady stream of Pacific wind and fog that is pulled inland through “wind gaps.” These wind tunnels entail a mixture of moist temperatures that help vines retain acidity in their roots, no matter the soil.
With a vast range of climates, soils, and plenty of limestone, the Central Coast is one of the most varied AVAs in the U.S. Paso Robles is perhaps the best example of this, with winemakers growing niche grapes like Picpoul de Pinet and Falanghina. With 666,000 acres to its name, Paso is defined by a Wild West attitude, and refuses to be known as a single-grape wine region.
Or check out the conversation here:
My name is Keith Beavers and I’m Gen X, which is so Gen X. Just the term Gen X is so “Gen X” of the Gen X generation.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to episode 26 of VinePair’s Wine 101 Podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, I am the tastings director of VinePair, and hi! Napa, Sonoma, they get a lot of love, and they deserve all the love they get. But there’s this one place, it’s huge, that we don’t talk about enough. It’s the Central Coast of California. The Central Coast is its own viticultural area. There’s so much going on in there. We’ve got to talk about it, break it down a little bit, figure it out.
When we think about American wine, I mean, we can admit this, right? We think about California first. It’s just what we do. And then when we think California, we’re basically thinking about Northern California. Right? And we can admit that. And then within Northern California, we think of Napa first, then we think of Sonoma. And then what else do we think about when we think about California? That’s actually what we associate California wine with. But there is so much more going on in California, just north and south of those two famous wine regions.
In the north, we also have the Mendocino American Viticultural Area, which is great. And we have the Clarksburg AVA. And they make great wine. We don’t get to talk about them enough, and at some point, I’d like to talk about them. But it’s south of San Francisco, guys. Something’s going on there, and we have to talk about it. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s the Central Coast American Viticultural Area, the Central Coast AVA. It stretches from south of San Francisco, down to just south of Santa Barbara. It’s 280 miles north to south, along the California coastline, and goes from the coastline inland about 60 miles It’s this huge, huge American Viticultural Area. And then inside this huge AVA are 28 AVAs that live within three counties and three mountain ranges and a bunch of valleys. And the climate, and the soil, and the geography is so diverse, it’s very hard to generalize, because you have a Pacific mountain range just south of San Francisco actually forming the ridge of San Francisco’s peninsula called the Santa Cruz Mountains.
And then south of that, you have another mountain range, Pacific mountain range called the Santa Lucia Mountains. That’s where Big Sur is. Then east of that across the Salinas Valley, which is literally the salad bowl of America, it’s where all the produce is grown, you have the Gabilan Mountain Range, which is an inland mountain range, and it’s kind of hot there.
So you’ve got a desert, Pacific wetland. You’ve got elevation, you’ve got valleys, but on such a large scale. And grapes have been growing here for quite some time. Earlier than the northern part of California, because this is the path of the Franciscan monks. They started in what is now Mexico and worked their way up all the way up to Sonoma.
So throughout the Central Coast, vines were grown, and yes, it was mostly the Mission grape, but because of the proof of that pudding means that there’s always been a focus of humans making wine in this area. And just like most wine-growing regions in California and the United States, everything was going well until Prohibition happened, and then everything went bad, and then it had to be rebuilt, and all this stuff.
It’s a very familiar story, but what’s really great about the Central Coast is what’s happening right now. And they’ve worked very hard in certain wine regions to get to this place. And this is the most exciting time for wine regions in this area.
Now, there are 28 of them and I again will not go through all 28 of them, but there are certain ones that are very specific that you’re going to see on wine shelves. And within this huge AVA is the largest AVA in California, because Central Coast AVA is an AVA, but it’s so big it’s hard to be like, “OK, it’s an AVA.” But there are more concentrated regions there. And one of the big ones is called Paso Robles. And we have to talk about that. So I’m going to run around a little bit and talk to you about the Central Coast, then we’re going to end on Paso Robles and give you a sense of this very exciting, very big, not very new wine growing region.
OK, let me see if I can explain this. In the morning, on the coast of California, a fog rolls in with some wind. And throughout the coastline of California are what are called wind gaps. And those wind gaps are funnels, and warm air draws the cool air from the Pacific into these areas, into these valleys, and cools the areas in these valleys. And that is really what defines a lot of what goes on in this part of California. And if it’s not that, it’s the elevation of the mountains that these vineyards are in. And if it’s not that, it’s the cool nights in the warm areas that don’t get the fog. It’s just a very unique place.
If you were to look at a satellite image, time-lapsed, of the morning fog that rolls into the entire 280=mile coastline of the Central Coast, you’ll notice the fog coming in from the Pacific, and it just rolls in through these wind gaps, and it gets as far as it can inland, which is probably about 60 miles. And then at some point, it sucks itself back out during the afternoon. And that cloud cover, that fog, defines all the vineyards in this part of California. In the northern part of the Central Coast, it’s mostly coastal, Pacific-influenced wine-growing regions. And as you get south, the wine-growing regions move a little bit more inland to the more warmer regions, and those warmer regions are benefiting mostly from these fog tunnels, these wind gaps that are coming in. All the way down to Santa Barbara, which is a very unique place, because Santa Barbara is just naturally perfect. It’s hard to explain how beautiful and perfect Santa Barbara is. Oprah knows, right? But what’s really unique is in these warmer southern inland wine-growing regions, when the fog dissipates, it gets hot. I’m talking a hundred degrees, 95, like, boom, boom. It is immediately really hot.
And then right when you’re like, man, this is too hot, it immediately cools down. And then before you know it, you’re at 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s desert nights. So it’s this very crazy place. We have fog in the morning that dissipates, it gets very hot and cools down, and that’s right, vines do very well in these situations. And not only that, this wine region has limestone in its soils going all the way up the coast, which is very unique to this area. And limestone is this amazing “gold” for vine growers. It really helps soil composition with draining and retaining. It’s the perfect catch and release.
And what that does is these soils, even though there are some warm, inland hot regions but cool nights, that soil helps these vines retain their acidity. So whether you’re benefiting from the fog and retaining acidity that way with good fruit, or whether you’re at a good elevation, or you’re near next to the Pacific Ocean, or whether you’re inland, even if you have a full-bodied red wine, let’s say an inland red wine, even though it’s going to be a big wine, it’s going to have this beautiful acidity. There’s a reason why, in 1981, when Napa became an AVA, so too did the Santa Cruz mountain AVA, just south of San Francisco. Because in those mountains, two wines came out of those mountains that were also in the judgment of Paris in 1976: the Ridge Winery, which their Cabernet Sauvignon, placed fifth in the competition, the Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon it was called, and then the David Bruce Winery had a Chardonnay that came in 10th. And the reason the French dug those wines, in my opinion, is because of the acidity. It was balanced. Just south of the Santa Cruz mountains is Monterey County, and I’m sure you’ve heard of Monterey, right? Monterey wine. And when people talk about the Central Coast, they often talk about two varieties: Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. There’s much more happening than those two varieties in the Central Coast, but Monterey Bay has defined its own style of not necessarily Chardonnay, but definitely Pinot Noir.
This is one of those “wind and fog suppliers” as a source of the Monterey Bay, and within Monterey County, which is an AVA, the Monterey County AVA, there are four AVAs within it. There’s Arroyo Seco, Carmel Valley, Chalone, and Santa Lucia Highlands in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range.
But the thing about Monterey County Pinot Noir is that it is its own style of Pinot Noir. It’s big and juicy and cherries and cinnamon, and it wants to be big and bold and full-bodied, but the acidity will not let it. It is one of the fleshier, high-tone, deep Pinot Noir styles we have in the United States. And they’re beautiful. They’re awesome. The Chardonnay coming out of there is excellent as well. High acid. If they put oak on it, it’s usually this big, bold Chardonnay, but with this clean, salty acidity in it. They’re beautiful. And then all the way down south in the southern point of the Central Coast AVA is Santa Barbara County, which is another county that is influenced by the Pacific Ocean. I see a lot of the vineyards in Santa Barbara County hug the Pacific Coast, and here you have the Santa Maria Valley AVA, the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, and the Santa Rita Hills AVA. There are others, but these are the ones you’re going to see on wine shelves. Mostly, it’s going to say Santa Barbara County, then it’s going to have one of these AVAS.
And this is another area that is influenced by the Pacific. A lot of the vineyards are very close to the Pacific Ocean, and this is a very heavy Chardonnay, Pinot Noir place as well. And what’s unique about this area is sometimes this place can get cooler than the foggy Russian River Valley or Los Carneros and the northern part of California because of the Pacific Ocean influence, which is cool.
This area is still being explored. It’s actually where “Sideways” was filmed. It’s beautiful there. It might be some of the most perfect weather in America, this area. It’s between Monterey County to the north and Santa Barbara County to the south. Right in the middle, there is a county called San Luis Obispo. In this county there’s this kind of a new-ish AVA called York Mountain towards the coast. And then there’s another one called Edna Valley, which you’ll see Chardonnays say Edna Valley on them. And then there’s one called Arroyo Grande Valley, which you don’t see a lot of. But in this county, the largest AVA in California is just sitting there, and it’s awesome. And it doesn’t get all the attention that I think it deserves. So let’s talk about Paso Robles. In my view, Paso Robles benefits from all of the climatic and geologic stuff that this Central Coast thing has to offer. It is the one region that has extreme coastal influence, but then it goes so far inland, that it also has that inland “hot-day, cool-night” advantage. And within the 666,000 acres of this area — 26,000 acres of that with land under vine — all different kinds of grapes can be grown in this place. So in the morning, fog forms in the Monterey Bay, and then it’s pulled through the Salinas Valley south towards Paso Robles, and that fog and that wind is protected on the west by the Santa Lucia Mountain range. So all this fog and all this wind rushes down into Paso. Now the thing is, this is the one AVA that has some very inland vineyards as well. So what’s unique about this place is half of this AVA enjoys the fog and wind, because the fog or wind comes down into Paso and it starts rushing through these different passes called the Templeton Gap. And then throughout these areas, different vineyards are planted to take advantage of this wind and fog. And then when you go over the Salinas River to the east, that fog does not influence these areas as much.
But what’s unique about these areas, like I said in the beginning of this episode, is that warm hot days, cold desert nights, great soil, awesome acidity. So you get acidity on both sides, but with different varieties. And that’s what makes this place very unique. They actually did some land and climate and soil studies, and they proposed 11 sub-AVAs within Paso alone. So Paso Robles is a sub-AVA of the Central Valley AVA, but within Paso Robles, there are 11 other AVAs. And I wish I could do a whole thing on those and I can’t, but what’s unique about them is it’s based on the Templeton Gap and all these different climatic and soil variations within Paso itself.
And because of this, even though 39 percent or more of this area under vine is Cabernet Sauvignon, and there’s some beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon coming out of Paso. Because of that sun, you get plush, huge, full body Cabs, but with great acidity, and they’re not too heavy. They kind of define the weather and the soil of that area.
But what also thrives here are white wine grapes that are usually found in the Rhône Valley of France. Like Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and red grapes from that area like Syrah and Grenache. And they’re all these big, beautiful, bold, balanced, spicy wines for the reds, and the floral, honeyed wines for the whites. But they have such great acidity, they’re not that heavy on the palate. It’s very cool. And the thing about Paso, which I find very unique, more so than other AVAs in California, is that it’s not just those lists of grapes that I talked to you about. They do everything there. There are people experimenting with grapes that have never really been played around with here in the United States.
There’s an awesome white wine grape from the southern part of France called Picpoul de Pinet that makes very amazing, easy, quaffable white wines that go great with oysters. They’re making great versions of that in Paso. There’s an indigenous native ancient variety in Campania in Italy called Falanghina, it’s a beautiful white wine. They’re making that in Paso. They’re making Barbera, they’re making Nebbiolo there. There is a lot going on in Paso. And what Paso Robles really says to me is, it’s one of those places where we can go there or we can drink wine from there because of its diversity. It’s not a wine region that we go to for one grape. It’s a place that we go to enjoy the wines being made there that are awesome. And if you go to Paso, the community there is very cool. It’s an old-school town, man. The town was founded by two brothers called the Blackburn brothers and Jesse James’ uncle. Isn’t that crazy?
And I don’t want to say it was always an outlaw place, it has this Wild West, outlaw feel to it. And actually, James Dean was speeding around here. Actually, this was around the area where he crashed his car. But there’s this rebellious heart and spirit to Paso in that it’s like, this is the wine we want to make, and I hope you like it. And I really find that to be an awesome way of doing things. And I know other wine regions all across the country do this, but Paso is a big place. It’s a significant wine-growing region, and it just so happens that it has such varied terroir that it really is something that we should, as American wine drinkers, focus on, because it is another one of these wine regions that makes wine in America and does something different and unique.
At one point, Napa wasn’t known for Cabernet Sauvignon. It was known for Zinfandel. So was Sonoma. But when Cabernet got there, they realized that these are the spots where it does well, and sure enough, Cabernet Sauvignon became the popular thing. With Paso, it’s not just one grape, but a celebration of different kinds of varietals that work. Because in America, every grape we grow is from somewhere else. But when a grape falls in love with a place, something special happens. And when a human makes that happen, we see the result of that. Napa and Sonoma were big deals with that. I think Paso is one of those as well, but the only thing about Paso is this: It’s not one variety. It’s a bunch of varieties and a lot of great winemakers. You go downtown to Paso, you go have lunch, you see a bunch of winemakers hanging out together, talking about their harvest, talking about their ferment, all this stuff. It’s a very cool place.
So I went on a rant there. I wanted to focus on Paso because it is the largest AVA in the Central Coast. But again, there’s a lot of great wine coming from all of these places in the Central Coast. And I think we should all focus a little bit and say, “Hey, let’s check out these places.”
I want to give a shout-out to winemaker on the Central Coast Kamee Knutsun. We had an awesome conversation to get even more in-depth information about this ridiculously cool AVA.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.