On the Trail

Exploring California's Central Coast

Anthony Gittings

Don’t let the laid back attitude fool you; the wines from the Central Coast are serious. The region as a whole has stepped up its game, and I would go as far as to say that they are making as good a wine as any other wine-growing region in the country. Syrah, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir will always be the kings of the region, but varietals like Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon have begun to infiltrate the vineyards and are making a real case for themselves. In addition, aromatic white wine varietals like Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, and Gewürztraminer are being made with exception quality.  Our domestic team recently took a trip down the Central Coast to visit some new producers where this high level of quality was consistently on display.

The level of exploration and willingness to take risks give the Central Coast a more fun-focused and playful feel than California's more famous regions that have higher expectations of quality, price, and focused flavor profiles. At one vineyard site, you can have whole blocks devoted to varietals of France's Jura region. At another, you'll find farmers who are committed to organic practices and using dry farming techniques in order to capture the truest examples of the terroir. The soils and microclimates of the region can vary so drastically that simply blanketing the region as the "Central Coast" does not do it justice. It's for this reason that the Paso Robles region has now been split into eleven micro-AVA’s, in order to give focus and clarity to exactly what you should expect from each unique locale—yet another example of the devotion to excellence here. Limestone, sand, mountains, and the ocean all play an important role in defining this awe inspiring and beautiful landscape.

There were many highlights from our trip, but I would have to say Stolpman Vineyards was one visit that left a lasting impression on me. Not only does the winery have some of the nicest people in the industry, they are some of the most progressive and experimental. Peter and Jessica Stolpman were nice enough to welcome us into their home, treat us as family and feed us an amazing meal. With Peter leading the way, we toured the vineyards along with Ruben Solorzano, the Vineyard Manger and famed Grape Whisperer, Kyle Knapp, the Winemaker, and special friend Earl, the vineyards best friend and watch dog.

Stolpman Vineyards are located in the Ballard Canyon AVA, just a short drive outside of Los Olivos, and is one of the most beautiful valleys that I have had the privilege to visit. The winding roads that hug the creek beds and climb up and down and everywhere around create an adventurous and explorative experience. The thoughtfully placed vineyard sites seem to harmoniously blend with the landscape, adding a touch of wonder and intrigue. In the middle of their vineyard is a giant rope swing, a human slide (that was carved out by hand), and a bike jump that have all been aimed at the reservoir that helps feed the grapes. They're a  simple reminder that enjoying the little things and embracing the fun of life is as important as the work that gets us there. They are strong believers in using natural and dry farming techniques in order to help preserve the land for generations to come.

The wines we tasted that day were not only fantastic and unique, but really made me feel there was something different to this area and the people behind the products. The Central Coast makes rosé that sings for summer nights, like the Stolpman estate-grown expression made from 100% Grenache—a fresh and elegant approach that is one of the best examples I have had in recent memory. Fresh watermelon and strawberries enlighten the senses, while juicy acid and a touch of slate give the wine a nice mouth feel. Their Sauvignon Blanc is the epitome of bright and fresh. Meyer lemons, honey and beautiful minerality give it all the talking points you could ask for. They also make a wine called L' Avion that is comprised of 100% Roussanne and is 100% spectacular. An elegant vanilla and brioche tone flows through the wine seamlessly from nose to finish. Golden raisin and pineapple are accentuated by elegant white flowers, a touch of green fig and delicate poached pear.

In that fun-oriented spirit I mentioned earlier, Stolpman makes a carbonically-fermented Sangiovese with the playful name of 'Love You Bunches'. Carbonic Fermentation (in short) is a process that ferments the majority of the juice within the grapes own skin, the bottom fruit is crushed by gravity and then ferments naturally. The resulting product from using this method is a low tannin, light, and fruity wine. ‘Love you Bunches’ is exactly that, a fun wine that offers loads of bright tart cherry acid, a light but complex body and a long fresh finish. Chilling it for twenty minutes creates the perfect aperitif on a hot day. Stolpman's 'Originals' Syrah is made from their oldest plantings, which also happen to be the oldest in the Ballard Canyon. Because of the age of the vines and use of dry farming, the yield is less than other blocks on the property. The small clusters of fruit they do produce are therefore rich and concentrated. They sort the fruit, using mostly whole clusters and ferment in cement, relying on the stem influence to add wood texture and tannin. The wine is elegant, powerful, and focused, allowing the limestone soil to fully show its influence on the vineyards. Blackberries and blueberries are in the forefront while undertones of pretty red flowers, smoke, and just the right amount of black pepper give the wine complexity and richness. The soft silky tannins and perfectly balanced acid give way to a beautiful and long finish. These are just a couple examples of what they are doing and only scratch the surface, but I would encourage anyone interested to explore their entire portfolio. 

The Central Coast wine region is an exciting frontier, full of experimental techniques and varietals. The focus on terrior and devotion to quality is testament to the hard work of so many men and women. The people, the wines, and the all encompassing beauty has set this region apart and has solidified itself as a truly magical experience full of wonder and incredible wines.

-Anthony Gittings