Wine Tasting in the Edna Valley

We left early on a Friday morning, hoping to avoid the Los Angeles traffic. No luck. The drive to the California Central Coast is always a nice one, particularly once you get past the traffic in the San Fernando Valley. As we reached Santa Barbara, we head up over the San Marcos pass, and down into Santa Ynez. The recent fires in the hills above the valley were scorched and burned, all the way down to Lake Cachuma. We continue up the coast to San Luis Obispo, and arrived in time to grab lunch at Pluto’s, before getting to our first winery of the 4-day weekend. This was the beginning of our annual wine club trip, and the focus was on the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley.

Before checking into the Best Western Royal Oak, we drove out to Edna Valley in search of some of the oldest vines in California. While the vines are actually located in Arroyo Grande Valley, the tasting room for Saucelito Canyon Wines is in Edna Valley. My intent was to try the Zinfandel from the Ditmas Vineyard at Rancho Saucelito, which were planted in 1880. They claim these are the fourth oldest vines still remaining in California. Unfortunately, there is such limited supply of the 1880 Zinfandel, it is not available for tasting. But, you can purchase it, which I did. The tasting room at Saucelito Canyon is a quaint little building off of Biddle Ranch Road, with a little Pug dog running around the tasting room. There is plenty of outside seating with views of Islay Hill.

with Ryan Deovlet
Our next stop was a specially arranged tasting with Ryan Deovlet of Deovlet Wines. I met Ryan through some other winemaker friends of mine. They told me about what he was doing, and that I had to meet him. They have never steered me wrong, and this time was no exception. Deovlet Wines has a tasting room in Templeton, but his winery is located in San Luis Obispo, and most of his fruit comes from Santa Barbara County. Ryan has been around the wine industry for a number of years, and worked with (and learned from) some of the best. While you may not have heard of Deovlet wines (yet), you have heard of the other winery he is the winemaker for: Refugio Ranch. With Deovlet Wines, Ryan is producing his own label of mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sourced from some of the best vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. He also produces a wine called Sonny Boy, and homage to his grandfather, that is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Ryan had been up since the wee hours of the morning, as harvest was in full swing, yet his enthusiasm and joy for making good wine was not exhausted. You can taste the passion in his wines, and the stories behind how he made it to where he is today were inspiring. Watch for his wines, and seek them out.

Burrata appetizer
Our group gathered for dinner at the Foremost Wine Company. We were seated in the wine room. The menu offered a mix of locally sourced, farm to table, items. The appetizers were very artistic in presentation, and just as tasty…particularly the fresh Burrata.  Everyone in our group ordered something different for an entrée. The only negative about the menu was that the dessert descriptions did not match what was ultimately served. The wine list was fairly extensive, and the pricing was very good.

On Saturday morning, we all met up for the complimentary breakfast offered by the Best Western, then gathered in the lobby to meet our driver for the day. As I normally do, I hired a tour company to take us around for the day. This year, we used Breakaway Tours. Jill Gillespie has a lot of connections in the wine region, and was able to schedule a day with the winemakers of some of the smallest wineries to one of the largest. We had four wine tasting set up for the day, along with a lunch. Our driver, Rich, arrived right on time, and we loaded up for the day.

with Mike Sinor
Our first stop was in Avila Beach, where we met with Cheri LaValle. She and her husband Mike Sinor own and run Sinor-LaValle. Cheri poured the wines, and began telling us how they started their winery. About a half hour in, Mike showed up and filled in the gaps with many stories about the wine industry, how they got to where they are, and his love for Burgundy. That Burgundian style of terroir driven wines, is what Mike looks for in his Pinot Noirs, Syrah, and Chardonnay Mike is another of those winemakers that also works are a larger, well known winery. He is the winemaker for Ancient Peaks (I winery I have been a fan of for years). All of the Sinor-LaValle wines are produced from grapes grown at the Bassi Vineyard, a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. They offer three different styles of each grape variety through their White Label, Black Label, and SLO Estate bottlings. Mike is also bottling a pétillant naturel wine (also known as “Pet Nat”) - a lightly sparkling wine, with a crown cap closure. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any available to taste at the time we were there. Oh, and if you are wondering about the design on their label….it is actually their thumbprint.

Tasting in the backyard at Chêne
We drove around Avila Beach, then headed back into the Edna Valley, and found our next winery located on a hill, overlooking the Edna Valley. Chêne Vineyards didn’t show up on any of the local information pamphlets, but picking up a 2017-2018 Visitor Brochure, you can now find them. David and Lisa Platt opened up there house, and backyard to our group, and allowed us to taste their small production wines.  There was a large picnic table set up in the backyard, overlooking the Edna Valley. They produce their wines at the Center of Effort winery, which was visible from their property. The house is surrounded by 6.2 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards.  Both David and Lisa are pilots, but have found the time to hand harvest their grapes, and produce wines with limited intervention. They rely on natural yeasts, and organic farming. Production is only a few hundred cases. The results are a truly unique and personal tasting experience. If you visit them, make an appointment, and don’t expect to pick up your wine at their house. Our wine was boxed and delivered to our hotel by the time we returned later that afternoon. Also, check out the menagerie of animals on the property. I won’t give it away, but their daughters have some unique pets.

So, we’ve been to two smaller operations. Now, we headed to the Arroyo Grande Valley, and visited one of the largest wineries in the area: Talley Vineyards. This was not my first tasting at Talley, and I’ve written about them before. We were given a private tasting room, and went through about five or six wines. They specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but my favorite on this visit was their Bishop’s Peak Elevation (a red Bordeaux blend). As we were leaving, we admired all the cilantro and peppers that were growing outside the building. We walked into the little farmers stand to see what was offered and ran into Brian Talley. I commented on all the cilantro and the wonderful smell in the air. Thinking that Talley had built their farming on cilantro, I was told by Brian that his father and grand-father were both allergic to cilantro, and didn’t grow it….learned something new there.

Goofing around for a group photo at El Lugar
Our last stop of the day took us back by the San Luis Obispo airport, and a group of warehouse buildings. We drove around a bit looking for El Lugar winery, but couldn’t find anything. Then, we noticed a small winery sign in front of The Petal Club.  It ends up that Coby Parker-Garcia conducts his wine tastings out of his wife’s floral business. She was out doing a wedding, so tasting duties and storytelling fell on Coby. My first thought was that I knew him from somewhere. After some discussion, I knew where. Coby is also the winemaker at Claiborne & Churchill Winery. We had met a few years back while tasting at their winery. El Lugar only makes Pinot Noir, including a Pinot Noir Blanc. Once again, the passion of the small producers comes through in their wine. 2013 was the first vintage for El Lugar, so this is still a small production startup. Knowing what Coby has done at Clairborne & Churchill, watch for El Lugar.

Group dinner at Cafe Roma
We ended Saturday with a group dinner on the patio of Café Roma, in San Luis Obispo. Handmade pastas, farm to table ingredients and a wine list full of local and Italian wines. The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced. The entrée and appetizer choices were varied and delicious. A great way to end a Saturday in the Edna Valley.

Read the next blog for a continuation of a four day weekend.

Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley

While driving to the Central Coast wine Regions of Paso Robles or Santa Barbara County, it is easy to drive right past two of the smaller AVA’s in California: Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Both are part of the larger Central Coast AVA. Unusual for California, both Valleys have more west to east orientations versus the north to south, leaving them unprotected from the Pacific Ocean.

Mission San Luis Obispo
The area’s wine history follows that of the rest of California. Father Junipero Serra established a mission in what is now San Luis Obispo, back in 1772. Mission grapes were planted around the mission for sacramental wine. At the time, the mission produced the most prized wines in Alta California.

In 1845, the mission was sold to Captain John Wilson, and ceased its’ use as a church. By 1856, the official city of San Luis Obispo was incorporated, and by 1861 became a stagecoach route for those traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. About this same time, Pierre Hoppolyte Dallidet revived the original mission vineyard, and others soon began planting vineyards of their own. Just down the road, in what would become Edna Valley, dairyman Edgar Steele had purchased 58,000 acres for his dairy farm, and housing for his employees. In 1883 Lynford Maxwell subdivided the area, and called it Maxwellton. The local citizens later renamed it Edna. Even later, the entire valley became known as Edna Valley. Most of the grapes produced in the valley were shipped to San Francisco.

Paragon Vineyard
The Edna Valley remained a rural farming area until 1973, when two families planted grape vines in the valley. Jack and Catherine Niven, as well as the Goss Family both started in that year. The Nivens planted the Paragon Vineyard with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, creating the Edna ValleyWinery. Norman Goss also planted Chardonnay at the Chamisal vineyard. Chamisal was the first commercially produced wine in the valley.

In 1975, Andy MacGregor planted his first vineyard and few years later planted the Orcutt Vineyard. The fourth winery was founded in 1978, by Corbett Canyon (anyone remember the old commercials with the echoing “canyon, canyon, canyon”?).

Claiborne & Churchill was founded in 1983 by Claiborne Thompson and Fredericka Churchill. They focused on Riesling and Gewürztraminer. 

Winemaker John Alban began planting Rhone Varietals Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier in the early nineties. Alban wines are highly sought after, and expensive. John is one of the founders of the “Rhone Rangers”, who promoted the use of Rhone grape varieties in the Central Coast.

While the region is often thought of as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir country, you can clearly see that is not the case.

Jack Niven was the one who first recognized the uniqueness of the Edna Valley, and began the process to have it recognized as an AVA. In June, 1987, the Edna Valley AVA was established, covering 28,858 acres of which approximately 2,923 is planted.

The new AVA was distinguished by the close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The hilly valley is oriented along a northwest to southeast alignment and runs about 10 miles. It is located on average, about 600 above sea level. This allows the cool Pacific breezes and morning fog to enter the valley from Morro Bay, through a gap in mountains known as Los Osos Valley. Edna valley is roughly bounded by Lake Lopez to the south, Islay Hill to the north, the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, and Los Machos hills to the east.
The volcanic range, known as the Nine Sisters, helped create the soil found in the valley. This volcanic range starts with Morro Rock in the northwest, and ends with Islay Hill in the southeast. Much of the valley was once part of the Pacific Ocean and ancient marine sediments have left a fertile base of calcareous shale and course sand. The soil is further enriched with dark humus, loam and clay. The Edna Valley appellation has one of California’s longest growing seasons. The extended growing season gives complex flavors to the grapes, with more balance in terms of sugars and acidity. The cool growing conditions result in traditionally very low yielding crops.

The Edna Valley is small. There are only 23 “resident” (production facilities or estate vineyards) wineries in Edna Valley AVA, but the close proximity to Hwy 101 makes it a popular stop for wine lovers. Edna Valley is also the AVA with the highest percentage of sustainably farmed vineyards, certified under the SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified™ program.

Arroyo Grande Valley
Edna Valley wines are often grouped with those of the contiguous Arroyo Grande Valley, but the Arroyo Grande Valley climate is more diverse than it neighbor to the north, and while the AVA covers more acreage, there is less planted with grape vines.

Arroyo Grande translates to “wide riverbed” in Spanish. While its’ history is similar to that of Edna Valley, the first recorded vineyard development dates back to 1879, when Henry and Rosa Ditmas grew Zinfandel and Muscat grapes in the area. Zinfandel is still made from the ancient vines.

In 1968, Jack Foote experimented with vineyards in Arroyo Grande. The region was thought to be too cold to produce quality grapes. However, his vines were successful, and soon others became interested in growing grapes area.

Talley Vineyard
Arroyo Grande Valley was granted AVA status in February, 1990. The AVA covers a little over 39,000 acres, but only about 1,230 is planted. The AVA is composed of a 16-mile-long winding valley that has a southwest to northeast orientation. Similar to Edna Valley, the soil is made up of sedimentary and volcanic soils over a bedrock layer known as “Franciscan Assemblage”. Also similar to Edna Valley, the western most side benefits from the cool ocean breezes and fog, but the Eastern side is beyond the normal fog line, and is therefore warmer. The west is where most of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted, while the warmer, more mountainous east is where the Rhone varieties and Zinfandel are found.

There are fewer wineries in the Arroyo Grande Valley. Currently there are only eleven “resident” wineries located in the AVA. But, those eleven are very diverse, due to the many microclimates. They include Laetitia (previously Maison Duetz) in the southwest, which was the first sparkling wine producer in the area (1982). Laetitia is the largest producer in the AVA, followed by Talley Vineyards. Talley Vineyards’ farming history began in 1948 when Oliver Talley started growing vegetables (peppers, cabbage, avocados and cilantro) in the Valley. In the early 80s, his son Don added grapevines. Talley Vineyards is located mid-valley, and is known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Above the fog line is Saucelito Canyon, which has revitalized the old growth Zinfandel vines from the Ditmas Vineyard.

While there aren’t many wineries in Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley, what you will find is cool region wines. The soil and climate create wines that aren’t found in other regions of California. For this reason, many wineries, which are not located in the area, purchase grapes from the region to produce wines. So next time you are driving the Central Coast, don’t miss these two smaller AVAs. You’ll be glad you stopped.