Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
THE CENTRAL COAST IS OFF THE RADAR SCREEN." said Ian McFadden, wine director at Marty's in Allston. "Consumers have no idea where the Central Coast is or how the wines are different." At the 2OO6 Boston Wine Expo, I decided to ask Central Coasters what comprised the Central Coast. I was surprised to discover that some Central Coasters did not include the counties of Santa Cruz, Contra Costa, Alameda, and Santa Clara in "the Central Coast". The producers I spoke to in Santa Cruz County, however, clearly counted themselves in. Authors confused the issue for me. An AVA map on page 271 in Johnson's and Robinson's " The World Wine Atlas of Wine" (Mitchell Beazley, 2OO1) identifies the Central Coast AVA as stretching from the northern edge of Monterey Country down to the suburbs of Santa Barbara. In Bob Thompson's "The Wine Atlas of California" (Simon & Schuster,1993), a map on page 112 identifies the Central Coast as extending from Contra Costa County down to Santa Barbara. The confusion may arise over differing perceptions of the confines of the Central Coast Approved Viticultural Area and a phrase that simply refers to an area comprising a 25 mile wide corridor of coastal flats and hills which stretches about 25O miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Title 27, Part 9 of the official listing of Approved American Viticultural Areas identifies the AVA thus: The Central Coast viticultural area is located in the following California counties: Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Alameda, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Contra Costa. However, the official description excludes The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The AVA definition is the one that I will use in this article.
PIECING TOGETHER A HISTORY OF THE CENTRAL COAST is also more difficult than it might seem. I know of no single substantial and authoritative "wine" book that focuses on the area. A combination of Thomas Pinney's, "A History of Wine in American from the Beginnings to Prohibition ( University of California Press, 1989) and his "A History of Wine in America from Prohibition to the Present." (University of California Press, 2OO5) turned out to be my best source. The California industry grew out from the environs of its two most important coastal cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Surprisingly it was not San Francisco, but Los Angeles that gave birth to the commercial California wine industry. In 1833 in Los Angeles, Bordeaux emigre Jean-Louis Vignes set up California's first commercial winery. Soon small commercial wineries existed not only in greater Los Angeles but also at Cucamonga 4O miles east of Los Angeles and at Rancho Jurupa, now known as Riverside, about the same distance to the southeast. Los Angeles wineries dominated the industry until the mid-185Os, when Sonoma and then Napa became more important loci for wine production. In the 188Os, Cresta Blanca, Wente and Concannon wineries got started in the Livermore Valley in Alameda County. While these wineries went on to become well-known, small-sized winery ventures popped up in various locales along the Central Coast. The double whammy of phylloxera and Prohibition destroyed high quality wine production and the sophistication of consumers. The best wine varieties were uprooted in favor of Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Grenache, Mission, and Palomino. Coming out of that era in the 193Os, there were no extensive vineyards in the Central Coast beyond what existed in the counties of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo. The first break out of the satellite counties of San Francisco occurred when Almaden, in 1956, bought the large Paicines Ranch in San Benito County. Almaden had this in production by the early 196Os. In the 196Os and 197Os, the need for more vineyards combined with the rapid growth of suburbia forced wine producers to look further within the undeveloped interior of the Central Coast.
During the 193Os, University of California professors Maynard Amerine and A. J. Winkler had devised a system, now known as the degree-day system, of pairing wine grape varieties with climatic zones. In the 196Os, A. J. Winkler recommended the Salinas Valley in Monterey County as a site for winegrape vineyards. Taking the cue, the Paul Masson and Mirassou companies, located in Santa Clara County, jointly planted 1OOO acres in the Salinas Valley. They planted a range of varieties in order to find out what varieties performed best where. Between 1972 and 1974, at the southern end of the Salinas Valley, the Delicato Winery installed the massive San Bernabe vineyard comprising 1O,OOO contiguous acres. From 1966 to 1976, Monterey County vineyard acreage soared from 1O9O to 33,OOO acres. In succeeding years, a variety of companies made vineyard investments in the Shandon-Estrella and Edna Valley regions of San Luis Obispo County, and in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys of Santa Barbara County, From 197O to 2OOO, the number of wineries in Monterey Country jumped from 1 to 24, in San Luis Obispo County from 3 to 63, and in Santa Barbara County from 1 to 54.
The degree-day system was only partially successful in pairing varieties to location. During the 197Os, Salinas Valley Cabernets showed strong bell-pepper characteristics. Even though the variety had been sited using the degree-day system, the system did not take into account the effects of strong afternoon winds that move down the Salinas Valley from the Ocean. The winds temporarily shut down vine maturation, slowing the maturation of grapes. Subsequently, Cabernet vines were relocated farther up the valley at warmer locations. Chardonnay, due to its popularity and wide adaptability to climates, was planted widely. Maison Deutz set up a sparkling wine house in the Arroyo Grande AVA of San Luis Obispo County in 1982. Though the venture eventually failed, it brought into the Central Coast a significant amount of Pinot Noir. Since the 199Os, Pinot Noir still wines made in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, the Edna Valley AVA, the Santa Maria Valley AVA, and parts of the Santa Ynez Valley have excelled. Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah, have also seen great vineyard expansion in the Central Coast. Randall Graham's presence at Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz area was seminal in giving Rhone varieties buzz. The Perrin family of Chateauneuf-du-Pape invested in Tablas Creek on the west side of Paso Robles giving even more credibility to the promise of a Rhonish Central Coast. Zinfandel has been in production in the Paso Robles area since the 188Os and today Paso Robles continues to be associated with the variety. Speaking more generally about the way he works with Central Coast raw material, Adam LaZarre, winemaker at Hahn Estates, told me that "Climatic and soil conditions vary greatly throughout the Central Coast. Nine out of 1O years, I need to blend in wines from other Central Coast locales, perhaps using other varieties, to complete my wines' profiles. Within the Central Coast, there are no appellations, such as Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, where conditions are consistently ideal for a wide range of varieties. Blending is essential here." Lazarre also mentioned that the alcohol levels of Central Coast wines tends to be high, but he was hopeful that viticultural methods could lower the levels in future wines.
Recently I tasted some Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Syrahs from the Central Coast. With respect to the Chardonnays, I noted deep color intensity, high concentration of flavor, high alcohol, and high acidity. The outstanding characteristics of the Pinot Noirs and Syrahs were high flavor concentration and high alcohol levels. Increased wine color, more concentrated flavors and the coincidence of high acidity and high alcohol are the usual effects of slow ripening and picking at advanced levels of ripeness at low temperatures &endash; conditions which are common to many Central Coast vineyard areas.
IN MY TASTING NOTES THAT FOLLOW At the end of each wine note, I have listed the alcohol percentages by volume as they appear on the labels. The prices listed are my estimates of retail pricing. I have included a 1 to 2O point score based on my assessment of the wine's absolute quality. A score of 1O refers to a basic, well made wine without flaws. A 15 point score indicates a superb wine.