While not the hidden-away paradise of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s famous novel “Lost Horizon,” Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande are two small wine appellations that wine adventurers have for so long passed by unawares.
“People sometimes stumble in here on their way to Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo,” is a comment I heard from one tasting room staff member. The phenomenon may be changing though as this fog-veiled region, home to some two-dozen wineries, is finally gaining traction with wine aficionados.
A sense of quietude blankets this bucolic valley cradled by the Santa Lucia range and Seven Sisters peaks and bookended by the appellations of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County.
The region is filled with a rich history of old vine plantings, one of which actually got revived In the mid-1970s. Bill Greenough painstakingly restored an abandoned vineyard (c.1880) when he founded Saucelito Canyon Winery in Arroyo Grande. Later, in 1982, Jack Niven planted the historic Paragon Vineyard and established the Edna Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
There were other “firsts” in Arroyo Grande in the 1980s such as Talley Vineyard’s plantings of pinot noir and chardonnay and Maison Duetz’s (now Laetitia) production of sparkling wine. John Alban made his mark by planting viognier at Alban Vineyard, a whopping 32 acres at a time when only 50 acres were planted in the world and none in North America.
What makes the region special is its long growing season, cooled by the fog, kissed by the sun and shaped by the wind. While this is exquisite pinot noir and chardonnay country, other varieties thrive here vigorously — exuberant albariño and pinot gris, fragrant riesling and gewürztraminer, finicky roussanne and cool climate syrah.
Saucelito Canyon is one of four wineries in Arroyo Grande appellation. A winery that prides itself in zinfandel has a conveniently located tasting room in Edna Valley but I chose to meet with second-generation vintner Tom Greenough at his family’s historic vineyard and winery in Arroyo Grande. A long and winding drive through the canyon terrain was as remote as it gets in this rustic valley.
“We are off the power grid,” mused Greenough when I finally arrived by way of two security gates. “We are running on solar and generators.” The 320-acre property, surrounded by forest-studded mountains, is home to a three-acre block of head-pruned, dry-farmed zinfandel planted in 1880, making it the oldest commercial vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. The ranch was part of an original Spanish land grant.
“Dad grew up in the mountains and liked this spot,” said Tom of his father who searched for vineyard property from Santa Barbara to Oregon. Between late 1970s and ’80s, dad added six acres of zinfandel and a 1.5-acre block of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. An additional acre of zinfandel was planted in 2014 from the original old-vine cutting.
Later at the tasting room, we savored the 2017 vintage of 1880 Old Vine zinfandel crafted from that three-acre old vine heritage vineyard, a juicy wine with silky tannins; the 2108 Estate zinfandel and 2018 Dos Mas, a fruit-forward blend of zinfandel and petite sirah. The 2018 old vine carignan, sourced from Contra Costa County, was intoxicatingly herbal on the nose backed by impressive tannins.
Nearby Talley Vineyards and Winery is as noted for its prized vineyards as for its produce. The Talley farm was established in the 1940s, with vineyard planting added in 1982. Third-generation Brian Talley takes justifiable pride in the family’s signature pinot noirs that are silky and lyrical with bright flavors and a firm structure and chardonnays expressing the vineyard’s calcareous soil and the maritime climate.
Hailed as master of viognier, John Alban was smitten by this white varietal with his very first taste of Condrieu (name of the wine and the township in France’s northern Rhône Valley) and thus began his quest to plant this little known variety at his Alban Vineyard in 1982. He soon planted roussanne, an even harder-to-find white, in the vineyard.
More recently Alban has added syrah and grenache to his portfolio of wines that are stunning and expressive of the hillside vineyard which straddles the appellations of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. We tasted barrel samples that included the 2018 amphora-aged viognier and 2017 vintages of three distinctly different syrahs, the white pepper-laced Seymour, the smoky Reva and silky smooth Lorraine.
The winery is not open to public, but Alban wines are available through wine stores and restaurants.
Along Highway 227 the historic town site of Old Edna is a step back in time. A once bustling settlement in the 1880s, with a stagecoach stop, a hotel, blacksmith, butcher shop, cheese factory, school and three saloons, is now a draw for oenophiles.
The former general store is now home to Sextant and Windemere Wine tasting room with a deli attached. Many of the barns and buildings still remain as a reminder of the past, along with two charming vintage farmhouses offered as vacation rentals. The historic 12-acre MacGregor Vineyard, planted in 1975, is the source of Windemere’s small production of chardonnay and pinot noir that take me back to Burgundy.
Windemere wines can be bought here but not tasted. However, I did savor Sextant’s delicious reds, the 2017 Cavario, a well-structured Rhône-style blend, and the opulent 2017 Kamal cabernet sauvignon, wines produced from its estate vineyards in Paso Robles.
Among the tucked-away intimate wineries, Centre of Effort and Tolosa stand out as modern state-of-the-art wineries, known for outstanding pinot noir and chardonnay.
Center of Effort’s spectacular estate is set on a hilltop with a sweeping view the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. Before we sat down in the scenic garden for a flight tasting, winemaker Nathan Carlson led us on a barrel tasting in the cavernous winery filled with concrete egg vessels, steel tanks and barrels.
We sampled a few 2019s. “My job is to make complex wine that has a larger aging potential,” said Carlson as he guided us through chardonnays tasted three ways: the mineral version from steel barrel, the coconut-scented neutral oak-aged and a spice-laden version aging in new oak.
Afterwards a flight of four superb wines encompassed two pinots and two chards. The 2017 Effort pinot noir rang with ripe blackberries while the 2016 Center of Effort pinot was reminiscent of violets and layered with savory notes. A minerally 2017 Effort chardonnay made a sharp contrast with the 2015 Center of Effort, so rich and opulent.
At Tolosa’s gorgeous terrace overlooking the vineyard your tasting experience ranges from pinot noir to Priorat. A luxurious expedition into silky pinots and lively chardonnays is completed with a sampling of the wines of Perinet, Tolosa’s sister winery in Spain’s Priorat region.
The 1772 single vineyard flight series took us through complex pinot noirs ringing with earth, fruit and spice components and chardonnays that are exuberant with minerality and tropical fruit notes. The Perinet flight experience awakens your palate with bold and complex blends of Spanish varieties such as garnatxa and carinyena blended with syrah.
Belgium-born Jean-Pierre Wolff takes pride in his accomplishments at his namesake Wolff winery. He was the first to plant petite sirah and teroldego in the valley to go along with “the oldest chardonnay vineyard in this appellation,” a 45-year-old vineyard originally planted by Edna Valley pioneer Andy MacGregor.
With minimal intervention and using native yeast, Wolff crafts classic and elegant wines in an Old-World style that include a cool-climate syrah, effusive of white pepper, and a silky petite sirah backed with supple tannins.
Among the other charming and delicious watering holes in this viniferous Shangri-La, all within short driving distances, are Baileyana, Claiborne & Churchill, Autry Cellars, Kynsi, Biddle Ranch and Chamisal.
Although Avila Beach wineries don’t fall in the Edna Valley appellation, they come under the larger San Luis Obispo County appellation.
This is where veteran winemaker Mike Sinor and co-founder of Sinor-LaVallee winery, acquired the 112-acre sprawling Bassi Ranch, a vineyard with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
“Jump in the mule,” said Sinor pointing to a beaten-up jeep of undetermined vintage for a tour through these rolling hillsides, a hi-octane experience best described as Disneyland’s A ticket ride.
A mere 1.2 miles from the ocean, the 23-acre vineyard, rich with sandstone soil, is planted to pinot noir, chardonnay, grenache, syrah, albariño and pinot gris. We experienced part of the portfolio at his Avila Beach tasting room, wines that ring with true coastal expression: low in alcohol and high in acidity, showing freshness and minerality. The pinots are savory yet blushing with cherries, syrahs cradled with supple tannins and white wines shining with bracing acidity.
Just across the street the bicycle-themed tasting room of Peloton Cellars offers tastes from all around the Central Coast. Its minerally albariño and floral-scented Rosé are idea matches for local seafood bounty. Among the reds co-founder Trish Kesserling offered a 2017 vintages of a silky pinot noir and an inky cellar-worthy petite sirah.
Located along a rustic creek at Kelsey See Canyon winery you’ll be entertained with dozens of peacocks cawing in the garden and sample a wide variety of beverages from sparkling cider co-fermented with chardonnay to bold zinfandels, syrahs and the Big Kahuna cabernet sauvignon. The range also includes a citrusy albariño and a breezy Rhône style white blend. Get someone to let you taste the pinot as well. Then take a glass down to the creek and dip a toe in the water. Think of Shangri-La.