Say hello to the newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) – San Luis Obispo Coast. This dreamy cool-climate wine region stretches roughly 60 miles long from south of Big Sur to just north of Santa Maria. Designated an AVA on March 9, 2022, San Luis Obispo (SLO) Coast includes the existing appellations of Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley. Edna and Arroyo Grande are two scenic valleys where vineyard views, rolling hills, and uncrowded country roads offer visitors a welcoming, slow-paced opportunity to experience wine tasting in what feels like stepping back in time. Think Sonoma County in its early days.
Over 20 grape varieties flourish along the SLO Coast but the region is particularly well-suited to cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Other aromatic white varieties like Reisling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer grow well here as do Rhone varieties such as Syrah and Viognier. Because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, wines produced here are shaped by the influences of fog, ocean breezes, and abundant sunshine.
While grape vines were planted in the San Luis Obispo coastal region by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande began to emerge as modern wine regions. But even today there are just over 30 wineries in the SLO Coast AVA, keeping it small and approachable.
Here are four wineries you’ll want to visit the next time you head to the SLO Coast:
In 1986 Talley Vineyards produced its first vintage. It was also the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in the Arroyo Grande Valley. In 2021, Wine and Spirits named Talley Vineyards one of Top 100 Wineries for the year, just one of the many accolades they’ve earned over the years.
Located in the Arroyo Grande appellation, Talley Vineyards offers a seated tasting experience inside its gorgeous new tasting room or outside overlooking the newly planted courtyard. Talley produces a wide variety of estate grown Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that reflect the unique flavors of the San Luis Obispo Coast.
Once seated, the tasting room lead, James, walked us through a relaxed tasting one wine at a time, with full descriptions of the wines, the source of the grapes, and history of the winery. A tasting includes 5 – 6 of their current releases, at $30 per person. Allow 75 minutes for a tasting. Or choose a taste of terroir that includes 6 – 8 of their single-vineyard wines and a charcuterie platter for $60 per person.
The 2020 Oliver’s Chardonnay is reminiscent of a Burgundian white. The 2019 Rincon Chardonnay reflects the characteristics you expect from the Central Coast. It offers distinctive aromas of hazelnut and honey, caramel and marzipan flavors, and a rich, creamy palate.
The 2019 Rincon Pinot Noir, also French Burgundy in style, features notes of dark cherry and currant flavors, with a big mouthfeel.
Claiborne and Churchill
Claiborne and Churchill’s outdoor garden tasting area oozes with downhome charm. A spacious tree-shaded garden with several chairs, sofas, and tables spread across expansive grounds offers ample seating for small and large groups. Outdoor gaslit firepits provide warmth on those cooler afternoons. And lights wrapped around tree trunks add an extra twinkle to the setting. Views of vineyards, the Santa Lucia Mountain Range in the distance, and a nearby horse pasture add to the relaxed, rustic setting.
Two former teachers at the University of Michigan started the winery. They fell in love with the Edna Valley during a 1981 visit to California. Soon Clay Thompson and Fredericka Churchill Thompson quit their jobs and moved to California where Clay interned at Chalone Vineyard. Then during a 1983 trip to Germany, Clay and Fredericka developed a love for well-structured Rieslings and Gewurztraminer of Alsace. These types of wines were the inspiration for their winery which they still produce today. Their story and that of the winery is told in five large poster-sized signs along the outdoor tasting room.
Claiborne and Churchill Winery offers a flight of five wines for $24 per person. Once seated, our wine server delivered a glass with a taste of the Gewurztraminer and a paddle with four small carafes of dry Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Grenache. The winery is known for its dry Alsace-style wines. Upon tasting, it’s easy to see why.
The dry Gewurztraminer displays classic aromas of tropical fruit and lychee in the nose. On the palate it is dry with a well-structured finish. The 2020 dry Riesling tastes bright and clean with notes of citrus, stone fruit, and a bit of spice. And while the Alsace-style wines are the hit of the show, the 2020 Chardonnay, the 2019 Twin Creeks Pinot Noir, and the 2019 Grenache were equally impressive.
Malene Wines is just plain fun and a “must visit” when in SLO. The winery only produces Rosé, a fact made clear by the giant “Rosé this way” sign along the entry to the winery. One of the newest SLO wineries, Malene debuted in 2016 with its inaugural vintage of Malene Rosé. By 2018, it released two more Rosés. Now its portfolio is dedicated to making only Rosé, something embraced by their passionate followers.
Its outdoor seating spreads across a gravel stone patio with gorgeous views of Edna Valley in every direction. But it’s the mobile tasting room that really adds to the Malene tasting experience. The tasting room operates from a ’69 Airstream trailer parked adjacent to Chamisal Vineyard’s winery in the SLO Coast for the summer months. The Airstream has also been known to show up at nearby beaches and music festivals.
Tastings cost $25 per person. With country western music playing in the background and a cool ocean breeze blowing, we settled in for a seated tasting of four Rosés.
The 2020 Old Vine Rosé of Grenache was the lightest in color but one of the most floral and aromatic of them all. Notes of tangerine, cotton candy, and cantaloupe surprised and delighted me. A subtle oak influence complements the focused acidity. The Camp 4 Vineyard Rosé of Mourvèdre is Malene’s Provence-style wine. The 2020 Rosé Cuvee is Malene’s most popular wine. It’s bright and fresh with peach, citrus, and strawberry flavors and a crisp, refreshing finish.
Chamisal Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in Edna Valley, was first planted in 1973. The wine making philosophy then and today is to let the vineyard do the work. The goal is to express the terroir and fresh coastal ocean air of California’s Central Coast and, more specifically Chamisal’s 82-acre estate vineyard.
Chamisal also has stunning views of rolling hills covered in grapevines and the San Luis Range in the distance. Spacious outdoor seating on the patio provides a nearly 360-degree view of the surrounding scenery.
Chamisal offers the Estate Patio Experience, a tasting of five wines for $35 per person, plus two other options for premium tasting experiences. The winery specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines for which SLO is well suited. It also produces a delightful Estate Sparkling Wine.
Its flagship wines are Chamise Chardonnay and the Morrito Pinot Noir. The 2018 Morrito Pinot Noir offers notes of black currant, cherry, and a hint of cedar. Its silky concentration of fruit and silky texture feels plush on the palate.
The 2019 Estate Chardonnay was my favorite. With candied lemon peel and vanilla custard flavors, notes of key lime and pineapple added to the complexity and delightful layers of this classic Central Coast Chardonnay.
If You Go to the SLO Coast
The nearby town of San Luis Obispo offers plenty of accommodations and restaurants in the downtown area. Alaska, American, and United Airlines fly to San Luis Obispo Regional Airport. However, San Luis Obispo is about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles for those flying into international airports. And Alaska Airlines “Wine Flies Free” program allows passengers to check a case of wine for free when you fly from 32 Westcoast cities. SLO Coast Wine provides more information on its member wineries and events.
So, the next time you head to this lovely coastal region for wine tasting, be sure to spend some in America’s newest AVA. You’ll love the laid-back experience, the region, the weather, and the wines!