Pismo to Carmel: One Taste at a Time
Join us as we travel from Pismo Beach to Carmel-by-the-Sea tasting good food, wines and stopping at sights along the scenic coast!
Part 2: San Luis Obispo and the Vineyards of Paso Robles
We were headed almost due north, following the Cambria “trail” northward. The route provides incredible views of a geologic feature that referred to as the “Seven Sisters” – volcanic peaks (plugs or magma that remained in the throat of a vlocano after it became dormant) which stretch from San Luis Obispo to the Pacific that rose from the ancient ocean floor about 25 million years ago, and provide the geology, scenery and range of soils that today result In, among other treasures, the unique wines of the area. The hills in the area also provide great trails for hiking and biking.
The golden and rolling hills of San Luis Obispo County are heavily studded with oak trees and are interspersed with extensive grasslands that give way to stunning canyons and tens of thousands of acres of vineyards. And don’t forget the close proximity to the ocean and its pristine beaches, the great local seafood, recreational activities, awesome vistas and picnic areas and, well… I think you get the idea. Aside from the wine tasting, there is likely something for everyone to enjoy in the Paso Robles area!
We have been previously been privy to the wines of Napa and Sonoma – both are regions that, in general, are cooler and a bit damper than regions to the south. In addition to probably being more well-known, the northern vineyards produce white wines (like Chardonnays) that, in my estimation are superior to the whites from the hotter and drier climes in the region to which we were headed. The Paso Robles area is more known for its reds, wines that are much more suited to the hotter and drier areas. I’m still learning about wines and this fact is something about which I was unfamiliar. In short, the whites we tasted were quite good, but the reds… they were big and bold, very tasty and well-deserving of your attention!
In the short time that we had available, we were able to stop and taste wines at five wineries in Paso Robles: Ancient Peaks, Wild Horse, Bella Luna, Grey Wolf Cellars/Barton Family Estate and Castoro Cellars. All were within a short distance of the Hampton Inn & Suites, our lodging destination for Sunday night. The Paso Robles Hampton Inn & Suites is in a perfect/central location in relation to a large number of vineyards and is also a super clean and great place to stay if you are in that area. (Note: We reviewed this Hampton Inn on TripAdvisor. You can read our review here: Hampton Inn & Suites review)
Ancient Peaks Winery
Our first stop was the Ancient Peaks Winery, on El Camino Real in Santa Margarita. It is a vineyard that boasts five distinctly different soil types that make for some very unique wines. Here we would taste what we thought was the best white wine on our tour: a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc. It was aptly described as “Bright bouquet of guava & grapefruit with flavors of pineapple and lime”. At $15, we thought it was a great deal and bought a bottle to have later. We also sampled a 2013 Reserve Chardonnay (very good, but not as good as the Sauvignon), a 2013 Pinot Noir (a slight aroma of nutmeg with a hint of dark cherry), a 2011 Petite Sirah (full-bodied with flavors of blueberry, plum and dark chocolate) and our favorite red at Ancient Peaks, a 2010 Malbec (“nuanced aromas of wild berries, cedar and mocha…”). This wine had a hint of smokiness that would make it an excellent partner with BBQ. A big thanks to Karsyn at Ancient Peaks: a great asset to the winery who was quite personable and helpful during our tasting!
We next stopped at Wild Horse Winery which, unfortunately, turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. We have had a couple of their wines before and looked forward to the tasting experience. However, those who staffed the tasting room that day – Edna was our tasting coordinator – were not very accommodating and seemed less than anxious to chat with us… We tasted a very good 2013 Viognier Central Coast (“The flavors and mouthfeel are aplenty with peach, apricot and lemon followed by a crisp, bright, medium bodied palette with a crisp lingering finish.”), as well as a 2014 Wild Horse Pinot Gris Central Coast (“rich, complex wine with aromas and flavors of pineapple, citrus, white peach, and Golden Delicious apples.”), a 2013 Wild Horse Unbridled Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County (spicy and flavorful, but a bit heavy on the fruit) and a 2013 Wild Horse Blaufrankisch Paso Robles. This was an interesting wine with a balanced acidity, but definitely not one of my favorite reds in our tastings. Wild Horse wines were also some of the more pricy wines we saw; most ranged in the high $20s to mid $30s. We did however decide to purchase a bottle of Unbridled Merlot as a gift for my sister and brother-in-law.
Almost immediately adjacent to the Wild Horse property was a very tiny winery called Bella Luna. A mere five acres in size, the vineyard (estate) is planted in Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals, and is one of the true “dry-farmed” vineyards in California. By that I mean that the vineyard is completely dependent upon ground water for growth; except for the first year or so, to get the plants started, no watering whatsoever is done. The roots of the vines therefore go quite deep into the ground for their water – as much as thirty or more feet – and a prolonged drought is no big deal for them!
There’s a great story that is definitely worth a read about owners Kevin Heale and Sherman Smoot. And the wines they produce are an even better story: big, bold red wines that are very Italian in style and flavor. Guided by Camie, we tasted a total of five wines, most notable of which were the 2013 Estate “SG13” Sangiovese and a 2013 Fighter Pilot Red Zinfandel (“…named in honor of those courageous aviators who have put themselves in harm's way - You truly have a flavor for life the protected will never know.”). Typical of such a small winery, the wines are pricy. But if you truly enjoy a hearty red wine – and I do, especially the Sangiovese – then have some shipped to you. You won’t regret it.
We decided that we still had ample time, so we headed west a short distance to Castoro Cellars, an interesting winery with a huge tasting room, a premier 18 hole disc golf course and a spacious and beautiful outdoor area to accommodate those who want to make a day of the tasting by adding a picnic on the grounds of the estate.
A certified organic winery, Castoro actually means “beaver” in Italian; the motto "dam fine wines" and a picture of a beaver is found on each label. With 750 acres of Estate vineyards – 350 acres of which are certified organic – and a 60,000 case per year of production, Castoro is a rather large operation producing a variety of wines. We tasted a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (very good, with hints of lemon grass and grapefruit, but not as good as the Sauvignon Blanc from Ancient Peaks…), a 2013 Pinot Grigio Whale Rock (hints of apricot, passion fruit and lemon), a 2013 Viognier (very drinkable and a perfect match for a Thanksgiving Turkey) and a 2013 wine simply called Tango (a signature white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Rousanne, Gewurztraminer and Marsanne). We didn’t taste any reds, as our palates were starting to suffer from all the reds we had already tasted… We did enter the “Guess the Number of Corks in the Jar” contest – and won a $40 gift certificate to Castoro Cellars!