It's not everyday you get to sit in a historic lighthouse accessed by a particularly winding, cliff-hugging road offering eye-popping vistas, so why not taste a pinot noir while you sit staring out the window at the glittering Pacific? It's a wine made from grapes all grown within five miles of the Pacific, too. But that's the way things roll in San Luis Obispo wine country.
They like to call it SLO Wine Country, but the acronym reverberates in both positive and negative ways for the 30 or so wineries in the region. The laid-back charm of the slightly sleepier beach towns of Pismo and Avila is hard to deny -- wonderful restaurants are taking off (try Ember in Arroyo Grande and The Spoon Trade in Grover Beach); the idyllic drives through the Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys match more acclaimed California wine regions but with far less bustle and traffic, and it's easier to have more personal chats with winemakers in this region.
One difficulty, however, is that SLO wines haven't got their due yet. Forget about being outshone by Napa and Sonoma; the region often rates mere drive-through status as people taste away in Santa Barbara to the south and Paso Robles to the north. Visitors mostly only stop and make quick peeks at a gum-covered alley in San Luis Obispo, that big rock in Morro Bay, and a ridiculously grandiose men's room urinal that flushes like a waterfall at the Madonna Inn.
At that recent tasting panel in the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse, however, no one could doubt at least the pinot noir power of the region thanks to the six offerings from Center of Effort, Chamisal, Laetitia, Stephen Ross, Talley, and Tolosa. As panel moderator Mike Dawson, a journalist long associated with Wine Enthusiast, put it, "The area has some of the greatest terroir, conditions, and know-how -- Cal Poly has arrived. [Take that, UC Davis.] It's not Napa or Sonoma -- there's more collaboration here, and no template here. It's not like winemakers have to either make Big Napa Cab or react to it."
Pinot, so well known as a tricky grape to grow that the panel calls it "bratty," likes to grow slow and long, the exact conditions SLO County offers with its heat moderated by the nearby ocean. Fintan Du Fresne, the winemaker at Chamisal, talked about a preeminent climatologist's study of every grape-growing region in California that discovered Edna Valley is the coolest AVA in California with Arroyo Grande not far behind. Eric Johnson, the winemaker at Talley, says, "That means you develop subtle, nuanced flavors over a long period of time."
For consumers that means lots of lovely pinot -- fruit forward (cherry to deeper berry), but good acid too, so even better with food and it can also age a bit. That SLO isn't a huge name brand also helps the consumer, as they can't rip you off by simply putting Russian River Valley on the label. You can get a delicious bottle of pinot, often from grapes grown sustainably on estate, for less than $30.
Then there are the great stories of the region, too, like Don Orthman's at Kynsi Winery. Moving out of the L.A. area after working with exotic metals in the aerospace industry, he and his wife Gwen settled in SLO County making metal products for wineries when there were only three of wineries in Paso Robles. They preserved, the industry ramped up, and Don invented the Bulldog Pup, a device now used worldwide to get wines out of barrels without hurting the precious juice (too much pressure or air is not good for the wine).
All that hanging out with winemakers and his years helping them do what they needed taught him the industry from a wonderful angle. Kynsi (the name means "talon" in Finnish and their logo is the gopher-eating barn owl), just celebrating its 20th harvest, makes some of the best wines, especially for the price, in the region. They're sort of the embodiment of Mike Dawson's claims: essential collaborators in their welding and manufacturing business, yet also eager to buck any template. For instance one of their most striking wines is Nocturnum, a blend of both pinot noir and Grenache. If you taste some, it will be a cascade of fruit and flower, soil and soul.