Wining, Dining & Touring in California’s Central Coast

In the past few years I have traveled to and written about Sonoma, Napa, Livermore and San Mateo, all reachable through San Francisco. Most recently I spent a week south of the San Francisco airport. My first stop was San Jose, followed by Santa Cruz, Gilroy, Monterey/Carmel, Paso Robles and Hearst Castle. On my next trip I will start in Los Angeles and travel to Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton, Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley & San Luis Obispo, thus completing my central Coast odyssey. This story will deal with the wine portion of that trip with a bit of tourism information for those few hours when you will not be thinking about wine and food. First I will try to explain exactly what constitutes The Central Coast.
According to an appellation is a wine growing region with officially recognized boundaries. Appellation designations are required on wine labels to identify the origin of the grapes used in making the wine. Vineyard locations rather than winery locations determine appellation. There are two classes of appellations- political boundaries (states, provinces and counties) and appellations defined by geographic boundaries based on topography, climate and soil types. These geographically based appellations are known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). It’s about the terroir. The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region. The US has 194 AVAs in 25 states and California has 108 of those. The Central Coast region I visited has 29 in 7 counties and encompasses vineyards from San Francisco to Santa Barbara and all that lies between. My trip reached as far as Paso Robles, which is 122 miles from Santa Barbara. There are about 100,000 acres under vine in the Central Coast. The appellation was granted based on the shared cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean. There are presently over 2,800 commercial wineries in California with 622 wineries utilizing the Central Coast designation. What I immediately learned was that some of the finest producers don’t have tasting rooms and you can visit only by appointment. Conversely, a great many of the wineries I visited sell only from a tasting room and have very small production. If an AVA is listed on a wine label at least 85% of the grapes used to make that wine must have been grown in that AVA. There are over 55 grape varieties grown in the Central Coast region with Syrah, Chardonnay (largest), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Zinfandel and Viognier the main choices.

My trip itself was a whirlwind of activity and discovery. Even though air travel is no longer much fun, going Business Class on a 6-hour flight sure beats the alternative. I used the Delta Lounge at JFK, ate actual food and watched movies & live TV. You even get 2 bags checked free and all for 45,000 frequent flier mileage. The Internet really worked for me in researching a weekly car rental. I don’t tend to plug service vendors but $200 with all taxes for a PT Cruiser (I loved that car) was a bargain. In less than an hour I was at the San Jose Marriott where they gave me access to the Concierge Lounge with a free computer, breakfast and a great view from the 26th floor. The Winchester Mystery House Mansion Tour was not my cup of tea. It didn’t help that it was 98 degrees outside and up to 120 inside the 160-room former home of the widow to the Winchester Rifle company. The younger kids might not enjoy the history lesson but teenagers and adults who are into haunted houses or bizarre architecture might like it. The good thing is they allowed me to park there for the evening and I walked a block to Santana Row, a Mediterranean-style retail and entertainment district filled with trendy eateries (their words), fashion boutiques and bars.

There are 70 shops and 20 restaurants. It seemed perfect for the Silicon Valley crowd that appeared to fill every place. I spent an hour at Vintage Wine Merchants at Santana Row and their sister operation Vintage Wine Bar. Their artisanal cheese & charcuterie plates complimented the 25 wines by the glass. A block away was my dinner at Village California Bistro & Wine Bar, with artisan seasonal ingredients & 400 wines, including 85 1/2 bottles (a great idea for the solo or couple diners).

The next morning I opened the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, located inside the gardens of Rosicrucian Park. They boast the largest display of Egyptian artifacts in the western U.S. The Tech Museum of Innovation was inspired by its Silicon Valley location and is great for kids. Over 80,000 school kids come here every year for its 250 interactive exhibits and the IMAX theatre. Then it was lunch at the Arcadia Restaurant (a Michael Mina operation) back in the Marriott. Since the convention center is next door and there was nothing going on that day the restaurant was empty, except for our table located in the Wine Room. They carry 220 wines.
My wine adventure began in Santa Cruz, 30 miles southwest of San Jose. I spent the night at a charming B&B called the Adobe on Green Street, only a few blocks from the center of town. Pacific Avenue is a pedestrian-friendly district with art galleries, outdoor cafes and shops all anchored by the clock tower dating from 1900. Vacationers have been drawn to Santa Cruz since the 1800’s. The century-old Beach Boardwalk is home to two National Historic Landmarks. It features the West Coast’s oldest seaside amusement park. The Giant Dipper is a vintage wooden roller coaster that is 85 years old. The Carousel, built in 1911, features 73 hand-carved horses. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, located in a lighthouse, pays homage to Olympian Duke Kahanamoku’s visit in 1912. I watched the surfers ride the waves at Steamer Lane.

My first wine stop was on the Wharf at Vino Prima Wine Bar that features California only wines by the glass, bottle or flight. There is Thrifty Tuesday with a buy one glass of wine, get one free plus 2 hours of free parking. The wharf stretches 1/2 mile into Monterey Bay and is lined with fish markets, restaurants and gift shops. I was off to meet one of my favorite wine people- Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Winery. He had recently sold his mountain winery & several of his high volume labels to concentrate on his small production wines. His new tasting room is right outside of downtown and we talked about his upcoming book (September) called- Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology. Dinner was at Crows Nest, along the waterfront on Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, which stretches 276 miles and is a federally protected marine area.

The next morning I walked to downtown Santa Cruz & Vinocruz Wine Tasting Room. They house a selection of over 200 wines made by more than 65 wineries, all within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Another 2 block walk and lunch was at Center Street Grill. On my way out of town I stopped at Bargetto Winery in Soquel, the longest continuously operated winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, celebrating their 76th anniversary. They still produce a line of dessert wines under the Chaucer label that I have enjoyed for years. I discovered their La Vita (the life) a blend of Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Refosco.

An hour’s drive up scenic (windy & scary) Route 152 (Hecker Pass Highway) and I arrived in Gilroy, the southernmost city in Santa Clara County. Along with the city of Morgan Hill there are 21 boutique wineries with almost all of the sales coming from tasting room visitors. I visited Sarah’s Vineyard, Solis Winery, Clos La Chance, Jason-Stephens Winery & Kirigin Cellars in my afternoon and morning in the area. Gilroy is known for its Garlic Festival that takes place in late July and is in its 31st year. I even had a chance to taste garlic ice cream (don’t ask). Its nickname as the Garlic Capital of the World comes from the fact that Gilroy Foods processes more garlic than any other factory in the world; most pickled, minced, and powdered garlic come from Gilroy. The Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is a living, natural place where the 40 rides and attractions come alive in a setting of majestic waterfalls, lush gardens and astounding (I have never seen anything like them) circus trees. It is California’s only horticultural theme park. The West Side Grill was touted as the best restaurant in Gilroy and I was not disappointed. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, which was only 1 minute from Interstate 101, which would lead me to my next stop- Monterey.
In an hour I was meeting Rhonda Motil, Executive Director of the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association for lunch at the C Restaurant at the InterContinental Clement Hotel on Cannery Row in Monterey. John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row has now evolved to 30 restaurants, clubs and pubs, plus hundreds of shops. Nearby Fisherman’s Wharf is a family-friendly collection of waterside restaurants. Rhonda did an overview of Monterey County wines and their 9 AVA’s. It is the cooling effect of Monterey Bay, one of the deepest bays in the world, the long growing season and that legendary fog that account for the great wines of Monterey. There are over 40,000 acres of vines (translates to 150 vineyards) and nearly 30 tasting rooms between Cannery Row, Carmel-by-the-Sea, River Road and the Carmel Valley. There are 65 wineries in the county, many specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (see the paragraph below for a list of winery/tasting rooms visited). We walked across the street to the Scheid Tasting Room. Who knew that Scheid is one of the largest independent growers of premium wine grapes for over 100 wineries? I relaxed in their stylish lounge and comfy chairs while discussing the truism that great wine begins in the vineyards. Back across the street is the Taste of Monterey Wine Shop with over 85 Monterey wineries for sale. This time it was two blocks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, voted the #1 in the US by Zagat.
Big Sur is located approximately 30 miles south of Monterey via Highway 1, but don’t think it will take you a half hour. The road zigs and zags, and you better hold on to the steering wheel with both hands. I stopped at least 6 times at overlooks to take in the beauty of the cliffs, water and animal life. I do not recommend this drive at night. It is wild and rugged and maybe the world’s most beautiful drive. Highway 1 is California’s first designated Scenic Highway. There are no towns in Big Sur but an assemblage of resorts, restaurants, lodges, campgrounds, art galleries and natural hot springs. I was about to spend the evening 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the Post Ranch Inn, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. There are 40 guest rooms and all are designed with a rustic luxurious elegance. Besides my king size bed there was a wood-burning fireplace (it gets cold at night, even in the summer), an indoor spa tub and a private terrace with whirlpool; no TV’s or internet for maximum relaxation, though there is a TV & computer in the library. Dinner was at the Sierra Mar Restaurant where my table overlooked the cliff and ocean. The four-course prix fixe menu is $105, plus beverages, tax & tip. But if one can afford the room rates, which start at $550, why worry about dinner prices (breakfast is included in the room rate)? The restaurant held a Wine Spectator Grand Award from 1993 to 2005 (2,700 selections) when ownership of the restaurant changed to the operators of the inn. They have reapplied for the award this year.

Next it was back the 30 miles into Carmel, and this time I did not stop. I visited several tasting rooms and wineries including: Taste Morgan, Chateau Julien Wine Estates, Heller Estate Organic Vineyards & Winery, Boekenoogen Vineyard & Winery Tasting Room and Parsonage Village Vineyards with lunch (with the winemaker) at the Wickets Bistro at Bernandus Lodge (down the road for the winery of the same name). L’Auberge Carmel in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea is a luxury 20-room inn built in 1929 and is located 4 blocks from the beach. As luck would have it I arrived in time for their monthly wine and food dinner. This time the entire meal used vegetables in every course. The 4,500-bottle wine cellar was used to match each course with a wine. I had time to walk 2 blocks to the Ocean Avenue, the main street of the town that is the home to 45 inns and a mecca for artists and writers. There are no fast food restaurants, neon signs or parking meters in town. Remember Clint Eastwood was once the mayor. He “made my day.”
One does not come to this part of California without taking the famous Pebble Beach 17 Mile Drive. It was very early and there was little traffic as I once again stopped at most of the viewing points watching golfers hit over and around the water and walking around the Pebble Beach Lodge. I was off to Paso Robles, about a two-hour drive along Highway 101; not narrow curves & hair-raising turns, just a normal California road. On the way I stopped in Salinas, the lettuce bowl of the world, to visit Pessagno Winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. A few miles south is Soledad located in one of the premiere wine grape growing regions of California with over twenty vineyards and wineries within a thirty-mile radius. I stopped at Hahn Estates/Smith & Hook, Chalone Vineyard & Paraiso Vineyards.

In an hour I was at my hotel in Paso Robles, the La Bellasera Inn. A suggestion on behalf of visitors to the city fathers: add better road signs! Who knew that Route 46 East & Route 46 West were different exits? I just assumed that one side of the road went east and the other west. Wrong! -and that is why I initially had trouble finding wineries that were on different parts of the same road. There are over 26,000 vineyard acres and almost 170 wineries in the Paso Robles area. I didn’t travel farther south into the rest of San Luis Obispo county which is the 3rd largest wine producing county in California with more than 200 wineries. That will be on the menu for my next story when I travel north from Los Angeles. I visited Peachy Canyon Winery, Turley Wine Cellars, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Zenaida Cellars, Lone Madrone, Eberle Winery, Meridian Vineyards and Eagle Castle Wine Cellar (shaped like a giant European castle). It was easy finding downtown Paso Robles as well as my dinner at Artisan Restaurant with the couple that founded First Crush. They explained that it is the perfect weekend blend of fun, work, relaxation and a luxurious wine making safari. First Crush winemaking experience will take aspiring winemakers into a Paso Robles vineyard where they will harvest your own wine grapes. They will crush and de-stem their fruit and then have numerous opportunities to participate in its transformation into a custom-made, privately labeled wine.

In less than an hour I arrived at Hearst Castle. Had I gone directly from Monterey using Route 1 it would have been 90 miles of the most dramatic coastline in the US. Tour 1 is recommended for first-time visitors as it provides a broad overview of the many facets of Hearst Castle and it is the least physically strenuous of the tours. Its duration is 1 hour and 45 minutes, which includes the bus ride to and from the castle. Tour 1 includes the companion movie, Hearst Castle Building the Dream, shown on the giant 5-story screen in the Hearst Castle Theater. Included are visits to the Esplanade & Gardens with their marble sculptures & flowers. Casa Del Sol is the 18-room guesthouse. The Neptune Pool (outdoors) and Roman Pool (indoors) are also included in the tour as is the Casa Grande or main house. Completed in 1947 (after 28 years of construction) William Randolph Hearst had created an estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. It is now known as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument and is administrated as a state park.
In about 4 hours I was at San Francisco airport to overnight before returning to New York City. In 8 days I never had any traffic problems and the weather ranged from 98 degrees my first two days to the low 50’s during a few nights. I drove over 800 miles and did not have a single problem. Can you say that about your trip?