The 15 Central Coast California Wines to Drink If You Want to Be an Expert
When most people think of California’s great wines they tend to look at Napa Valley, ignoring the wealth of impressive wines from all up and down the Central Coast, from Monterey County to Santa Barbara.
As you head just south of San Francisco, or a bit east to San Benito and Mt. Harlan, and further on down to Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, there is a hotbed of winemaking activity, especially in the Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon appellations.
While there are loads of value wines from the Central Coast, I’ve focused on some of the more premium wines, with a healthy mix of bottles in the $25 to $40 range. Some of these will require contacting the winery directly; others can be found online. With a hefty dose of Rhône-style blends from Paso Robles to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay standouts in Santa Barbara County, this is by no means a complete list of the top Central Coast wines to know, but a healthy cheat-sheet of some pretty fabulous producers that should be on every wine lover’s radar.
2017 The Joy Fantastic Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($50)
Husband-wife duo Peter Hunken and Amy Christine have deep roots in the Santa Barbara region. Together, they’ve been making wine out of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto since 2003. Under their Black Sheep Finds “Hocus Pocus” and Holus Bolus labels they make elegant versions of California Syrah. For Pinot and Chardonnay lovers, The Joy Fantastic offers what the poet Robert Bly describes as “a thousand years of joy.” From five acres of organically-farmed vines planted on the same property as Rajat Parr’s Domaine De La Cote vineyard, the 2017 Pinot is ruby-garnet in color giving way to red cherry, smoky clove, brown sugar, and orange peel notes. A wonderfully textured wine, with concentrated dark cherry, incense, brown spices, and a long spicy and citrusy finish.
2017 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($35)
The Perrin family, owners of Chateau de Beaucastel, the iconic French Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate in the Southern Rhone, famously transplanted vine cuttings from Beaucastel to their Tablas Creek estate in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles. The “Cotes de Tables” is a blend of four grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Counoise and Mourvedre. Round and rich, laden with red-berry aromas and dusty, earthy notes that mingle with sandalwood and wild foraged black truffles. Ripe boysenberry, tart cherry, and raspberry fruit is underscored by firm tannins, with hints of leather, tobacco, cedar and marvelous earthy notes like walking through the forest after a rain. The finish reveals orange citrus and crushed red-rock minerals.
2019 Grounded Wine Co Space Age Rosé, Central Coast ($19)
Napa-based winemaker Josh Phelps spends quite a bit of time in the Central Coast hunting down premium grapes that allow him to deliver on taste and value. His Space Age rosé is a delicious Grenache-fueled anytime sipper wrapped in an Instagrammable label designed by Mexico City-based shop Work By Gospel. A luscious mouthfeel is balanced by plenty of mouthwatering acidity and features strawberry, cherry, and watermelon notes.
2017 Denner Dirt Worshipper, Syrah, Paso Robles ($80)
Smack in the Templeton Gap in the Willow Creek sub-AVA of Paso Robles, the vines at Denner have been growing since Ron Denner began planting them in 1999. For just over a decade, winemaker Anthony Yount has consistently turned out mind-bogglingly complex renditions of Rhone varieties, including this 2017 Dirt Worshipper, a blend of 97% Syrah with 2% Roussanne and 1% Viognier. Mocha spices and dark chocolate with cinnamon and pops of candied violets florals, smoky and meaty. Broad and expansive, unfolding in satiny waves of black and blue fruits, raspberry compote, and tinged with white pepper and tobacco nuances on an impressively long finish. Worth the hunt.
2018 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara ($35)
If Sauvignon Blanc fell out of favor with you over the years, this is one bottling that will bring it all back. Cofounders John, Steve Dragonette, and Brandon-Sparks Gillis are making some of the finest wines in Santa Barbara County. The sauvignon blanc grapes are sourced from Grassini Family, Vogelzang, and Grimm’s Bluff, three of the top vineyards in Happy Canyon on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. Aged in stainless steel and neutral French oak with seven months on the lees, the wine reveals the satiny texture of grape flesh, teeming with lemongrass and wet river stone notes, unfolding in honeydew melon and ripe citrus flavors with a long mineral finish.
2017 L'Aventure Optimus, Paso Robles ($56)
French-born Stephan Asseo and wife Beatrice arrived in Paso Robles in 1998 and have since made some of the most profoundly interesting wines in the region. Today, their daughter Chloé Asseo-Fabre is taking on an active role in the family biz. In 2016, new caves were unveiled along with a new tasting room and Asseo is experimenting with aging wines in clay amphora and cement tanks. Optimus is the entry-level red. Opaque ruby-purple color gives way to boysenberry, cassis and white pepper notes, with spiced plum and heady violets. Deeply concentrated silken dark berry fruits, crushed river stones, and fine-grained texture finishing with a kiss of sweet French oak. Even at 15.5% ABV, this is well-balanced.
2019 Story of Soil Gamay Noir, Martian Ranch Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($39)
When owner and winemaker Jessica Gasca is not in the vineyard or winery, she’s in her Story of Soil tasting room in Los Olivos, referencing a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and talking about terroir to visiting guests. Her wines are not easy to come by, and are sold mostly to the mailing list, but are entirely worth seeking out. She credits her uncle Gary Buck of Costa de Oro Winery with teaching her to make wine. Buck learned from Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenon and Qupe’s Bob Lindquist. So, excellent company, and speaking of—in her “spare” time she also works for Dragonette Cellars. The certified organic and biodynamic Gamay grapes for this red come from Martian Ranch Vineyard in Los Alamos. It’s a juicy, elegant red, more in a Cru Beaujolais style striking a great balance between fruit and tannins, which are not overly grippy.
2018 Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Valley ($27)
One of the Central Coast heavyweights with estate vineyards in the Arroyo Grande appellation that enjoy ocean views on clear days—you can’t go wrong their tight-knit Estate Pinot at this price-point. Loads of decadent dark cherry fruit and savory cedar spices are wrapped in a creamy mouthfeel framed by zesty acidity and finishing with this sandalwood spice that seems classic to Laetitia. After 35 years, winemaker Dave Hickey is passing the reins to his son Eric, and the song goes on.
2017 Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($49)
Only Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, two of the Central Coast’s greatest modern-day assets, are crazy enough to plant over 40 acres of vines in the Sta. Rita Hills and farm them organically, ensuring yields are tiny, but quality is sky-high. Six vineyards in all comprise Domaine de la Côte, which they produce and sell almost exclusively to their mailing list. It’s not easy to find but worth as many phone calls as it takes to get some. While you’re on the hunt, or trying to get on the mailing list, look for Sandhi—their “negociant” style winery, which leverages purchased grapes from some of the best sites in Santa Barbara County. This Chardonnay comes from the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard planted in 1971 by Richard Sanford. Mouth-filling with aromas and flavors of spiced ginger, Meyer Lemon, poached pear, dried apricot and a hint of crushed almonds all supported by tart, minerally acidity.
2018 Qupe Chardonnay “Y” Block, Santa Barbara County ($22)
The wines of Qupe are practically synonymous with the Central Coast and the highly lauded Bien Nacido Vineyard, which is divided into a series of highly coveted blocks. The “Y” block has historically produced Qupe’s Chardonnay, and will continue to be a source under the winery’s new winemaker, Blake Kuhn who also manages farming decisions with the family running Bien Nacido. A real crowd-pleaser, with tremendous energy balanced by nice weight on the palate revealing stark lemon-lime citrus notes, ripe pear, candied ginger and a hint of wild herbs and white florals tinged with honeycomb and butterscotch.
2016 Jonata Todos Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley ($50)
Affectionately known as the sister winery to Screaming Eagle (both are owned by businessman Stan Kroenke) Jonata is helmed by winemaker Matt Dees who picked up a thing or two working for the famous French consultant Michel Rolland and Andy Ericson of Favia (Napa’s only wine and boutique tea producer). Dees dabbles in Bordeaux and Rhone varieties in the Santa Ynez Valley, and this 2016 Todos combines just about every grape he works with—mostly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a smattering of other red grapes and some white grapes, including Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sémillon. This is a richly layered, nearly opaque red with savory cured meats, cocoa, graham cracker spices, black and blueberry preserves, sweet cedar tannins and juicy dried wild strawberries with cola spices and pops of lavender.
2017 Adelaida Cellars Estate Pinot Noir, Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($35)
Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub gets the best of both worlds at this west side Paso estate in the very heart of the Adelaida District AVA. High-elevation hilltop sites planted in the 1980s are heavily influenced by cool ocean breezes making this one of the rare spots in Paso that makes ripe, acid-driven Pinot Noir. Generous and packed with lifted red fruits, underbrush and earth, with satiny boysenberry fruit and a crushed rock mineral-finish marked by spicy herbs. Weintraub also turns out delicious Chardonnay, Viognier and one of the finest Cabernet Francs you’ll taste in the Central Coast, as well as some dynamite small-production wines under his personal label Site Wine Co.
2017 Halter Ranch Grenache Blanc, Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($34)
Winemaker Kevin Sass and associate winemaker Molly Lonborg have worked together since 2011, and masterfully craft an array of wines from Halter’s stunning 281-acre estate property, which rises to nearly 2,000 feet in elevation. Picpoul Blanc and Viognier join the Grenache Blanc to create a heady mix of melon and apricot aromas and flavors marked by honeysuckle blossoms all atop a generous and expansive white that delivers a ton of pleasure. Halter Ranch was named Winery of the Year at the 2019 Central Coast Wine Competition.
2017 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast ($25)
In the 1970s, Niky Hahn purchased the Smith & Hook winery, which today is Hahn Family Wines in the Santa Lucia Highlands, however they still produce Smith & Hook wines. Winemaker Megan McCollough is at the helm, working with Monterey County grapes for this Cabernet, which is full-bodied with ripe blackberry fruit, heady violet florals, and powerful cedar-like tannins on a cocoa finish.
2016 Foley Estates Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($28)
Vegas Golden Knights owner and philanthropist Bill Foley keeps the good times flowing with his Foley Food & Wine Society, which allows fans of Foley’s wines to gain points, which they can cash in on wine, events, and experiences at his other properties (there are about 18 in total, mostly in California). Bright and floral with satiny and silky honeydew melon, toasty brioche, and a flood of tropical notes tinged with honeycomb.