California has many wine regions, and I have been fortunate to have visited nearly all of them: Sonoma and Napa countless times; Lodi is not too far behind; Santa Barbara, Monterey, Mendocino, and Lake Counties, I have visited each at least twice; and Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills I have been to once each.
Despite all of that traversing of the state, I had never stepped foot in either the Edna Valley or the Arroyo Grande AVAs, both within San Luis Obispo (SLO) County. That changed in May as I was invited to explore the region for a week with the SLO Wine Country Association.
Just after touching down at the San Luis Obispo airport, there was a different “feel” to the region. Sure, every region is different (by definition), but there was a decided ethos, a relaxed atmosphere that, which certainly exists in many other regions, but SLO seems to have it in spades.
[I intentionally avoided the word ”vibe” in the previous paragraph as I think it makes me sound like a hippie wanna-be, but it is perhaps the most accurate term to employ—SLO definitely has a vibe.]
My first order of business (after getting my rental car, which could not be any easier at the SLO airport), was to head to Wally’s Bicycle Works, where I was to pick up my rental bike for the week. After calling to get the correct address (Wally’s had recently moved, but had not yet updated their website—note: the website has still not been updated), I found the shop and walked into what only can be described as a bike geek’s heaven.
There were bikes and gear everywhere. It reminded me of the first shop I frequented, way back when in Ann Arbor, MI when I started racing. It was the kind of shop where I could easily spend hours, digging through the piles of parts and the clusters of clothing looking for that one thing that I knew I needed, but would not be able to identify until I saw it.
Done digging, I inquired about my rental, which had been arranged by the kind people at the SLO Wine Country Association. To my surprise, there was not only one “choice” but three (according to many, I ride a “freakishly big” bike—I am 6’4” after all—and it is rare to find anything in my size), and I opted for the carbon fiber Cervelo.
We were not scheduled to meet until the next afternoon, so I did what anyone in my situation would do: I went for a ride. I met up with Bill Kesselring, the owner and winemaker at Peloton Cellars in Avila Beach (more on Bill and Peloton Cellars in a subsequent article).
The following morning, I was to met the others on the trip as well as Sean Weir, our gracious host for the next few days, after lunch, so I did what anyone else in my position would do: I went for a ride. This time, I headed out to Morro Bay, to the north and west of San Luis Obispo.
After my ride and a quick shower, I met with Sean, just across the street, for a quick bite before meeting up with the rest of the group. There, Sean gave me a little backdrop to and history of the region.
As I had already started to experience, SLO is a small, intimate region with a laid back life style, due largely to its proximity to the ocean and its beach town persona. Vineyards are an average of five miles from the coast, and the Pacific Ocean shapes the climate, terrain, and the wines. It is that proximity to the sea that makes it the coolest (in temperature) wine region in California, and it is the “SLO life” that makes it the coolest in terms of “vibe.”
[Sean can get away with using that word, as he is far more “hip” (another word I tend to avoid) than I.]
The area is pretty much contained and constrained by the Santa Lucia Mountain Range to the east and the Pacific to the west, thus there is little room for growth—it will never be a huge region, at least in terms of volume.
The two AVAs, Edna Valley to the north and west and Arroyo Grande Valley to the east and south, both have, typically, marine soils, and are both affected by the marine air which comes in from Morro Bay (which I had visited only moments before by bike).
Viticulture in the region dates back to the time of the San Luis Obispo Mission (which was built in the late 1700s) for sacramental wine, and the first commercial viticulture was in the late 1880s. The “modern” history of SLO wine, however, starts with Bill Greenough at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard in the 1970s, followed shortly by both Chamisal Vineyard and Paragon Vineyard, both in Edna Valley.
In the forty-odd years since, the area has grown in volume and prominence, but there are still less than three dozen wineries in SLO Wine Country, enabling the region to maintain its intimate and laid back approach to winemaking.
As I sat there, Chardonnay in hand, about to embark on an afternoon of tasting along the coast, with a slight burn in my legs from a morning 35 mile ride, I was certainly starting to understand the SLO life.
And yes, I was digging the vibe.