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Wines, Waves, and Wonder along The Pacific Coast Wine Trail


The opportunity to meet winemakers and discover 10 tasting rooms which participate in the Pacific Coast Wine Trail tempted me to take a week-long road-trip along a 28-mile stretch of the famous California Highway 1 Discovery Route. The tasting rooms are clustered in or near five scenic seaside towns on this northerly section of the 100-mile San Luis Obispo County coast, which is located mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles (about a four-hour drive from either) and less than an hour from San Luis Obispo airport (SBP).

Visiting these tasting rooms--which feature small-batch wines sold mostly to wine club members, walk-ins and to some restaurants--offers a memorable chance to learn about less familiar wines and visit the Central Coast, particularly Hearst Castle. No other topographical, architectural or artistic venue can compare with the beauty of the 165-room Hearst Castle, which newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst chose to build on his childhood private campgrounds (which once extended over 250,000-acres). However, what became evident is that Hearst’s vision and decades-long dedication to the fruition of a challenging project are qualities that many of the entrepreneurs whom I met shared, albeit to a less extravagant extent. During our face-to-face conversations in Morro Bay, Cayucos, Harmony, Cambria and San Simeon, I was as fascinated by their unique and intriguing ventures as I was impressed with the results of their efforts.    

I drove north from Los Angeles and met my friend Carole Jacobs, my former editor at Shape and current editor at TravelGirl, who drove west from her home in the High Sierra’s to accompany me. Though she spent most days hiking, biking and researching articles about the region’s outdoor recreational activities and I spent mine traveling to tasting rooms, wineries and vineyards on the ambitious itinerary the folks at PCWT had planned, we connected with each other—and often with tasting room owners--at meals.

Chuck Mulligan at Harmony Cellars--which launched in 1989 and is the oldest and most established winery along the Northern Central Coast—was the first winemaker whom I met. (Click here for details on their latest wines). Mulligan, who holds a degree in Enology, produces 7000 cases of hand-crafted, small-lot wines made from grapes grown in Paso Robles and has won hundreds of accolades. We lunched on the terrace outside the barn-style tasting room, where I also met Kim, his wife and business manager. Their complex—complete with a sterile winemaking facility, a gazebo and gorgeous gardens is on a glorious rolling 140-acre estate which has been in Kim’s family for more than 100 years, just off Highway 1 and 5 miles south of Cambria. It’s so idyllic, it inspires lovers to marry there! To add to its appeal, it’s located in the teeny tiny town of Harmony, population 18, which also boasts a glass blowing facility, where a group of artisans work and sell their wares.

At Stolo Family Vineyards, General Manager, Maria Stolo Benetti, introduced us to her dad and business partner, Don Stolo, and a few of the female family members who staff the rustic-style tasting room. The vineyard—where grappa was produced during Prohibition—and where vines were planted in 1998, is the closest to the coast and Cambria’s only Estate Vineyard with a winery and tasting room on property. Vines thrive in the unique microclimate, which is just three miles from the Pacific on winding, rural Santa Rosa Creek Road. Stolo Family Vineyards produced its first vintage in 2004; in 2015, they produced 1500 cases, which included coastal-style Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Carole and I were hosted as houseguests, there, and we stayed in the two guest rooms (each has a full bath) built above the garage behind the Don and Charlene Stolo’s farmhouse (c. 1880), where the shared balcony overlooks Don’s Giverny-inspired garden--complete with a little wooden bridge--and bedroom windows view the vineyard. (The family is planning to welcome club members in the guest lodgings.)

We dined with Jim and Debi Saunders of Hearst Ranch Winery at Black Cat Café, in Cambria, where the menu features fresh farm-to-table fare.  Jim shared the story of meeting Steve Hearst at a fund-raiser where they “won” a private tour of the castle. After gifting Hearst with wine produced at their Saunders Vineyard, in Eastern Paso Robles, the two businessmen realized that they shared a vision for sustainable agriculture, nature conservancy and fine wines. Subsequently, they became partners and produce award winning wines from varietals that include: Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Tempranillo. They sell the wines--plus Hearst Grass-Fed Beef, olive oils, books and branded clothing--at the Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room within Sebastian’s General Store (c. 1852) in Old San Simeon Village (on the west side of Highway 1, across from the castle entry). When I visited--at noon on Valentine’s Day Weekend--the parking lot and picnic tables were full, the food line was long and three servers were busy pouring samples on the inlaid copper bar!

Cambria is an artsy community with impressive restaurants and galleries and four store-front tasting rooms. During lunch at Linn’s Restaurant (that day, the menu featured fresh Dungeness crab and their famed Olallieberry pie), Steve Thompson--who owns Twin Coyotes Winery with his twin brother Stu—discussed his operation. They source grapes from their own small, sustainably-farmed, 45-acre vineyard and from other vineyards in the Paso Robles area that adhere to their strict standards. The brothers, who make small batch wine and sometimes work at night, branded their business after the coyotes, which howl during the process. Winemaker and wine consultant, Signe Zoller, a highly acclaimed industry pioneer (formerly of Kendall Jackson and Meridian Winery) and one of its few women, helps the brothers craft their award-winning wines, including the rare Vermentino.

At the speak-easy-themed Black Hand Cellars tasting room, winemaker Tom Banish explained that his family has a long history of winemaking and that the winery draws its name from the Black Hand Mafia, members of which craved Tom’s great-grandfather’s wine. As a wine maker, Banish has 15 years prior experience working with some of the region’s prestigious wineries. He incorporates organic-style farming methods for his estate grown Syrah--such as using natural pests to keep the plants in check--at Torie Ranch Vineyard, on the West side of the Paso Robles,

We joined Todd and Kendra Clift, owners of Moonstone Cellars, for brunch at Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill. The restaurant is located amidst the ocean-front B&Bs and hotels just across the street from the surf and a short distance from their very busy tasting room—with its wall of award ribbons--on Main Street, in Cambria’s West Village. Todd, who started his winemaking career scrubbing barrels and learning the importance of sanitation as an apprentice for Chuck Mulligan at Harmony Cellars for five years, started making wine under the Harmony Cellar’s bond and even met his wife, Kendra, there! Their micro-boutique winery started in 1998 as a father and son venture and the two still take turns doing punch-down. The winery produces about 3000 cases of wine from grapes carefully sourced from vineyard owners who are as passionate about growing (and delivering) the grapes as Todd is about making wine.

Cutruzzola Vineyards’ tasting room, which opened in February 2015, is a chic space also on Main Street in Cambria’s West Village. Lisa Miller explained that she and her partner, Francis Cutruzzola, grow their grapes, nearby, on 47 acres eight miles east of Cambria, which they purchased in 2000 and where two acres are devoted to Pinot Noir and five to Riesling. They started planting in 2001 and after some setbacks trying to get the vines well-established, Lisa described her first sales to restaurants that the couple frequented from the back of her Honda. She sold 87 cases of 2009 Pinot Noir! Currently, the tasting room offers four varietals: a 2011 Riesling, 2012 Riesling, 2012 Pinot Noir (which Miller calls the vineyard’s “signature wine”) and 2013 Zinfandel.

Cayucos is a small, low-key seafront resort—complete with a fishing pier—located between Cambria and Morro Bay. Cayucos native, Stuart Selkirk, established Cayucos Cellars in 1996 after a decade devoted to making wine. I met him and his daughter, Paige, two of the five family members involved in a hands-on operation that produces 500-800 cases annually at their tasting room in Cayucos. Selkirk’s grapes are grown in small vineyards in Paso Robles and Templeton; he credits wild yeast, long barrel time and no filtering for the production of their natural, ready-to-drink wines.

En route to Morro Bay, I stopped off at Highway 41 Antique Emporium—a 12,000 square foot mall where more than 70 vendors specialize in vintage clothing, modern items, jewelry and collectibles. The mall is home to the weekend-only tasting room for Cuatro Dias Winery, which is located under a covered outdoor space adjacent to the mall’s welcoming garden terrace. Owner and winemaker Greg Allen, a firefighter from Southern California, established Cuatro Dias Winery in 2001 and named it for his four day off work week. Allen, who studied enology, sources grapes in Paso Robles and beyond and makes wine in Paso Robles.

Morro Bay, a destination where tourists admire its steep, 581-foot volcanic rock located just offshore its busy harbor, is home to an especially fine waterfront restaurant, Windows on the Water, where Executive Chef Neil Smith creates dishes from fresh foods that are local, organic and sustainably farmed. There are two neighboring tasting rooms on the Embarcadero. One, Chateau Margene, is the only wine label on the PCWT with which I was formerly familiar and it was the last one on my schedule. Michael (a seventh generation Californian) and Margene Mooney are members of the Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) who enjoy a wonderful reputation for the fine wines that their boutique, micro-winery produces. Unfortunately, they weren’t available but I learned that their first wine was a 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon and that their annual production is about 2500 cases, some of which are sold on an allocation basis. The second tasting room, MCV Wines--which advertised wine and chocolate pairings for the Valentine’s Day weekend—is located next door, so I stopped by and met owner and winemaker Matt Villard. He uses grapes from a Paso Robles vineyard and specializes in producing blends of high quality Petite Sirah. According to Villard, MCV Wines, which opened its doors in 2011, is looking forward to becoming the next new participant in the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.

During the week-long adventure, I used the map and listings on the PCWT brochure and tasting passport (it’s available at each venue), met fascinating folks, tasted high-quality, lesser-known varietals and learned more about these wineries, which are among the 200 wineries that are part of the Paso Robles AVA.

Best, while driving Highway 1 from one venue to another, I watched with wonder as waves crashed the shores on one side of the road and cattle grazed the rolling hillsides of the other.




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