A funny thing happens when pop culture creeps into the culinary arts, both positive and negative. Consider the "Sideways" effect on winemaking and interest in California’s Central Coast. It has exploded.
Wine drinkers cannot get enough of the flavorful and (still) inexpensive pinot noir, while interest in merlot wanes. It seems everyone is trying to capture the magic of the area, just not while driving under the influence or throwing golf clubs.
"Five years ago, there were 48 wineries in Paso Robles, now there are 80," says John Samora, owner of PasoFino Distributors, a state distributor specializing in the region. "People are planting like crazy. There is interest with consumers and winemakers."
Paso Robles is but one area within the larger Central Coast region, roughly stretching just north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley to the Monterey Peninsula. Large and small winemaking operations dot the rolling, oakstudded hills around San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Paso Robles and the Santa Lucia Highlands.
The area is warm, almost hot, during the day, but cools dramatically at night — ideal for growing grapes. Zinfandel does remarkably well, says Samora, but so do traditional Rhone varieties from France such as syrah and viognier.
Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot and sauvignon blanc are also prominent throughout the Central Coast and coastal valleys. In broad terms, clear, almost explosive, fruit, sometimes referred to as "fruit bombs," Samora says, marks the wines.
Among the big names from the area — the ones you’ve probably heard of — include Tobin James, J. Lohr, Firestone, Foxen, Zaca Mesa, Bella Luna, Martin and Weyrich, Blackstone, Chalone, Rabbit Ridge and, of course, Sanford, the pinot noir so coveted by Miles from the Oscarnominated wine country comedy-drama. Wine behemoths Meridian and Kendall-Jackson also have operations across the Central Coast region. Both produce highquality, affordable wines. A recent sampling of wines from the area, again, shows tremendous value and quality. Now we understand Miles’ passion. Here are a few highlights:
Meridian 2004 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc: You really cannot expect more for $10. This sauvignon blanc is brilliant in color, clarity and taste. The fruit expressed is bright and clean. The grapes were harvested primarily from vineyards near Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, which brings different traits to the table, most notably melon and citrus. Partial oaking softens the wine some, along with blending in small amounts of chardonnay, Semillon and gewürztraminer. The floral notes and rounding effect make this one beautiful bottle. Serve with green salads and white-meat chicken and fish dishes.
3 Blind Moose 2003 California Cabernet Sauvignon: OK, you heard it here first: The convergence of traditional Bordeaux and Rhone varieties has occurred. With a dose of California zin to boot. Yes, 3BM combines 75-plus percent cabernet sauvignon with varying amounts of syrah and zinfandel to make one big, beautiful drink. Samora had mentioned that this unorthodox blend was happening in Paso Robles, but now I’ve tasted it for myself. The plump syrah and zinfandel round out the young cab to make it easy to drink. Packed with dark berry, plum and spice. $10.
Taz Vineyards Syrah 2003, Santa Barbara County: Winemaker Natasha Boffman says that the cool-climate source site in the northern Santa Maria Valley allows grapes to slowly ripen, which results in added subtlety and nuance. The vineyards are rigorously pruned to ensure concentration and richness. This really comes through in the end result: Intoxicating floral and pepper notes and dark berry flavors wrapped in a silky package that comes from 12 months in French oak. A winner. $25.