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Going South… the Central Coast

Buyer Sarah Knowles MW takes the road south to Paso Robles, the Santa Maria Valley & Santa Barbara and finds herself included in one of Jim Clendenen's legendary lunches

Paso Robles Vineyard Paso Robles vineyard

On previous buying trips I have flown into San Francisco and headed north – into Sonoma, Napa, the Anderson Valley and sometimes all the way up to Oregon and Washington. On this trip though I headed out of San Francisco in my hire car heading south via the Santa Cruz Mountains, home to Ridge and Mount Eden among others, and carried on into Paso Robles.

I had a great day tasting full-bodied vibrant and on-trend wines in Paso, and had a particularly insightful tasting with Jason Hass at Tablas Creek. Jason farms organically, incorporating many biodynamic techniques with his own herd of winery sheep, and a couple of donkeys for good measure. Jason is also a proponent of using naturally occurring wild yeast for his ferments which largely take place in small batches, with some inclusion of whole bunches of grapes and very little new oak. All of this combines to make some really complex but balanced and delicious wines.

Santa Maria with Au Bon Climat signage Santa Maria with Au Bon Climat signage

On next to the Santa Maria Valley, and my first trip to Bien Nacido Vineyard, one of North America's most notable estates. At more than 800 acres, this family-owned vineyard sells grapes to many respected winemakers across California, many of whom are able to prescribe exact farming methods, desired yields and picking dates of their specific parcels. The vineyard is at the receiving end of the east-west Santa Maria Mountain range and is classed as a maritime-influenced desert. With morning fog often only burning off around lunchtime, and with the beneficial effect of cooling afternoon breezes, this vineyard has many sites that are perfect for chardonnay and pinot noir. In the warmer sites, syrah also works particularly well here.

Good timing! A legendary working lunch with Jim & Bob

Behind this unprepossessing door is where all the magic happens! Behind this unprepossessing door is where all the magic happens!

The vineyard is resident to one of California's more legendary winemaking hubs, with both Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist of Qupé working from a barn-housed winery on site. I timed my tasting there to perfection and was able to follow an extensive tasting of both Au Bon Climat and Qupé, with the communal daily lunch with the wider winery team (and plenty of open trial bottles of course!)

Talking to winemakers from right across California I was impressed by just how many of them trace their passion for wine back to these lunches. Jim and Bob have always encouraged young winemakers to work alongside them and see how they do it, championing traditional French techniques, the importance of terroir and the love of fine wine. It was great to experience this first hand.

The equally unprepossessing site of so many legendary winery lunches that have enthused a generation of young winemakers The equally unprepossessing site of so many legendary winery lunches that have enthused a generation of young winemakers

Chasing elegance in Santa Barbara

Sashi Moorman Sashi Moorman

Heading further south I drove into Santa Barbara and a new burgeoning winemaking hub, in the somewhat curiously named 'Lompoc Wine Ghetto' that houses a dozen or so wineries in converted industrial units in this otherwise sleepy town. Here I was fortunate enough to catch Sashi Moorman, an incredibly talented winemaker and viticulturist.

He took me on a tour of his new plantings that have been inspired by high-density plots in Burgundy, before a great tasting of some of his wines from Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte, Piedrasassi and Stolpman. These wines showed real vibrancy, balance and an intriguing edginess and will be popping into our Fine Wine Lists as and when stock allows!

Where to go next?

Frog's Leap & the Napa Valley

Like father, like son

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Members' Comments (3)

"Sarah, you missed a great opportunity by heading South so quickly. Monterey County is a gem of a hidden wine region. There are multiple small, medium and large wineries within a short radius of Carmel / Monterey with an equally good range of everyday and high end wines. I live in Carmel Valley Village where we now have over 23 wine tasting rooms located in the village. My favorite is Parsonage - Syrah, Grenache Rose, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon... Read more > Blanc and a great Petit Verdot. Next time you may wish to linger in the Santa Cruz / Monterey and absorb both the wine and food cultures.

Neil M Johnston

Mr Neil Johnston (14-Feb-2018)

"Many thanks for your update Sarah - very interesting. Jim Clendenen makes an enormous number of different wines - is there any chance that TWS might offer something other than his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in future?"

Mr David Savage (01-Mar-2018)

"With the mention of Paso Robles I was hoping to see something about Peachy Canyon, and a suggestion (hope) we might again be able to buy their wonderful Zinfandel. I spent 14 years on the West Coast from '83 to '97, and Zin was always my favourite red. Cheap and cheerful, but with a distinctive character. Unfortunately the fancy winemakers in Napa decided it was time to elevate Zin to greater heights (and profit) and, to my mind, lost the grape's... Read more > true character. I'm afraid Lodi is still Central valley, and doesn't produce Zin as I remember it (especially from Sonoma). The closest I've found is that from Peachy Canyon - I'm in withdrawal! Please can we get it back on the list? And maybe we could also see their version of Petite Sirah on the list, a grape variety that is amost unobtainable in the UK."

Dr Paul Thomas (03-Mar-2018)