While it doesn't get the fanfare of Sonoma and Napa Valley, the SLO Coast tucked off the famed Pacific Coast Highway is one of California’s most unique wine regions – and one well-deserving of the hype.
Wine-thirsty travelers tend to turn off the Pacific Coast Highway before hitting the SLO Coast, whether to peel towards Paso Robles to the north or Santa Barbara to the south. Those who do make it can taste high-quality wine in a totally relaxed environment and without the crowds.
In addition to rolling hills packed with grapes, San Luis Obispo County also boasts the best of the California lifestyle, with plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, artsy quirk, and delicious eats. In Pismo Beach – one of the last vintage beach towns in the Golden State – visitors can surf all morning and wine taste all afternoon.
A relaxed approach to life and wine
Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in San Luis Obispo (SLO) County, SLO Coast hangs its hat on being California’s true coastal wine region—yes, more so than the Sonoma Coast, Mendocino, or Santa Maria. Winemakers leave work early to go to the beach, hang surfboards in tasting rooms, decorate wine labels with mermaids and make wine that pairs well with seafood.
Because most of the vineyards are located within five miles of the Pacific, the SLO produces exciting, age-worthy wines with vibrant acidity and such striking salinity that you can practically taste the ocean in your glass (in a good way; note that this doesn’t mean the wines are salty).
“The proximity of the region to the Pacific Ocean has an extreme effect on the climate here, giving SLO Coast the coldest, longest growing season of any grape-growing region in California,” says Fintan du Fresne, Winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards, one of the region’s most famous and pioneering wineries.
Chardonnay, pinot noir, and aromatic whites are the region’s main players. There’s also a rising trend in aromatic whites like albariño, and you’ll find some rare, cool-climate expressions of grapes like syrah, zinfandel, and grenache with deep color and soft tannins.
“The long, cool growing season creates wines with a lot of intensity. Grape growers often talk about ‘hang time,’ the amount of time that grapes have on the vine to develop flavor. We have an abundance of time for the grapes to develop flavor resulting in wines of great intensity even at fairly low alcohol levels.”
Tiny, humble, and sandwiched between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, its better-known Highway 1 neighbors may monopolize the spotlight, but SLO Coast’s fantastic and affordable cool-climate wines can rival those of Burgundy.
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Where to drink on the San Luis Obispo Coast
Vines were first planted in San Luis Obispo by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, but the SLO Coast’s modern-day resurgence started in the 1970s. Today, it’s home to approximately 30 wineries that are almost exclusively boutique and family-owned operations.
“Paso Robles has more than 300 wineries, Santa Barbara has 200. SLO Coast has about 30, however; it’s this boutique size that makes this region great,” says du Fresne. “You’ll generally have a more intimate experience and a greater immersion into the place. There is still a chance here that the person pouring your wine is the grape grower or winemaker.”
True to its name, things slow down in SLO Coast. You won’t find crowds or any of the massive, ostentatious visitor centers that have become synonymous with Napa Valley. Tasting rooms and wineries are dotted along the country roads that wind through Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley.
The area’s classic, long-standing wineries – including Chamisal (where Edna Valley’s first grapes were planted), Edna Valley Vineyard, and Tolosa – are must-visits on one’s first trip, but as SLO Coast grows, new tasting rooms are bringing fresh and modern ideas and experiences to the table.
Claiborne & Churchill
At Claiborne & Churchill, you’ll sip wines like pinot noir, riesling, and a rare gewürztraminer right inside the small cellar and alongside the tanks. Started in the early 1980s by a pair of former professors who don’t take themselves too seriously, they sell T-shirts that say, “Gewürz Till It Hürts.”
Biddle Ranch Vineyard
Some might say wine tasting heaven lies just six miles northeast of Pismo Beach. Biddle Ranch Vineyard, in the heart of Edna Valley, is as idyllic of an afternoon wine stop as it gets. Founded by a group of four couples, Biddle Ranch is a bright, airy, and sophisticated white farmhouse enveloped in olive trees. From the estate vineyard, you have a great view of one of the county’s Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic plugs formed more than 20 million years ago.
Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard
Five miles northeast of Avila Beach and one mile from the scenic See Canyon Road is Kelsey See Canyon Vineyard. Keith Kelsey’s family has long been tied to the cool waters off California’s central coast. His grandfather was an abalone diver in the 1930s. Black-and-white photos of him in heavy copper diving suits hang on the walls of the tasting room near vintage surfboards. The Kelsey family started growing apples in 1951, followed by grapes in 1973.
Now Keith is the managing partner of a family winery that shows no signs of slowing down. The tasting room is set in the old apple orchard where patrons are greeted by wild peacocks (which you can feed) and a winery dog named Kona. A temporary ink stamp on Kona’s back reads, “Ask about our hard cider.” On nice days, you can picnic on their patio and grab your wine from a walk-up bar that resembles an ice cream shack on the beach – except shirts and shoes are required.
The Insta-famous and rosé-all-day crowds flock to Malene Wines' newest tasting room and Chamisal Vineyards sister project – a 1969 Airstream Overlander Trailer. Bartenders pour a crisp Provençal-style Grenache-based rosé from a tap inside of the shiny metallic Airstream. Using a 1960s surf scene as inspiration, the inside is decorated with a white shag rug, palm fronds, and swanky couches that seat up to 12 wine drinkers.
When the tasting room is not out cruising around, it is parked adjacent to Chamisal Vineyards’ winery in Edna Valley. Manicured green lawns, lush vineyards, and rolling mountains surround the mobile tasting room providing it with one of the best views in the county.
To knock off several tasting rooms at once while taking a break to dip toes into the water, head to Avila Beach. The one-road-in, one-road-out beach town has a cluster of tasting rooms within walking distance making it easy to taste wine from up-and-comers like Alapay Cellars and long-time favorites like Sinor-Lavalle. The Libertine Brewing Company serves Wild Ale, Double IPAs, and sour beer next door to Alapay Cellars for those whose palates are tired from searching for the overripe versus undertip banana nuances in the chardonnay.
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San Luis Obispo Coast beyond the wineries
One of the biggest draws to SLO Coast is what it offers in addition to all the grapes, including beautiful beaches, hiking and mountain biking trails and it’s own regional barbecue. The quaint college town of San Luis Obispo is home to the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, craft breweries, quirky shops, and a renowned Farmers Market on Thursday evenings.
Lines start forming early at Splash Cafe stand for one reason and one reason only: clam chowder. While the menu at this casual beach burger stand consists of (surprise) hamburgers, chili burgers, onion rings and fries, it is the bowls of piping hot clam chowder served in a bread bowl that makes this spot famous. The cafe serves 30,000 gallons of chowder every year.
Meanwhile, The Inn at the Pier makes it easy to enjoy some beach time during the wine trip. Steps from the Pismo Beach and its famous pier, the Craftsman-style hotel is the perfect jumping off point for all area activities.
Or you can rest your head at the brand new and utterly chic Hotel San Luis Obispo and fuel up between wine tastings at the eclectic Farmhouse Corner Market. This colorful and nostalgia-inducing stop-off houses a restaurant, ice cream counter, flower shop, and marketplace selling locally-made souvenirs and picnic provisions.
For fun, feminine kitsch, head to Madonna Inn, a campy confection that's long been a destination in Paso Robles. Even the bathrooms have been featured in music videos and lifestyle shoots, and locals and out of towners alike love the themed rooms and colorful common spaces.
Getting to San Luis Obispo County
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another wine region closer to a commercial airport. Within five minutes of grabbing your suitcase from the baggage claim at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, you can be sipping on your first glass of chardonnay at a local winery. It’s a small airport, but flights come in regularly from Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Alternatively, SLO is a four hour drive from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and three hours from LA. You know you're close when the hills open up to reveal the shimming blue waters and long stretches of coastline.