Susan Low explores California's central coast, from San Francisco to spectacular Big Sur

Susan Low explores California’s central coast, from San Francisco to spectacular Big Sur

Napa and Sonoma seem to get the lion’s share of the attention in California’s wine country, but for wine lovers with wanderlust, that’s a good thing, because while an increasing number of tours buses rattle and roll through Napa, the central coast retains a touch of wild California.

This chunk of Grade-A gorgeousness from San Francisco to Santa Barbara has always attracted rebels, artists and writers galore. Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller loved the untamed, windswept landscape of Big Sur while, inland, the lush Salinas Valley is Steinbeck Country. The Nobel Prize-winning author spent his boyhood here and took the landscape and people as inspiration.There’s much to inspire lovers of good wine, too. It has taken a decade or two for winemakers and viticulturalists to get a feel for what works best in the cool, fog-influenced valleys of the central coast, but this has become one of the most experimental wine-growing areas in California. Consequently it’s no surprise that innovators such as Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen of Calera, Paul Draper of Ridge and self-confessed wild boy Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat all choose to work in the region.There’s enough to do and see in this part of California to keep wine fans busy for months. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have months, so Decanter has put together a four- to five-day tour from San Francisco to Big Sur, taking in some of the most beautiful sights and interesting wineries along the way.

Day One

Day one starts in San Francisco and takes you to the funky seaside town of Santa Cruz. The first part of this drive is rather ugly, but once you’re beyond the uninspiring urban sprawl of San José and Silicon Valley and onto Route 17 things will look a lot better. In San José, first stop is the tasting room of J Lohr. Here you can taste the wines made from its vineyards in Paso Robles, Monterey and the Shenandoah Valley, including Wildflower, made from the juicy Valdiguié grape (originally from southwest France). David Bruce concentrates on the Burgundian varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bonny Doon’s sting room should turn up some intriguing flavour sensations from the indefatigable Grahm, so leave plenty of time. Arrange tours in advance.

J Lohr Winery, 1000 Lenzen Avenue, San José. Tel: +1 408 288 5057 Tasting: 10am to 5pm daily. No tours.

David Bruce Winery, 21439 Bear Creek Road, Los Gatos.

Tel: +1 408 354 4214 Tasting: Mon–Fri noon to 5pm; Sat and Sun 11am to 5pm. Phone for tours.

Bonny Doon Vineyard, 10 Pine Flat Road, Santa Cruz. Tel: +1 831 425 4518 Tasting: 11am to 5pm daily. Tours by appointment only. Picnic facilities.

Day Two

Highway 1 is probably the most scenic drive in the US. It offers wonderful vistas of the Pacific Ocean and sometimes wanders inland for equally stunning views of redwood forests. After the road curves around Monterey Bay, you come to the old whaling town of Monterey. This has been transformed into a pinnacle of sophistication since Steinbeck chronicled the lives of the gamblers and misfits in Cannery Row. Take time to explore on foot and stop for a bite to eat here or in the achingly quaint town of Carmel, further along Highway 1.After a quick visit to Ventana Vineyards, prepare yourself for Big Sur. It’s a breathtaking combination of wild, unspoilt beaches, lashed by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the spectacular crags of the Ventana mountains on the other, with no signs of habitation for a good 50 miles. At times, the road gets very close to the edge of the cliffs and it twists and turns, with some nerve-rackingly

narrow bridges suspended precariously between cliffs, so take care. Thoughtfully, lay-bys are provided so that you can pull off the road and just take in the view.You can take tiny side roads to the beaches (none is easily accessible from the highway, few are signposted). But be prepared – they are very windswept; it’s all you can do to peer through the cracks between your eyelids to appreciate the monolithic rock formations and crashing surf. You can drive as far as the town of Big Sur and head back north or, if you find yourself enchanted, drive the rest of the Big Sur and stay overnight here (see box), continuing back to Monterey the following day.

Ventana Winery, 2999 Monterey-Salinas Highway. Tel: +1 831 372 7415 Tasting: 11am to 5pm daily (6pm in summer months). No tours.

Day Three

Day three (or four) covers Carmel Valley. This is mainly red wine territory, with some excellent Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. Heller Estate/Durney Vineyards was the pioneer here and its reds – particularly the Cabernets – remain top rank. A number of the Carmel Valley producers have their tasting rooms in Carmel Valley Village, which makes it easy to taste the range. After a day’s tasting, head back to Monterey (or Carmel) for food and sleep.

Heller Estate/Durney Vineyard, 69 W Carmel Valley Road.

Tel: +1 831 659 6220. Tasting: Mon–Fri 11am to 5pm; Sat and Sun 10am to 5pm. No tours.

Bernardus Winery, 5 W Carmel Valley Road. Tel: +1 831 659 1900 Tasting: 11am to 5pm daily. No tours.

Joullian Vineyards, 2 Village Drive, tel: +1 831 659 2800 Tasting: 11am to 5pm. No tours.

Chateau Julien, 8940 Carmel Valley Road. Tel: +1 831 624 2600 Tasting: Mon–Fri 8am to 5pm; Sat and Sun 11am to 5pm. Tours held daily at 10.30 and 2.30 (Mon–Fri) and 12.30 and 2.30 (Sat and Sun). Book space in advance.

Final day

The final day of the tour takes in the Salinas Valley and the Arroyo Seco AVA before heading back to San Francisco. Salinas Valley is known as the ‘salad bowl of the world’. Artichokes, lettuce, celery, broccoli, strawberries and carrots flourish – as do wine grapes. A number of central coast producers have vineyards here, including J Lohr, Wente, Ventana and Mirassou. Cabernets tend to be dense and ripe, but there are plenty of white grapes around, including Chardonnay and Riesling. Smith & Hook Hahn Estates also make a good Viognier.Stop for a picnic outside at Jekel Vineyards before hitting the road back to San Francisco. The drive back on Highway 101 isn’t nearly as picturesque as the spectacular Highway 1, but there’s only so much beauty one can take in before heading back to reality. At least you can console yourself with a Martini and a well-deserved dinner in San Francisco in the evening – and of course, your memories.

Cloninger, 1645 River Road, Gonzales. Tel: +1 831 675 9463 Tasting: Mon–Thu 11am to 4pm, Fri–Sun 11am to 5pm. Tours by appointment.

Smith & Hook Winery, Hahn Estates, 37700 Foothill Road.

Tel: +1 831 678 2132 Tasting: 11am to 4pm daily. Tours by appointment.

Paraiso Springs Vineyards, 38060 Paraiso Springs Road.

Tel: +1 831 678 0300 Tasting: Mon–Fri noon to 4pm; Sat and Sun 11am to 5pm. Phone for tours.

Jekel Vineyards, 40155 Walnut Ave. Tel: +1 831 674 5525 Tasting: 11am to 4pm. Tours by appointment.

Susan Low is a freelance food and wine writer


O’Mei 2316 Mission Street.

Tel: +1 831 425 8458.

Fresh, vibrant Pacific Rim

cuisine California style.

Casa Blanca Restaurant

and Inn, corner Beach and Main Streets. Tel: +1 831 423 1570 www.casablanca-

Restaurant: Contemporary California cuisine. Extensive, well-chosen wine list.

Inn: $155–350 per night.

Located near the beach so great ocean views. All rooms individually furnished.

Babbling Brook Bed and Breakfast Inn, 1025 Laurel Street. Tel: +1 831 427 2437

$165–250 per night including breakfast. Secluded former grist mill. All 13 rooms have fireplaces, some have decks.


Monterey’s Fish House, 2114 Del Monte Ave,

Tel: +1 831 373 4647

Where locals come for fresh fish and home-made pasta. Make reservations.

Montrio, 414 Calle Principal, Tel: +1 831 648 8880

Fresh local ingredients, great service and a top wine list.

Monterey Plaza,

400 Cannery Row.

Tel: +1 831 646 1700

monterey. $225–475 per night. Amazing suites built out over the bay with great ocean views. A great spa.

Jabberwock, 598 Laine Street. Tel: +1 831 372 4777

$115–235 per night including breakfast. Small inn for Lewis Carroll fans, with great library.


Flying Fish Grill, Carmel Plaza. Tel: +1 831 625 1962.

The excellent fresh fish is

creatively put together

with Japanese and Asian influences.

Casanova, 5th Street, between Mission and San Carlos. Tel: +1 831 625 0501

The food at ‘Carmel’s most romantic restaurant’ is inspired more by France and Italy than by California. Very good wine list.

Mission Ranch Hotel,

26270 Dolores Street.

Tel: +1 831 624 6436.

$95–275 per night including breakfast. This peaceful

farmhouse (complete with sheep) is owned by Clint Eastwood himself.

Cobblestone Inn,

Junipero Avenue between 7th and 8th Avenues.

Tel: +1 831 625 5222

cobblest.html. $120–240 per night. Anglo-French feel. All rooms have their own

fireplaces, antiques and plump quilts.


Nepenthe, Highway 1, 30 miles south of Carmel.

Tel: +1 831 667 2345

A legendary wood cabin with bar, huge fireplace, sundeck, small restaurant and the most gorgeous of Big Sur views. Don’t miss it.

Cielo Restaurant, Highway 1, 28 miles south of Carmel.

Tel: +1 831 667 2331.

1,000 feet above the Pacific with amazing views. Classically-inspired French/ Californian cooking.

Post Ranch Inn, Highway 1,

PO Box 219.

Tel: +1 831 667 2200

$455–835 per night. A

stunning cliff-top hotel. Bedrooms are either perched up in huge redwood trees or dug into the cliff. Expensive but worth it.

Written by SUSAN LOW