Most wine regions tend be lovely – bucolic, at least, if not always spectacular. The coastal winelands of California, however, are both, juxtaposing the wildness of the seaboard and the vertiginous drama of the mountains with the soothing order supplied by rows of vines.
Sonoma and Napa are justifiably famous, but underappreciated is the long stretch between Monterey (1.5 hours’ drive south of San Francisco) and Santa Barbara (two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles), commonly referred to as the Central Coast. It’s only a four- or five-hour drive between the two towns, but a road trip could last a day or a week, depending on how much you want to see. The area spans many appellations, and wine styles are as diverse as the territory – from sparklers to world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to inky Syrahs and robust Cabernets.
Consider starting in Monterey, home of the renowned Monterey Bay aquarium, and where whale-watching trips are available almost year round. Dine at 1833, a casual spot with excellent food and an impressive wine list. Just 10 minutes’ drive down the road is the quainter, more upmarket village of Carmel-by-the-sea. In town you can find tasting rooms for top-notch wineries including Galante, Carmel Road and Wrath. Dinner in Carmel can range from casual pizzas at La Bicyclette to a serious tasting menu at L’Aubergine.
A 45-minute drive down coast-hugging Highway 1, America’s most spectacular road, you’ll find yourself at Big Sur, a sparsely populated and miraculously beautiful zone, where jagged seaside cliffs meet the mist shrouded vastness of the Pacific. There’s no real town, just the setting to explore with a hike or a drive through the hills. The dazzling places to stay and dine, like the ritzy Post Ranch Inn, are very expensive. So, if you’re pressed for time or economising, you might just want to continue on.
Two hours’ drive south, at San Simeon (famous for the roccoco Hearst Castle), you could head 45 minutes inland to tour the Paso Robles wine district, all rocky hills and old oak trees. Tablas Creek, a partnership between the American Haas family and the Perrins of Beaucastel, is the place to visit, with an accessible tasting room showcasing excellent Rhône-variety wines.
Heading south from Paso, it’s just 1.5 hours’ drive to Los Olivos, a lovely village in the hills that functions as a wine-tasting amusement park. Lots of great wineries keep outposts here – Alta Maria, Qupé and Stolpman among them. But don’t dally too long, as you’ll want time in Santa Barbara, just 45 minutes away.
A gorgeous, compact city, Santa Barbara is nestled between an idyllic beach and towering mountains; palm trees announce that you’re now in southern California. Popular with tourists year-round, there are ample motels and hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. Better yet, the city’s downtown is rife with tasting rooms, known as the Urban Wine Trail, as they’re all walking distance from one another, creating a bacchanalian atmosphere.
Start proceedings at the Valley Project, which has an epic, hand-drawn, wall-sized wine map of Santa Barbara County’s terroirs and wines to match. Other hot wineries include Kunin, Margerum and Au Bon Climat. At the end of the day, head down to the beach and kick off your sandals. The sheer number of wineries and attractions along the Central Coast can make for a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out). But don’t forget, it’s California: the first order of business is always to just relax.
Santa Barbara has loads of good restaurants, but what serious foodies crave when they visit are the tacos – some of California’s most authentic Mexican food can be had here. The three taquerias to know are La Super-Rica, Lilly’s and El Bajio. At any of them you can stuff yourself for $10/£8 or less, saving your money for that next great bottle of wine.
Jordan Mackay is an award-winning author and wine writer based in San Francisco. This guide first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Decanter.