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California driving: Top 10 wineries to visit on your road trip

California winelands are made for road trips, hit the scenic Central Coast from Monterey to Santa Barbara for an unforgettable wine adventure...

This article first appeared in Decanter magazine’s California supplement 2017. It is currently featured on Decanter.com as part of a sponsored campaign with the California Wine Institute.

Central Coast road trip – Top 10 wineries

It’s only a four or five hour journey 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.

A road trip between them could last a day or a week, depending on how much you want to see and do. The area spans many distinct wine appellations, including Monterey, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Paso Robles, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County and the Santa Rita Hills, to name the most famous.

Wine styles are as diverse as the territory, ranging from delicious sparklings to world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to inky Syrahs and robust Cabernets. Remarkable restaurants and bars plus compelling attractions are as plentiful and diverse as the wine.

Au Bon Climat

central coast road trip

Au Bon Climat’s Rancho La Cuna vineyards, Santa Maria

Jim Clendenen has been revered for his elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since founding his winery in 1982. A stop here will offer a chance to taste library wines (which show how beautifully his wines can age), along with tastes of his current projects. These are, without doubt, some of the best wines in Santa Barbara. In 2007, Clendenen was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.


Carmel Road

Carmel Road, a Jackson Family Wines winery, specialises in sustainably farmed, cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The wines are excellent expressions of what the Monterey terroir can deliver, and one of the finest in the portfolio is the South Crest Pinot Noir, a vibrant wine with dense dark cherry and earth notes.



central coast road trip

Sunset over the patio deck at Galante Vineyards…

This intimate tasting room has an unapologetic cowboy vibe – all the better to tell the pioneering story of Galante (Jack Galante’s great grandfather, JF Devendorf, was the founder of the town of Carmel). Robust, rich reds dominate the offerings with a focus on superior quality, estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Malbec and Merlot. Try the Cowboy Cuvée or the Centennial Cabernet Sauvignon.



Long-time winemaker for Qupé, Bob Lindquist is one of California’s original ‘Rhône Rangers’—a group dedicated to the pursuit of American-made Syrah and other Rhône varieties. Lindquist, who farms biodynamically, is legendary for his Syrahs but you would be remiss if you didn’t sample one of his ethereal and rich Viogniers.


Insider guide to eating and drinking in California

Tablas Creek

central coast road trip

Stunning California skies at Tablas Creek winery.

Founded in 1989, Tablas Creek is a winery partnership between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in the Rhône and US wine importer Robert Haas. The wines cultivated from their organic vineyards steeped in limestone soils are some of the Paso Robles’ most ageworthy and awarded. The tasting room offers library tastings of rare vintages in addition to selections from the estate portfolio. Try the Esprit Tablas Blanc (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc) or the wild and intense Patelin de Tablas (a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise). Be sure to browse the small winery boutique selling books, linens and wine accessories.



Stolpman wines are among the finest expressions of Syrah from the Ballard Canyon AVA. The Los Olivos tasting room boasts a nice view, but the true highlight are the wines. Made organically and dry-farmed, they show immense ageworthy structure and polished complexity. If possible, plan ahead and reserve a spot on one of the guided hikes of their beautiful Ballard Canyon estate.



central coast road trip

Wine and serenity at Wrath vineyards…

Wrath specialises in small-lot production of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc from the Central Coast’s Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Concentrated and serious, the wines show a deeply fruity and complex spiciness. After the tasting, buy a bottle and carry your purchase to the nearby Carmel Beach for a seaside happy hour.


Valley Project

This downtown Santa Barbara location is a great place to kick off your Central Coast wine education. Here you’ll get to sample small-batch wines from each of the different Santa Barbara AVAs while pondering the visually impressive wall-sized chalk mural map of the AVAs, drawn by local street artist Elkpen.



central coast road trip

Kunin is a small family-run operation just a block from the beach…

Located in downtown Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a block from the beach, expect to taste a range of varieties that showcase the amazing breadth of the Central Coast terroir. This small family run operation, started by winemaker Seth Kunin in 1998, turns out delightful Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier and Chenin Blanc. The Pape Star Red (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault) is lovely, as is the racy and bright Chenin Blanc.



Sommelier and owner Doug Margerum spent 35 years in the restaurant industry before launching Margerum in 2011. He concentrates on crafting Rhône varieties with polish and sophistication. Try the dark and lively Uber Syrah. And don’t miss the Amaro, a beguiling blend of herbs and botanicals from a proprietary recipe.


Introduction written by Jordan Mackay, with winery recommendations from Katie Kelly Bell

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