It has everything you could want in a prime wine destination: lush vineyards, winemakers up at first light to work the harvest, cozy lodging, and great food.
Besides all of this, there are cool ocean breezes wafting their way through the vineyards, a notable ingredient of “SLO” Wine Country, the delightful region between San Francisco and Los Angeles that lies on the coastal side of the Santa Lucia Mountains in San Luis Obispo County.
According to the San Luis Obispo Wine Country Association, its 27 wineries produce more than 23 varieties, including chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, albarino, grenache and viognier.
It all makes for a delightful getaway, as my wife and I discovered on a two-day journey up Highway 101. Our first stop, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, was Laetitia Winery and Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, where we met winemaker Eric Hickey.
Laetitia, he explained, has French roots going back to 1982, when viticulturists from France discovered that the Arroyo Grande Valley offers characteristics similar to the cool climate of Champagne.
For about 14 years, Maison Deutz produced sparkling wine here. Its current owner, Selim Zilkha, an adventuresome entrepreneur born in 1927 to an Iraqi Jewish family, acquired the estate in 1998.
Zilkha is joined by his daughter Nadia, an accomplished artist who grew up in London, studied English literature at the University of London and was also the socially-conscious executive producer of the documentary film, “Tricked,” about teen-age prostitution in America.
Laetitia’s Nadia label uses grapes grown south of the Laetitia vineyard in the Santa Barbara highlands. The wines – cabernet, sauvignon blanc, grenache and syrah – “really capture the location and the terroir of the…highlands,” Nadia said. The wines are “not heavy, not overpowering in any way, not heavy oak, and not overwhelming, so they go well with food,” she added. Nadia also writes a wine blog, www.laetitiawine.com/blog.
Selim Zilkha lived in Lebanon and Egypt until his family left for the U.S. in 1941. He received a BA degree from Williams College and served in the U.S. Army. While living in England, he founded Mothercare, a popular European chain of stores for the mother-to-be and her baby.
After moving back to the U.S. in 1982, he turned to gas and oil exploration and wind energy. At present, Zilkha Biomass Energy has developed a black pellet made from wood, which can be used to co-fire or replace coal in coal plants.
But even with his significant business record, Zilkha is still “absolutely fascinated with farming.”
“When I was living in England,” he said, “I always thought of farming in California. I was always fascinated with that.”
Laetitia is “not a pretentious winery,” Eric Hickey said, and though the wines “are serious,” everyone manages to have fun, including picnics with wine and bocce ball.
Hickey learned winemaking “through the practical side.” Recalling his days as a “cellar rat,” he credited two people for teaching him the craft: his father, Dave Hickey, Laetitia’s senior winemaker in charge of sparkling wines, and a French winemaker working at the winery at the time.
Laetitia is particularly well-known for sparkling wines, all sold almost exclusively in the tasting room. To make these wines, it uses two traditional basket presses — the only two in North America.
“They’re a lot of work as far as manpower,” Hickey said, “but the juice that comes out is pristine because it has had very little movement…the juice is almost pre-filtered.”
Among Laetitia’s other principal wines are pinot noir and chardonnay, but it also produces pinot gris, pinot blanc and cool-climate syrah.
After bidding Hickey good-bye, we continued up the coast to the Bassi vineyard of Sinor-LaVallee Wines near the funky little town of Avila Beach. Mike Sinor, a hearty fellow wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Pinot Noir,” greeted us as he rounded up two stray dogs and placed them in the back of his Jeep for the bumpy ride up a dirt trail to find their home.
Sinor and Cheri LaVallee were married in Burgundy in 1996 and acquired the Bassi vineyard in 2013.
With 30 acres of planted vineyards on the 112-acre site, Bassi is protected by Avila Ridge. It has distinctive microclimate and produces 1,500-2,000 cases a year with a focus on pinot noir, though the winery also does chardonnay, pinot gris, syrah and albarino. Most of the wines are distributed through its wine club and the tasting room in Avila Beach managed by Cheri.
Sinor studied industrial technology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and worked his way through college at six wineries, in the vineyards, in the cellars, even house sitting and restoring a winery’s Volkswagen bus.
“I’m not a laboratory guy,” he admitted. “I’m not white- collar. I’m out there in the fields, I’m out there with the crews. I’m very involved with everything.”
Sinor believes the low latitude of this wine area is what makes it special. “That is very unique, especially for pinot noir,” he said. “Some people think we’re Southern California, but when they get here, they realize how cold this is because of the ocean influence.”
I had a personal taste of this influence when I joined the harvest at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. It was an almost-mystical experience, the stillness of the chilly, somewhat foggy morning being broken by workers clipping the stems of the sweet fruit and then dumping the prized yield, carried high on their shoulders, into a big vat.
And, of course, right there in the middle of it all was Mike Sinor, eyeing his harvest treasure with great pride.
In between our visits to the wineries, my wife and I settled happily into the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, ideally located on 100 wooded acres off Avila Beach Drive near the wineries. Here in a quiet setting Sycamore offers self-guided hikes ranging from 1.5 to six miles in length, with ocean vistas or coastal access. The spa also has in-room hot tubs, hillside hot tubs, an oasis waterfall lagoon, and a variety of spa treatments.
Between May 4-6, 2017, Sycamore will help host the International Chardonnay Symposium, bringing together winemakers from the U.S. and overseas to Avila Beach, Pismo Beach and the Edna Valley wine country.
We also dined one night at Ocean Grill restaurant on the Avila Beach promenade, and the only thing better than our fish dinner was the spectacular sunset.
Avila Beach is also where the Peloton Cellars tasting room is located across the street from the pier. Tricia Kesselring is the tasting room manager. She and her husband Bill own the winery with his brother Tim, and two friends, Kjell Ackerstom and Jeff Brown.
The old-fashioned penny-farthing bike displayed on the wall represents the winery’s name, which is French for bicyclists in a race. Built by Tim, it also helps explain the fact that Bill Kesselring, his brother and their two friends are all avid cyclists, with Bill actively competing.
The Kesselring’s own a vineyard consulting business on the Central Coast. This is also where the winery sources its fruit.
Peloton’s connection to the cycling theme is reflected in its two reserve blends: the Criterium, a Bordeaux-style field blend, and Le Pave, a blend of 80 percent Syrah and 20 percent Grenache. Le Pave’s inspiration comes from a bicycle race in France. Tricia, a former middle school math teacher, compared the race, run almost entirely on rough, rainy and sometimes-muddy cobblestone streets, to Le Pave’s structure — “a little bit rough but also very elegant and very cutting-edge.”
The winery also does a few different styles of pinot noir and markets its wines at the tasting room, through its wine club, and at two local restaurants.
Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards
For a complete change of pace, there’s Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards, about three miles from Avila Beach. The setting in See Canyon is totally unexpected, including over 100 peacocks roaming the grounds.
The winery is owned by the Kelsey family: Keith, his mother and father, Dick and Delores, and his brother and sister-in-law Richard and Laurie. Winemaker Jac Jacobs joined the winery in 2012.
Dick Kelsey launched the winery in 1999 after retiring from the family tug boat business. He and Delores live at the winery in a big white-frame house past the front gate.
“Dad used to always be interested in making wine,” said Keith. “He made it with my mom’s side of the family, the Portuguese side, and when he retired, his dream was starting a winery.”
The winery’s barrel room still has a link with the tug boat business: it used to be a machine shop for rebuilding tug boat engines. Keith retired from the business in 2002, devoting himself full-time to the winery, but he recalls working boats for Hollywood, like running “ship-to-shore” for the film “The Perfect Storm.”
The winery grows about two acres of chardonnay and a quarter acre of pinot noir on site, while other varieties like zinfandel, cabernet and syrah are grown on a family ranch east of Paso Robles. It produces about 4,500 cases of wine a year, all sold at the winery and through a wine club.
With See Canyon so well-known for apples, the winery also produces apple-and-wine blends. Its Golden Delicious is a 50-50 blend of apple juice and chardonnay, and its Red Delicious is a blend of sometimes eight different varietals with apple juice.
Keith’s cousin, Colleen Gnos, an artist who has painted surf boards with mermaids on them, creates all of Kelsey’s labels.
The winery hosts music every Saturday and Sunday afternoon with as many as 200 visitors showing up on Sunday. People come to picnic, enjoy wine, and listen to everything from bluegrass to Hawaiian.
As Keith sums up: “It’s just a fun place. Everybody’s happy.”
For more details see: www.slowine.com.