For an industry awash in competing theories and ever-evolving techniques, one maxim holds true for almost every winemaker: Great wine can only come from great vineyards.
There’s no shortage of such properties on California’s Central Coast. From Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, towering mountains drop directly into the frigid ocean. The topography opens valleys to steady sea breezes that moderate long growing seasons and unleash unique soil combinations, from sandy to chalky to volcanic, each creating distinctive flavors and textures in finished wines. While some of these are monopole estates used by just one winery, most of the region’s vineyards grow grapes for multiple brands, opening windows into the defining characteristics of each property.
To celebrate this shared experience, we’re showcasing four of the most important Central Coast vineyards, from Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands down to the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. Together, they exemplify the wide range of wine styles that can be made along this increasingly important stretch of coastline.
Santa Barbara’s Historic Home of Pinot Noir
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
In 1971, when Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict scoured the western reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley for an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir, their initial motivation was climatic, chasing the temperature as it dropped closer to the coast. They came upon a bean farm that was properly chilled but also slightly protected from the persistent wind. It was completely distinct geologically, due to a landslide that had spilled a rare mix of chert, shale and diatomaceous earth.
“Sanford & Benedict was definitely about two guys on a mission, looking for this spot, knowing that they had something, and keeping their fingers crossed for a few years that it was true—and it was,” says Trey Fletcher, senior winemaker for Sanford Winery, which owns Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. “That landslide unearthed a diversity of deep soils that have incredible water-holding capacity. It’s incredibly rare to find that combination.”
As such, Sanford & Benedict is “very much a vineyard that looks to the earth for its influence,” says Fletcher, who likes to hunt for chanterelles and other mushrooms in the hills behind the vineyard. “There’s a sweet earthiness, a sweet forest-floor character aromatically that’s very unique.” He also believes the “tremendously silky and satiny” texture is a hallmark.
The vineyard’s lauded 1976 vintage proved that Pinot Noir can work as far south as Santa Barbara County and sparked a planting revolution in the nearby hills, eventually leading to the creation of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation in 2001.
Of the 150 acres planted—a quarter to Chardonnay, the rest to Pinot Noir—there remain 58 acres of own-rooted old vines from the early 1970s that are in “very good shape,” says Fletcher. He makes about 10 different wines from this vineyard alone, including three sparklers, an old-vine bottling and a handful of block designates. But more than a dozen clients also buy fruit from Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, including Chanin, Sandhi, Margerum, The Hilt and Fess Parker.
“Over the years I have been lucky to work with many of California’s great vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and, of course, Santa Barbara,” says Gavin Chanin, who’s bought Sanford & Benedict fruit for his eponymous brand since 2012. “I have also spent time walking and talking to people who work many of the great vineyards around the world. To me it is undeniable that S&B is one of the best vineyards not only just in Santa Barbara, but in the world.”
Quality and Quantity in Paso Robles
French Camp Vineyard
About 35 miles southeast of Paso Robles, seemingly endless golden hills of dry grass are suddenly interrupted by an oasis of emerald green.
This is the French Camp Vineyard, more than 1,200 acres that were planted back in 1972. It remains a critical grape source for wineries both large, such as WX, Duckhorn and Fetzer, and small, such as Herman Story and Giornata. It’s one of three vineyards planted by the Miller family, which also owns two other critical Central Coast properties in the Santa Maria Valley: Bien Nacido Vineyard, which is called the “most vineyard-designated vineyard in the world,” and Solomon Hills Vineyard, which rides that appellation’s westernmost edge.
The largest property in the Paso Robles Highlands appellation, French Camp is a masterclass in viticulture, showcasing both modernized machine harvesting for value-minded wines as well as hands-on organic farming for boutique bottlings. The property’s 23 different varieties enjoy massive shifts of about 50 degrees from day to night, says Greg O’Quest, longtime vineyard manager.
“As the crow flies, we’re only about 30 miles from the rock in Morro Bay,” he says.
Jonathan Nagy is the top winemaker for the Miller Family Wine Company, in charge of brands such as J. Wilkes, which sources Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Viognier and Cabernet Franc from French Camp. After years working with Santa Barbara’s cool-climate sites, he was initially skeptical about the quality of these remote grapes.
“But I was surprised in a good way—it holds acidity really well,” he says, noticing significant differences compared to other appellations.
“Tasting Cab from here versus the rest of Paso, it’s like, ‘Wow, I see why there is an appellation here.’” – Jonathan Nagy, Miller Family Wine
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding grapes from the smaller blocks, like the hilltop Petite Sirah used by Herman Story, or the Lagrein sourced by Alapay Cellars. Stephy Terrizzi of Giornata Wines, which buys Aglianico from the property, is continually amazed by French Camp, which is so remote that it sells gas to employees.
“There is no cell service, and I really feel like I am in the Wild West when I am there,” she says. “It’s remarkable that such a wild vineyard so far off the beaten path can consistently produce such high-quality grapes. The resulting wine is floral, spicy and balanced yet very complete on the palate. It’s…complex, crowd-pleasing and consistent year after year.”
Consistency in the Santa Lucia Highlands
At first glance, the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation extends across a monotonous bench above the Salinas River and beneath the dark, craggy mountains that eventually reach Big Sur. But on the ground, each vineyard shows considerable differences in aspect, soil, clone and personality—as in, the people who are behind each property.
For Garys’ Vineyard, that would be the two Garys: Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, who both hail from the region’s multigenerational Swiss-Italian farming families.
Though Garys’ Vineyard did not exist until 1997, its origins go back to 1982, when Pisoni established his family vineyard a few miles south. “Dad was one of the first dudes up here planting wine grapes with a focus on quality and a focus on Pinot Noir,” says Mark Pisoni, who’s in charge of farming for the family today.
In 1996, Franscioni planted his first vineyard, named Rosella’s after his wife, and the next year, the two Garys teamed up, planting about 50 acres of the Pisoni clone of Pinot Noir, which has long been rumored to be from La Tache in Burgundy. (They’ve since added Clone 23 and Mount Eden.)
“The combination of that clone planted on the sloping, wind-whipped and well-drained benchland around the mid-Santa Lucia Highlands gives a wine with a unique style all its own,” says Dean De Korth, winemaker for Bernardus, who first worked with Garys’ when he was at Morgan Winery in the late 1990s. “It typically has an amazing depth of complex flavors with expressive red fruits and notes of mineral and spice.”
Franscioni believes the vineyard’s 250-foot elevation differential is part of what makes the site special.
“The bottom area is often picked two weeks before the top of the vineyard,” he says. “This has a lot to do with the flavor profiles.”
Today, they sell the grapes to more than a dozen producers, including Kosta Browne, Red Stitch, Testarossa and Twomey. Siduri founder Adam Lee started with Garys’ on the first vintage of 1999 and even has a block named after his son Christian, who was born that year. He still uses Garys’ for his Clarice Wine Company and loves the rocky soils, which are rare on this side of the appellation.
“I think this leads to a wine with more structure and overall grip,” says Lee. “These are not shy wines when it comes to fruit, but that is balanced out by that mineral-like structure that comes from the soils.
Capturing Coastal Crispness
Spanish Springs Vineyard
Just two miles from the clam chowder shacks and surf shops of Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County, Spanish Springs Vineyard occupies the east-facing flanks of Price Canyon atop sandy, acid-retaining soils, with occasional piles of fractured shale visible beneath the vines.
Planted in 2007, the 92-acre vineyard, which is owned by developer Henry Warshaw and farmed by Pacific Coast Farming, now sells to three dozen wineries, making it one of the most popular vineyards anywhere.
“You’re far enough away from the ocean where you’re not sitting in the fog, but you’re close enough to the ocean that it’s emanating those cool climate aspects,” says Coby Parker-Garcia, who’s been making wines in the nearby Edna Valley since 2002 and started his own brand called El Lugar Wines in 2013. “I think of the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley as very coastal AVAs. Spanish Springs trumps that. It’s twice as close to the ocean, if not closer.”
Though most of the property is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, there’s also Syrah, Grenache, Albariño, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Barbera. Steve Dooley of Stephen Ross Cellars, which makes a flinty Albariño from the property, believes that the long hang times make for pronounced varietal fruit expressions.
“The Albariño has great acidity and displays a coastal energy, which is consistent across all the varieties grown there,” says Dooley.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay remain the workhorse varieties and are the sole bottlings for Oceano Wines. Co-owner Rachel Martin, who also makes wine in Virginia, was so smitten upon first visiting in 2016 that she signed up for six tons of Chardonnay on the spot. Oceano Winemaker Marbue Marke believes, alongside the property’s clonal diversity, “multiple exposures and hillside slopes” create microclimates that enhance complexity.
“Probably most significantly,” he says, “it brings brightness and balance with its low pH at maximum ripeness, thanks to the soil and cooling ocean breeze.”
For Parker-Garcia of El Lugar, Spanish Springs “just makes wines that truly show a sense of place.” While his Pinot Noir is savory, his Syrah is especially characteristic, offering plenty of iodine and kelp notes.
“You do get that salinity, that nori character in the wines,” he says.
Last Updated: May 8, 2023