Any doubts about how much the actual coast plays into the newly created San Luis Obispo (SLO) Coast appellation are erased at a wide turnout on Highway 46 West. With views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean extending from the dramatic eruption of Morro Rock up toward the jagged shorelines beneath Hearst Castle, this is the place to shuck a dozen or so of Morro Bay Oyster Company’s finest while sipping on zesty Scar of the Sea pét nat, made from Pinot Noir grapes grown less than two miles from Avila Beach.
“There’s just a ton of access to seafood,” explains Scar’s proprietor Mikey Giugni, listing off the oysters, clams, scallops, mussels, sea bass, urchins, halibut and rockfish that are reliably plucked from the nearby waters. “All of those things are just like having an epic garden. Really good seafood and caring about what we eat is really the draw for so many of us who live here on the coast.”
Either on his 20-foot boat Camel or from the deck of his winemaker friends’ vessels, Giugni goes fishing out of Morro Bay or around the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara a few times a month, even weekly st times. Aequorea’s Aaron Jackson, who spearheaded the SLO Coast AVA creation, and Halliotide’s Lucas Pope, who farms many of the region’s vineyards, are also avid fishermen, and seafood culture is infused in almost every wine tasting and meal.
At the Sinor-LaVallee tasting room in Avila Beach, for instance, visitors slurp oysters in the backyard with the sound of waves crashing, enjoying Pinot Noir-based bubbles and crisp Chardonnay grown just a mile away at Bassi Ranch. Nightly specials at Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach—a winemakers’ favorite—may include chopped clam and ’nduja pizza (pair with Dunites’ Albariño), piccata of abalone farmed nearby (Halliotide’s bubbles), frutta di mare with local lobster (Outward’s sparkling Pinot Gris) and soyglazed black cod (an aged Syrah from SinorLaVallee). And down at Center of Effort in the Edna Valley, a special meal from Chef Lindsey Morin may showcase spicy mussels in marinara, or bluefin tuna crudo with estate-grown cucumber, avocado, sweet basil, shaved onion, and heirloom radish. “This is SLO County on a plate,” she says.
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The wines—whether racy Sauvignon Blanc by Cadre, mineral-driven Chardonnay by Tolosa or punchy Pinot Noir by Stephen Ross—connect directly to those dishes, showing savory, briny and acid-driven qualities that recall sea spray and ocean breeze. “The SLO Coast resembles more of a European palate,” says Giugni, who embraces that more deeply with each vintage. “There’s a newer generation of wine professionals who are focused on natural wine, organic farming and minimal intervention. Those things, when combined, make fresher, saltier wines.”
While other California appellations use “Coast” in their names, the SLO Coast is one of the few places where vineyards truly enjoy ocean views. About a dozen properties are either within view of the waves or so close that the maritime influence is constant, including Raj Parr’s Phelan Farm, the wind-battered Derbyshire Vineyard near San Simeon and Stolo Vineyards just behind Cambria.
“A lot of these vineyards are pocket vineyards,” says Giugni, of properties that range between 2 and 7 acres. “That’s very special. They’re being farmed by us, small farmers doing it in-house, not big vineyard management companies. There’s a difference in care because of the size.”
Only approved by the federal government as an official American Viticultural Area, or AVA, in 2022, the SLO Coast is still very much under the radar, even though it includes the long-established Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley appellations. That keeps fruit costs a little bit lower than Paso Robles to the north and Santa Barbara to the south, which means the cost of entry is lower.
“It’s an unrecognized appellation, and that makes good terroir accessible,” notes Giugni, who, with his wife, Gina Giugni, of Lady of the Sunshine Wines, recently took over the Mountain Meadow Vineyard just a few turns before that Highway 46 West turnout. “That means that more adventurous winemakers are able to play with and even farm the fruit. So we’re able to make the wines that inspire us.”
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Published: November 17, 2023