Where Is California's Central Coast?

Inaugural WiVi conference opens with debate about consumer awareness of region's wines

by Andrew Adams
WiVi Central Coast
Mark Couchman, president of Silverado Premium Properties, told the audience at the inaugural WiVi show that the Central Coast provides opportunities for high-efficiency, low-cost farming.
Paso Robles, Calif.—Say “Central Coast” to consumers in Boston and they may think you’re referring to North Carolina or somewhere else along the mid-Atlantic.

Consumers in Florida, however, think of the Tampa area.

Few consumers in the East connote the phrase “Central Coast” with the key California wine region that is home to thousands of acres of productive vines, hundreds of wineries and about a quarter of the state’s Chardonnay production.

Some even think Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo—two of the largest cities in the region—are located exclusively in Mexico.

That realization comes from Michael Heintz, the senior marketing director for E. & J. Gallo winery. Heintz participated in the general session in Paso Robles today at the inaugural WiVi conference organized by Precision Ag Consulting and Wine Business Monthly. Organizers estimated attendance was about 600 people at the event. The conference’s name (pronounced “why-vie”) comes from taking the “wi” of wine and “vi” of viticulture.

The session this morning focused on the state of the industry in the Central Coast, and much of the discussion focused on the area’s lack of a specific identity.

Good at many varieties, master of none?
The Central Coast represents a marketing puzzle for vintners and growers in the region that’s known for its Rhone varietal wines as well as its Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, multiple appellation areas, regions and microclimates.

Gallo owns nearly 2,000 acres of vines in the region. The company also owns Edna Valley Vineyard winery and just recently purchased the large production facility Courtside Cellars in Paso Robles as well.

Because of the company’s investment in the area, Heintz said Gallo wanted to bring the Central Coast to life for the consumer. Surveys of consumers found that the term “Central Coast” often left them confused or thinking of the central coast areas nearest to where they lived. It did not connote images of fine wine. Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo sounded as if they were in Mexico, Heintz said, while people thought Edna Valley was located somewhere in Australia. Consumers did seem to have an impression that Paso Robles made red wine, but, “Again, they still think it’s in Mexico,” he said.

Heintz said the lack awareness offers those in the region the opportunity to define their brand. He said coordinated marketing efforts and events are worthwhile but need to be inventive because the Central Coast would be competing with other regions from the United States and international groups that often are backed with their own governments’ funding.

He said it may be worthwhile for those in the Central Coast to take a look at Sonoma County’s conjunctive labeling requirements as well as the area’s focused and coordinated marketing effort for all of its distinct AVAs. “That might be worth thinking about here,” he said.

Mark Couchman, president of Silverado Premium Properties, which owns vineyards in the region as well as in Napa and Sonoma counties, said it’s been a challenge for his company to describe the region as well. He said he’s spent a great deal of time trying to explain to the firm’s investors what and where the Central Coast is and why it’s so important to the company.

Couchman said about half of Silverado’s holdings are in the Central Coast. He said the area is unique in that it provides opportunities for high-efficiency, low-cost farming as well as more costly practices to produce grapes that showcase the area’s best potential.

‘We love the Central Coast’
 In addition to the challenge of identity, Couchman said his company is seeing more regulatory pressure from counties in the region. He said it’s “shocking” that counties here are putting up more red tape for vineyard development and land use than the counties in the North Coast. But those hurdles haven’t dampened Silverado’s ardor for growing grapes in the area. “I would say that overall we love the Central Coast,” he said. “We don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t continue.”

He noted that about 95% of the vines Silverado owns in the area are harvested by machines, and the company is beginning to mechanize more of its cultivation practices such as pruning.

Prior to coming to Paso Robles, Emily Wines, a master sommelier and director of wines for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, said she surveyed the wine staff at all of the group’s 56 restaurants, which are located mainly on the East Coast, about their impressions of the wine and wine regions of the Central Coast.

She said their responses ran the entire gamut, from people thinking the hot region only produced flabby bulk wines to it being a cool, coastal area that was home to balanced wines exhibiting terroir. “The thing I worry about (for) the Central Coast is, again, where is the identity?”

Only the Paso Robles area seemed to receive a consensus opinion of being home to quality wines.

And while Wines conceded the area is a huge, sprawling region, she said other large growing regions have found an identifier for themselves such as Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Those wines can be identified in blind tastings because they represent a specific style. That often isn’t the case for Central Coast wines, she said.

Wines also cautioned against the rush to define new sub-appellations. She said having too many can undermine a regional identity that’s well known. Wines said that is happening to some degree to wines from Oregon, where the Willamette Valley designation is well known but smaller designations such as Ribbon Ridge AVA are not.

Jerry Lohr, founder of the region’s iconic J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, said he believes it’s a little too late to try and develop a marketing strategy for the entire Central Coast. Instead, addressing the panel and the audience at the end of the session, Lohr said vintners and growers tied by a specific place or varietal wine should band together and promote their specific appellation or wine.

He also said that those in the region should “have the guts” to ask for the proper price for their wines.

The pricing point was also raised by Wines, who noted while there are many regions in the world producing good Cabernets for less than $20 per bottle. It’s the higher priced Cabs of exceptional quality that can become a standard bearer for a region and raise the profile and demand of all the region’s wines.

The conference and trade show continues through Wednesday and concludes with a comparative tasting of the red blends, one of the industry’s fasted growing wine types by sales.

Posted on 03.20.2013 - 08:46:44 PST
Gallo purchased the Courtside Cellars facility in Paso Robles last year (not the Edna Valley). The Edna Valley facility remains privately owned and is now operated under the name Phase 2 Cellars. (Editor's note: we have corrected the article to reflect this.)
Molly Bohlman