Explore the Pacific Coast Wine Trail

Seven small wineries package San Luis Obispo County route

by Jane Firstenfeld
pacific coast wine trail
Cambria, Calif.—Seven tiny wineries clinging to the scenic Pacific Coast north of Morro Bay, Calif., have taken wheel in hand to steer visitors in their direction. Accessed by California’s historic Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway), they’re staking claim to a larger share of the half-million tourists who visit the area every year with the launch of Pacific Coast Wine Trail (PCWT). 

San Luis Obispo County is a major component of California’s sprawling Central Coast American Viticultural Area, but virtually all of the biggest, best-known wineries are concentrated inland, starting with the eastern slopes of the Coastal Range.

Cambria and its neighboring hamlets are on the road less traveled. Highway 1 hugs the coast northward through Big Sur to reach Carmel and Monterey. With sparse commercial accommodations, the two-lane PCH is designed more for moseying than high-speed travel, affording postcard views at every turn.

Last week, the informal collective including Hearst Ranch Winery, Black Hand Cellars, Stolo Family Winery, Moonstone Cellars, Harmony Cellars, Cayucos Cellars and Twin Coyote Winery sent out its initial release and press package to officially launch the PCWT.

“Stretching from San Simeon to Cayucos, with stops in between in Cambria and Harmony, The Pacific Coast Wine Trail offers guests a wine experience as unique as the coastal communities themselves,” the release stated.

Given the challenges of the PCH, the group encourages a relaxed approach to wine touring: “Complement wine tasting with hiking, antiquing, beach time, a visit to Hearst Castle or viewing the elephant seal rookery,” member wineries recommended.

Along the trail
This “left coast” of Paso is relatively new to the wine business: The oldest winery on the list is 6,500-case Harmony Cellars, founded in 1989. Most of the others got their start in this century.

Although Stolo Family Winery was founded in 2004, its tasting room in Cambria just opened in November, and the family ramped up production from 300 to 500 cases, according to general manager Maria Stolo Bennetti.

Bennetti instigated the wine trail (PCWT) and explained that since last October, its members have been meeting monthly to get the project off the ground, tapping into volunteer labor and sweat equity. “We are small. We stand apart from the other trails,” she said. “We want this to be recognized as a relaxed adventure built around winetasting.” For travelers from Northern or Southern California, this coastal corner is ideally suited for a weekend getaway.

Todd Clift, winemaker at Moonstone Cellars in Cambria, constructed the PCWT website, which includes a downloadable map. Organizers have distributed rack-card brochures at neighboring tourist destinations, and the group is planning two inaugural events.

The first, scheduled for Aug. 17, is a charity cheese and wine tasting at Cambria’s lavishly landscaped Garden Shed. Winemakers will pour to benefit Project Surf Camp, a group that teaches disabled children how to surf.

The second event will be more elaborate and has yet to be scheduled. The plan currently includes a seven-course small-plate dinner to showcase each of the member wineries. It will most likely be in August or September, Bennetti said.

She noted that the cool coastal climate “works to our advantage, and helps us get crew. We tend to harvest in October or even November,” as much as a month after vineyards in San Luis Obispo County’s warmer inland regions.

Erin Martin, marketing director at Harmony Cellars, commented, “We realize we have something unique, both rural and coastal.”  Harmony, Calif., has a population of 25. “The sign says 18,” Martin noted. Though small, she said, “The wineries can always ramp up production; we’re supporting each other.”

Winemakers speak
For small-production wineries (Hearst Ranch is the largest, making 10,000 cases annually), bringing visitors to the cellar doors is vital. Most of the wineries sell the vast majority of their product directly to consumers.

The PCWT’s web designer and Moonstone winemaker Todd Clift commented, “It’s tough hitting the road. It’s tough breaking in with distributors, especially as that market concentrates.”

Sourcing his production from up to a dozen places, including Gewürztraminer grapes from neighboring Monterey County, Clift said, “We have run out of product on occasion. Sometimes we scramble to upscale production, but if you pay your bills on time, you’re a bird-in-the-hand to growers. But you’ve got to have a crystal ball. What will the market want in two years? You’ve got to plan on the unexpected.”

Moonstone’s 150-member wine club provides a reliable source of income. “We let them pick what they want and notify them two weeks ahead what they can choose from.” This, he said, kept revenue stable even through the worst of the recession. The 2,600-case winery’s payroll includes a single full-time employee, three part-timers and, Clift said, “an army of volunteers. Lots of people will work for wine.”

Steve Thompson owns 500-case Twin Coyote Winery with his wife, daughter and twin brother, Stu. The winery’s top varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Verdejo, Vermentino and Tempranillo—warmer climate wines farmed on the 32-acre Coyote Moon vineyard in Paso Robles. Twin Coyote buys Chardonnay and Merlot from a coastal neighbor, Thompson said.

With the launch of the wine trail, “Concern has been raised about stock,” he said. In response, “We’re making wine furiously with Signe Zoller.”

Cayucos, Calif., 13 miles south of Cambria and 6 miles north of Morro Bay, is an old-fashioned beach town. “Probably the only town in California that looks like this,” said Stuart Selkirk, owner of Cayucos Cellars. With a stated population of 3,100, the main street is home to antiques stores and good restaurants, plus the winery’s tasting room.

“You’d laugh if you saw my winery on the old family dairy,” Selkirk said. “I built my own bottling line in a trailer.” Founded in 1996 on a third of an acre as an experimental place for Pinot Noir vineyards, Cayucos still produces just 500 cases per year, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Chardonnay.

“I was going to plant another acre-and-a-half to Pinot this year,” Selkirk said, “but I went to Italy and got obsessed with Orvieto Classico, a blend of grapes that doesn’t exist in the U.S. I want to be able to drink it here.” So instead of planting, he’s been searching for domestic grapevine sources.

“I’m a nut,” he confessed. “I do all wild-yeast wines. All his grapes come from the west side of Paso, near Templeton, Calif. “Last year, I did dry farm some Pinot and some exceptional Petite Sirah.”

The PCWT is still new, Selkirk said, but he expects it will earn its place on the winegrowing map because of climate change. “I see a lot of similarity between here and Mendocino County, but it’s wetter there.”

Selkirk is not concerned about short supply when more tasting room visitors arrive. “Running out is not really a bad thing: You can play catch-up. I barrel for long periods. There’s a lot of product we can bottle.”

To learn more about the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, visit pacificcoastwinetrail.com.

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