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Golden State Terroir: Four Central Coast Vineyards to Know

An image of Sanford & Benedict Vineyards during sunset. / Photo by: Jeremy Ball

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.

From left, Sanford Winery Owner John Terlato, Senior Winemaker Trey Fletcher, and Associate Winemaker Laura Roach. / Photo courtesy of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

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.

Close-up image of grapes at Sanford & Benedict Vineyards. / Photo courtesy of Sanford & Benedict

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.”

Aerial view of French Camp Vineyards. / Photo courtesy of Miller Family Wine Company

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.

Aerial view of French Camp Vineyards. / Photo courtesy of Miller Family Wine Company

“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.”

Aerial view of Garys’ Vineyard. / Photo by: Wildly Simple Productions

Consistency in the Santa Lucia Highlands

Garys’ Vineyard

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.