Spotlight: San Luis Obispo

by Sarah Shotwell
Edna Valley AVA, Arroyo Grande Valley AVA
Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Gris
Climate: Region 1 - cool, misty marine zone with warm afternoons
Soil types: Limestone, sandstone, shale

Profile: A few years back, San Luis Obispo received worldwide attention when it was named “The Happiest City in America” by a writer from National Geographic. It’s not hard to see why. This sun-soaked village sits in a coastal valley caught between emerald-green peaks and is only ten minutes from the beach. Unaffected by the traffic and population that clogs much of the Golden State, the remote town is shared by a mix of energetic young college students and low-key, quirky, long-time locals. The dining scene is wine-friendly and locally-sourced.

Stretching south and east from town are miles of cool-climate vineyards and wineries boasting delicious and reasonably priced Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Riesling. These wineries are staffed with students and graduates of the state-of-the-art winemaking and viticulture program at Cal Poly, the local university, offering the region immediate access to the state’s most promising up-and-coming talent.

Though famous for its joy-factor, San Luis Obispo is often skipped over by the visiting winos seeking Pinot in northern Santa Barbara County (brought to fame by the 2004 film Sideways) or big red Cabs, Zins, and Rhone-inspired blends in Paso Robles to the north. But “SLO”, as locals call it, is more than worth a stop. The longevity of the region is alone impressive, with a winemaking history reaching back to Spanish arrival in the 1770s.

These days, a vibrant, laid-back, family-driven culture colors the tasting experience. It is not ncommon for owners and winemakers to be hanging out in the tasting rooms, chatting with customers and pulling barrel samples. Everyone is eager to socialize, eager to educate, eager to improve the winemaking craft and growing practices. Local winery workers can attest to this. Longtime SLO-resident and tasting room attendant Hilary Langdon said, “When out-of-towners come into the tasting room, they often tell us that they are surprised by two things: first, that they like every wine on the list, and second, that everyone is so friendly. We’re really proud of that.”

San Luis Obispo may be small, but the region is doing its part to help shift its customers away from a mindset that makes wine seem inaccessible, intimidating, and elitist. Instead, SLO is nurturing a new generation of winemakers, growers, and tasters who believe that fantastic wines are best paired not with an air of snobbery, but with an optimistic, genuine, and passionate enthusiasm. Of course, what would we expect from the happiest people in America?

Wineries to Visit:

Chamisal - High-quality Chardonnay and Pinot in a hip location

Claiborne & Churchill - Dry, sustainable Alsatian-style white wines and friendly staff

Kynsi - Impressive, memorable red wines and boutique charm

Eat Like a Local:

Ember - Innovative local cuisine, wood fired pizzas, and craft cocktails

Foremost Wine Co.- High-end farm-to-table fare, killer charcuterie, and a great wine list

Firestone Grill - Must-try college hangout featuring the Central Coast’s hallmark dish: the tri-tip sandwich