Sunday, August 24th, 2008
Justin, Turley, Firestone, Bridlewood, Meridian, Fess Parker… everyone knows the big names among Central Coast wineries. A lucky few have even visited their beautiful tasting rooms. But where does one go to taste premium wines, hand-crafted by the likes of Bonnacorsi, Labyrinth, Arcadian, Au Bon Climat? The Central Coast wine pilgrim is quickly disappointed when they realize many boutique producers operate out of shared production facilities and have no tasting rooms of their own. Shared facilities are quite the big deal these days, as they've launched many premium brands. There are a number of reasons a talented winemaker chooses to produce through a shared facility:
- Insufficient start-up funds
- Inability to get a license of their own
- Fatigue caused by bosses who insist on compromised product quality
The Central Coast has been a hotbed for such facilities, which have attracted some of the globe's top winemaking talent as a result. It all began with the venerable Central Coast Wine Services, founded in 1988. With facilities in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County) and Templeton/Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County), CCWS boasts a long client list, well peppered with premium wineries. CCWS is affectionately(?) known as "The Asylum" for the crazed spirit it harbors during harvest, when every winemaker clamors for equipment that sits idle for the rest of the year, and truckloads of grapes wait to be crushed.
"The Ghetto" is the nickname for a series of tilt-up industrial buildings situated in the seaside town of Lompoc (yes, the one with the military base shown in the old movie "Top Gun"). Here, a short but growing list of prestigious winemakers ply their craft, including Fiddlehead Cellars, Sea Smoke Cellars, Brewer-Clifton, Palmina and Piedrasassi/Holus Bolus. A few of these wineries have serviceable tasting rooms, though they are a far cry from the bucolic tasting experience often associated with wineries situated amongst the vines. Still, for those more interested in new wine discoveries than the vineyard gestalt, this is one way to taste some great vino.
Another shared production facility you're sure to hear about is the much ballyhooed Terravant in the small town of Buellton in the famed Santa Ynez Valley. Terravent promises a shared tasting room and hospitality facility for its various producers, which should be a great boon to wine travelers. The facility is too new for me to know its complete client list, but I do know that Arcadian will be producing there in the 2008 vintage.
Tasting The Invisible Wineries
So, how does one taste the product of these "invisible wineries"? Well, they would welcome you to join their wine clubs, of course. Wine clubs provide a systematic way to sample wines from a favorite producer or area, and they can be easily joined online. But such sampling programs take a year or more to taste through the breadth of a winery's portfolio. A more efficient way to taste the best efforts of these boutique producers is at a wine bar that features local products. This list of such tasting facilities will prove most helpful:
- Tastes of the Valleys, Solvang. Featured wineries include Arcadian, Au Bon Climat, Barrack, Barrel 27, Brochelle, Core, Labyrinth, Lane Tanner, Margerum, and Qupe. (Disclaimer, the author is part owner in this venture). Premium beers and light snacks also available.
- Wandering Dog, Solvang. Featured wineries include Kenneth Crawford, Blair Fox Cellars, Falcone Family Vineyards, Nagy2, Kaena, Dragonette, Jalama, Departure Wine Co., Baehner-Fournier, Osseus and Flying Goat. They also offer some out-of-area wines, including some nice imports.
- Wine Country, Los Olivos. Featured wineries include Core, Flying Goat Cellars, Great Oaks Ranch, Huber, J. Wilkes, Qupe, Benjamin Silver Winery, Taz, Verdad, Waltzing Bear and Woodstock Ridge. Cigars and premium beers are also available for sale.
- Fermentations, Cambria. It is difficult to give this shop a hearty recommendation, as I must admit I've never visited. Their website promises "local wines from producers without a tasting room of their own" but the internet visitor is then asked to contact them via email for a list of said wineries. Hmmm.
- Taste, San Luis Obispo. This venture has had its share of difficulties, but it is without a doubt the most technologically innovative way to taste. Visitors buy a payment card to use on their own from automated dispensers featuring wines from a range of SLO wineries. Note, many of the wineries also have tasting rooms of their own. Regardless, it's a great way to taste local wines without driving. Tastes is owned by the wineries whose wines are for sale there.
For those planning a visit to the burgeoning Central Coast wine country, I always recommend spending the first few hours driving the back roads from winery to winery - "take in the scenery, plan a picnic and relax" I tell them, "Then spend your afternoon and evening at one of the area's wine bars featuring wines from producers with no tasting room of their own." It's a great way to find wines you like, and greatly reduces your risk of drinking and driving.
Unless otherwise noted, each of my recommended wine bars is independently owned and operated. Each one involves people who love wine and food, and they'll be more than happy to help with recommendations for a great meal or place to stay. It's a wonderful way to experience the best of the California's Central Coast wine country.
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