Culture: Hook, Wine, and Sinker: The SLO AVA coast is a marine oasis

Any doubts about how much influence the coast actually has in the newly created San Luis Obispo (SLO) Coast Designation are erased at the wide turnout of Interstate 46 West. With views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean stretching from the dramatic eruption of Morro Rock to the winding beaches below Hearst Castle, this is the place to sip on nearly a dozen of Morro Bay Oyster Company’s finest while sipping Scar of the Sea for your pets. Made from Pinot Noir grapes grown less than two miles from Avila Beach.

“There’s only so much access to seafood,” explains Skar’s owner, Mickey Giogni, with the inclusion of oysters, clams, scallops, mussels, sea bass, urchins, halibut and rockfish that are reliably plucked from nearby waters. “All of these things are like having an epic garden. Really good seafood and paying attention to what we eat is really a draw for a lot of us who live here on the coast.”

Either aboard his 20-foot Camel boat or from the decks of his winemaker friends’ ships, Giugni goes fishing out of Morro Bay or around the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara several times a month, even times a week. Aaron Jackson of Aequorea, who led the creation of the SLO Coast AVA, and Lucas Pope of Halliotide, who farms many of the area’s vineyards, are also avid fishermen, and their seafood culture is infused into almost every wine tasting and meal.

At the Sinor-LaVallee tasting room in Avila Beach, for example, visitors eat oysters on the backyard to the sound of crashing waves, and enjoy bubbly Pinot Noir and crisp Chardonnay grown just a mile away at Bassi Ranch. Nightly specials at Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach — a favorite among winemakers — may include chopped clams and “nduja” pizza (pair with Albariño donuts), nearby farmed abalone piccata (haliotide bubbles), and frutta di mare with crawfish Local Sea (Sparkling Outwards). Pinot Gris) and soy-glazed black cod (vintage Syrah from SinorLaVallee). And at the center of the effort in Edna Valley, a special meal from Chef Lindsay Morin might feature spicy mussels in marinara, or bluefin tuna with farm-grown cucumbers, avocado, sweet basil, shaved onions, and heirloom radishes. “This is SLO County on a silver platter,” she says.

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The wine—whether it’s a lively Sauvignon Blanc from Cadre, a mineral-rich Chardonnay from Tolosa or a Pinot Noir by Stephen Ross—connects directly to those dishes, displaying savory, salty and acidic qualities reminiscent of sea spray and an ocean breeze. “The SLO coast is more like a European palate,” says Giorgi, who embraces that more deeply with each vintage. “There is a new generation of wine professionals who are focusing on natural wines, organic farming and minimal intervention. These things, when combined, produce fresher, saltier wines.

While other California appellations use the word “coast” in their names, the SLO coast is one of the few places where vineyards truly have ocean views. About a dozen properties are either within sight of the waves or so close that the marine influence is constant, including Rag Bar Phelan Farm, the windswept Derbyshire Vineyard near San Simeon, and Stolo Vineyards just beyond Cambria.

“A lot of these vineyards are pocket vineyards,” says Giugni, of properties ranging from 2 to 7 acres. “This is very special. We grow them, small growers do it in-house, not big vineyard management companies. There is a difference in care because of the size.”

Just under the radar, the SLO Coast was approved by the federal government as an official American Viticultural Area, or AVA, in 2022, though it includes the time-honored Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley appellations. This keeps fruit costs slightly lower than Paso Robles to the north and Santa Barbara to the south, meaning the cost of entry is lower.

“It’s an unrecognized appellation, and that makes access to good terroir available,” notes Giorgi, who with his wife, Gina Giugni, of Lady of the Sunshine Wines, recently took over Mountain Meadow Vineyard just a few turns before the turnout on Hwy. 46 West. . “This means that more adventurous winemakers are able to play with the fruit and even grow it. So we are able to make wines that inspire us.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of the magazine Wine lovers magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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