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From the Santa Lucia Highlands you can look across the Salinas Valley to the Gabilan Range.

“Toto, we’re not in Napa anymore.”

It was clear to me from the very beginning that California’s Central Coast wine region is a world away from the Napa Valley. This huge appellation runs south from San Francisco all the way to Santa Barbara, encompassing an incredible range of microclimates and topography, and everything from big towns, to small towns, to no towns at all.

In the Santa Lucia Highlands, where I started my trek, there’s not a Tuscan-style tasting room in sight; no boutique hotels or gourmet restaurants; heck, there’s not even a gas station.

What I did see was lettuce — lots of it. Row crops cover thousands of acres on the valley floor, and it was harvest time in the Salinas Valley. A good portion of the nation’s salad makings were being trucked out of the lowland that lies between the Gabilan Range to the northeast and the Santa Lucia Highlands to the southwest. The two ranges almost converge as they near the Pacific Ocean, but that lovely little gap between them makes this area a paradise for wine grapes.

Morning fog and cool afternoon breezes from Monterey Bay blow in through the gap, moderating the temperatures and creating a wonderfully long growing season. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in the vineyards scattered along the benchland on the lower slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

There are more grape growers than winemakers here, most selling at least some of their fruit to high-end, highly-awarded wineries. We passed Garys’ Vineyard (owned by two guys named Gary) from which Testarossa makes a killer Pinot Noir. Then we stopped at Paraiso Vineyards, owned by the Smith family, who were among the first to plant grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Every winery has a dog or two: Bleeker lives at Paraiso Springs.

And here’s a “vineyard” I didn’t expect to see: we rounded a corner on River Road and almost ran smack into hundreds of acres of …Prickly Pear Cactus!  I have no explanation for this…

What are cactus doing in wine country??

The white-knuckle drive up to Calcareous ends in a spectacular view.

We continued south along the Salinas Valley, aiming for the region some call “the next Napa Valley.” The town of Paso Robles (and the AVA) sit at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands, where the Monterey breezes don’t reach. The summer days are hot here, but Paso has its own thermal regulator: the Templeton Gap, which splits the Coastal Range just south of town, pulling in morning fog and afternoon ocean breezes that are strong enough to blow your hat off — really!

Warm-climate grapes thrive here — Zinfandel, Cabernet and Rhone varietals — and the wine industry has exploded in the last two decades. The once-sleepy town has grown up too, with gourmet restaurants such as Artisan where we had a great dinner with wine-loving friends (and of course, some good wine: we loved Stephan Asseo’s L’Aventure Estate Cuvee).

Vineyards cover the hillsides at L’Aventure.

This is what a limestone deposit looks like.

The West Side of Paso is all hillsides and valleys, and most wineries here are off the beaten track. We twisted and turned up to the top of Peachy Canyon Road to visit Calcareous Winery, which seems to perch on top of the world. They (and most of Paso Robles) sit on top of California’s largest deposit of calcareous soil. This is a good thing for wine grapes — this one-time sea bed is, well, really lousy soil. Poor soil makes grape vines work very hard to gather water and nutrients, and that’s a good thing because stressed vines produce grapes with more complex, concentrated flavors.

The folks at Calcareous were wonderful hosts, and we lunched on Ginger Glazed Salmon before barrel tasting with Royce, the assistant winemaker. We especially loved Tres Violet, a rich and soft Rhone-style blend, and the Twisted Sister line from Calcareous: the Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are ripe but balanced, and their blend, Main Squeeze, is something you could fall in love with for everyday drinking.

Check out Part Two — More Adventures in Wine Land…

Posted by Deb Lapmardo, TWM Wine Team member, Phoenix Desert Ridge