(Continued from part one)

There’s a lot of history along El Camino Real, the historic route that once connected the Spanish missions along the California coast. It’s called Highway 101 now, but it’s still the main artery connecting the Central Coast wine regions.

We headed south down Highway 101 from Paso Robles, threading our way through green hills towards the ocean. We stopped in the Edna Valley where, if you sit high on a hillside, you can see the Pacific. We were at a funky little compound that houses one of Sextant Winery’s tasting rooms.

We enjoyed tasting Sextant’s crisp, clean 2011 Edna Valley Chardonnay, and their rich but balanced Wheelhouse Zinfandel and Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. We had a nice surprise here, too.

We drove on to Santa Barbara County, which has earned its place in American wine lore as the venue for the famous (or infamous) movie, “Sideways.” This dubious distinction aside, the region also produces some of the country’s best Pinot Noir and Syrah. The ambience here is rural but up-scale, with small towns such as Lompoc, home of the famous Wine Ghetto that we didn’t get to visit because these hot young “garage” wineries are only open for tasting on weekends. (Note to self — schedule next visit Friday to Sunday).

The cool-climate Santa Rita Hills region is where we put on our tasting caps, enjoying exceptional (and highly-awarded) Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with Alvin in the Melville Winery tasting room.

We tasted great Pinot Noir at Melville — l. to r. Bruce Cotanch, Cris Cotanch, Deb Lapmardo (TWM Wine Supervisor in Phoenix) and Chuck Lapmardo.

Just a little further up-valley we chatted with Hollie at Dierberg and Star Lane Winery. The owners grow fruit in both the Santa Rita Hills and warm-climate Happy Canyon, where they own a staggering 8,000 acres of this newly-recognized AVA that’s actually warmer than most of the Napa Valley. Dierberg’s wines have earned big scores and an international reputation: the 2007 Dierberg Syrah Santa Ynez Valley was served to some of the world’s most exalted dignitaries at the 2012 NATO Summit.

Our favorite destination was the charming and funky little town of Los Olivos. Historic buildings and old store fronts have been converted to tasting rooms, art galleries and shops, but there’s still evidence of the cattle ranching that’s been a mainstay in this valley for generations.

We had a killer lunch, too, at Sides Hardware and Shoes – A Brothers Restaurant. This converted hardware and general store is actually a restaurant operated by, you guessed it, two brothers. Their home-smoked Brothers bacon looked like a slab of pork, and the BLT with local Heirloom tomatoes and Basil Aioli was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip.

Jedlicka’s Saddlery, on Los Olivos’ main street, still sells to working ranch hands. (Deb Lapmardo and Chris Cotanch enjoy the ambience.)

We tasted many great wines, including Syrah from Stolpman Vineyards, grown in warm-climate Ballard Canyon on the eastern side of the Santa Ynez Valley, further away from the ocean’s influence.

Across the street, we were wowed by Tensley’s Syrahs, which have received some of the highest scores ever awarded to California Syrah. But you don’t need scores to appreciate the concentration, elegance, and balance in Joey Tensley’s wines.

Joey Tensley was recently named “one of California’s twelve best Syrah producers.”

The very next day, as we reluctantly departed the quirky little town of Solvang to brave the Los Angeles freeways, we read the Wine Advocate’s just-released Central Coast Wine Report 2012. Not surprisingly, many of the wines we’d tasted got huge scores (95 points for Tensley’s Colson Canyon Syrah 2009!), but we didn’t need critics to tell us that this wine region represents the best our country has to offer. It was nice to know, though, that Antonio Galloni agreed with us.

You can bet we’ll be back to enjoy the unspoiled, uncongested, undeniably awesome Central Coast. Cheers!

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