Area of­fers wine, more

Cas­tles, en­chant­ing vines and misty moun­tains en­hance San Luis Obispo’s charm

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By ROBIN SOSLOW Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor

A visit to San Luis Obispo wine coun­try on Cal­i­for­nia’s cen­tral coast pro­vides daz­zle for your taste buds and much more.

Booze-in­duced il­lu­sions, or the most awe­some wine es­cape ever?

Free-range ze­bras, ele­phant seals, pea­cocks. Hill­top cas­tles from world-won­drous to weird. Glit­ter­ing ocean waves, dra­matic cliffs and mist-shrouded moun­tains. An­cient vol­canic peaks you can hike. Old-fash­ioned beach towns and a quirky-hip city with con­trast­ing charms. Tast­ing rooms in fan­tasy set­tings where dis­tinc­tive wines daz­zle your taste buds.

I swear on a stack of tast­ing notes that I en­coun­tered all this — and other episodes of peak eu­pho­ria — dur­ing three days in San Luis Obispo wine coun­try, SLO for short. It hugs Cal­i­for­nia’s cen­tral coast, smack-dab be­tween Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco.

No won­der this place is ranked among the world’s hap­pi­est places. And now with global wine-lovers dis­cov­er­ing its primo vi­nos, tast­ing rooms and ho­tels are gussy­ing up to wel­come them.

Fab­u­lous wine

Fog trapped be­tween the ocean and Santa Lu­cia Moun­tains, mild sunny days, cool nights, vol­canic and cal­care­ous (cal­cium-rich) soil, a long Fe­bru­ary through Novem­ber grow­ing sea­son that gives grapes time to ma­ture — this per­fect storm cre­ates fruit with in­tensely con­cen­trated, beau­ti­fully bal­anced fla­vors and bright acid­ity. Pri­mary va­ri­etals here are chardon­nay, pinot noir and aro­matic whites.

Un­like high-pro­file wine re­gions, you’re likely to meet the ac­tual wine­mak­ers in SLO wine coun­try’s Edna Val­ley and Ar­royo Grande Val­ley. Most of the 30 winer­ies are within 5 miles of the beach. You can even be­gin wine-tast­ing a minute south of the air­port at Tolosa (try the chard).

The tast­ing rooms add to the re­gion’s dis­tinc­tion. SLO wine trail stops in­clude Sex­tant, in a ren­o­vated Edna Val­ley stage­coach sta­tion; Sil­ver Horse, in a re­claimed one­room school­house; Bid­dle Ranch’s hip moun­tain-fac­ing vine­yard ter­race; and Chamisal’s in­door-out­door lounge (dig the wine cat art and grand pi­ano).

Don’t miss Kelsey See Canyon’s slope­side or­chard, which is bustling with live bands, gourmet food trucks, hide ‘n seek games be­tween vine rows, pea­cocks and surf­boards painted with a sexy mer­maid and diver cou­ple that ap­pears on the win­ery’s la­bels. An­other must is Cutruz­zola’s new tast­ing ta­ble, a light­ning rod for wine geeks, just off sea­side bike-hike trails in artsy Cam­bria. Visit slowine. com for more in­for­ma­tion.

Ocean and moun­tains

With so much great wine, you’ll have en­ergy to burn. Scenic places to do that run from easy­go­ing board­walks at old-fash­ioned surf spot Pismo Beach and Moon­stone Beach, a quiet bluff­side stroll.

Three morn­ings a week, you can join free guided hikes up Pe­cho Coast at Port San Luis, once fa­mous for ship­wrecks and oil traf­fick­ing. Glo­ri­ous wild­flow­ers and splen­did views of the glit­ter­ing har­bor en­chant you en route to a rope swing arc­ing out from the slope and a sto­ry­book light­house worth the $5 tour.

How about a two- or three-hour climb up one of the SLO’s nine mor­ros? These an­cient volcano peaks, re­sem­bling shrunken moun­tains, are dis­tinc­tive to this re­gion. Lo­cal fa­vorites edge down­town SLO: Cerro San Luis Obispo (“Madonna Moun­tain”) and Bishop Peak Trail. Both sum­mits re­ward you with 360-de­gree sea-toSanta Lu­cia Moun­tain views. From down­town Morro Bay, hike around a spit of land to the base of Morro Rock, which juts from the ocean like a sci-fi land­scape.

Op­pos­ing cas­tles

Be­hold­ing the moun­tain and ocean views, it’s clear why Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst built his hill­top Mediter­ranean re­vival-style Casa Grande and gar­den here. Now part of San Simeon State Park, the Hearst Cas­tle’s con­struc­tion be­gan in 1919, di­rected by ar­chi­tect Ju­lia Mor­gan.

Cen­turies-old sculp­tures, paint­ings, ta­pes­tries, carv­ings, Per­sian tiles, bell tow­ers, or­nate church choir stalls, chan­de­liers and other art­works fill 165 rooms floor to ceil­ing. Both out­door and gold-ac­cented in­door pools elicit wows; a huge theater still screens home movies fea­tur­ing early 20th-cen­tury celebri­ties. The 127 acres of hill­top gar­dens are flocked with Ital­ian cy­press, palms and soft­ball-size fra­grant roses of all col­ors. Bus rides go up and down past en­clo­sures Hearst used for po­lar bears, kan­ga­roos, an­te­lope, leop­ards and camels.

Eight miles south stands an­other state land­mark. “The Anti-Hearst cas­tle,” guide Mike O’Mal­ley’s nick­name for Nit Wit Ridge, looms on a steep hill in Cam­bria. Trash col­lec­tor/ar­chi­tect Art Beal bought the lot in 1928, then spent a half-cen­tury con­struct­ing floors and ter­races from sal­vaged junk, rocks, tires, beer cans and gi­ant abalone shells. This palace’s throne: a rooftop com­mode fac­ing the ocean.

SLO sights range from mi­grat­ing monarch but­ter­flies to hump­back whales spout­ing off-shore just be­yond the surfers. Be­tween Hearst Cas­tle and Cam­bria, ele­phant seals sun­bathe and frolic in the rock-flocked surf at the Piedras Blan­cas rook­ery edg­ing High­way 1. There’s plenty of park­ing at the over­look. In road­side cow pas­tures in San Simeon, de­scen­dants of Hearst’s ze­bras qui­etly graze.

New farm- and sea-to-fork restau­rants with beau­ti­ful views in­clude Oys­ter Loft in Pismo Beach ocean­front, which fea­tures fine lo­cal wine, five-star cui­sine and cool marinemo­tif decor like un­du­lat­ing blue wave ceil­ings, and Mersea’s, which an­chors Avila Beach pier.

In down­town SLO, Novo serves Brazil­ian, Mediter­ranean and Asian dishes on a twinkly light-gar­landed pa­tio over­look­ing a creek. The creek­side path leads to Mis­sion San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772. That’s where SLO wine­grow­ing got its start.

Down­town SLO lodg­ing ranges from hip Granada Ho­tel & Bistro to Madonna Inn, a fan­tasy land of pink straight out of the 1940s. It’s a fun place to stay, spa, swing dance and dig into its fa­mous pink Cham­pagne cake. At Pismo Beach’s mid­cen­tury mod­ern-es­que SeaCrest Ho­tel, steep land­scaped stairs lead down the bluff to ocean’s edge.

On the way to the beach, two surf­boards book­end a sign: “A bad day here is bet­ter than a good day any­where else.” I’ll drink to that.

Photos by Robin Soslow/Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor

Morro Rock, just off­shore in Morro Bay, Calif., is one of a chain of dis­tinc­tive, an­cient vol­canic moun­tains in San Luis Obispo County.

Lo­cals and visi­tors spend a morn­ing on one of the free Pe­cho Coast Trail guided hikes on the bluffs by Avila Beach.

Photos by Robin Soslow

When hik­ing the Pe­cho Coast Trail, ex­plore the splen­did light­house perched on a cliff.

Pismo Beach is an old-fash­ioned Cal­i­for­nia beach town pop­u­lar for surf­ing, cool shops and great restau­rants.

Ze­bras, de­scen­dants of Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst’s per­sonal zoo, graze near Hearst Cas­tle.

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