Area offers wine, more
Castles, enchanting vines and misty mountains enhance San Luis Obispo’s charm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.