Getting to Know SLO Wine Country

August 1, 2017

Michelle Ball

San Luis Obispo County covers an expansive terrain that boasts a spectrum of climatic extremes.  While sunny Paso Robles in the north is well-recognized for its Bordeaux- and Rhônestyle wines, the lesser-known regions south of San Luis Obispo—referred to as SLO Wine Country—encompass some of the coldest microclimates for winegrowing in California. The vineyards of SLO Wine Country stretch along a thin area of coastline, from Cambria in the north to Arroyo Grande in the south.

“Our vineyards are just five miles on average from the Pacific Ocean,” says Mike Sinor, owner and winemaker of Sinor-LaVallee Wine Company. “So the prevailing marine conditions are very pronounced, giving the fruit a lot of time to develop rich, full flavors while maintaining structure, complexity and balance.” 

This stretch of land that includes the Arroyo Grande Valley and Edna Valley AVAs consists of only 5,000 planted acres, with roughly 35 wineries. Since much of SLO Wine Country is classified as Region I, a designation for the world’s coolest winegrowing areas, cool-climate varieties shine. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tend to receive the most attention, but many of the aromatic whites I tasted, such as Albariño and Riesling, were also standouts. 

Our tour began at Sinor’s Bassi Ranch, a 30-acre hillside vineyard located just over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. Sinor produces three Pinot Noirs from his organically farmed vineyard (with “biodynamic inputs,” he notes). The tan, classic label is his “everyday Pinot Noir” (SRP $30), while the White Label and Black Label (both SRP $45) are expressions from the new site. “We’re trying to see what works best from here,” explains Sinor. “It’s really about us playing with a Rubik’s cube of life in terms of inventing different flavors.” Sinor is one of many vintners spearheading the petition for the SLO Coast AVA, which would encompass the coastal stretch of land from San Simeon to Pismo Beach (overlapping the Edna Valley AVA). One property within this proposed appellation is Cutruzzola Vineyards in Cambria. The sevenacre vineyard, owned by Lisa and Bill Cutruzzola, is planted with Pinot Noir and Riesling. The Cutruzzolas enlisted the help of Stephen Dooley, acclaimed winemaker and owner of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, to make their wines. The 2014 Riesling (SRP $30) was mouthwatering, with all the petrol and zing you could want from the varietal. “We think Riesling is now where Pinot Noir was 20 or 30 years ago—people are starting to realize the potential,” says Lisa Cutruzzola. 


The Edna Valley AVA was established in 1982, and Edna Valley Vineyard, started by Jack Niven of Niven Family Wine Estates and Dick Graff of Chalone Vineyard, served as an early incubator for many winemakers in the area, including Dooley (1987) and Claiborne (Clay) Thompson (1983). Thompson launched Claiborne & Churchill with a focus on Alsatian varietals: Riesling and Gewürztraminer. In 1989, he added Pinot Noir, which now makes up roughly 50 percent of production. Thompson has since passed on the torch to Coby Parker-Garcia, a San Luis Obispo local who became the Claiborne & Churchill winemaker seven years ago. “The quality of wines is what we’re really proud of here. We are stepping up and making world-class wines, and at a great price point,” says Thompson. “It’s a fun area to be in, and I would have never thought it would be what it is today.”

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