A quarter of a century ago, California’s first commercial straw bale building was constructed on a stretch of land not far from the beaches of Morro Bay. Yet the vision of its creators, Clay Thompson and Fredericka Churchill Thompson, was secondary to the dream they had begun pursuing more than a decade earlier. On a trip to the state’s Central Coast in 1981 from their home in Michigan, the two teachers stopped in at a place known as Edna Valley Vineyard. Clay was soon Edna Valley Vineyard’s “cellar rat,” on his way to establishing, with his new wife, their own premium family-owned winery.
On a recent visit to Claiborne & Churchill Winery (the name is a play on Clay’s first name and Frederika’s surname before marriage), this writer and her companion sampled some of their best wines and learned how, in 1983, the couple toured Germany’s Alsatian “Route de Vin,” backpacking to the tune of 20-km hikes each day as they learned about the region’s wines and vintners. They fell in love with the dry, fruity and well-structured Rieslings and Gewurztraminers of the Alsace and vowed to bring them to California.
The tasting flight, at $22 US per person, included Claiborne & Churchill’s 2020 Dry Gewurz, its Greengate Ranch & Vineyard 2018 Chardonnay and its 2018 Runestone Pinot Noir — all of which made one wish there were much more of this small-batch winery’s offerings available to wine lovers across North America.
Fortunately, the premium family winery phenomenon is a hallmark of this long-neglected region of California’s wine map, which now produces 30 per cent of the state’s wine. It comprises an area that stretches from south of the college city of San Luis Obispo to about 50 kilometres north, when one hits the small but mighty city of Paso Robles, part of a territory that includes verdant valleys and mountainous terrain that is a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. Among the more than 300 wineries and vineyards dotting this beautiful landscape equidistant from San Francisco in the North and Los Angeles in the south (about four hours’ drive from each metropolis), a large number tell stories like that of Claiborne & Churchill, albeit with individual variations.
Indeed, one could spend a week here and only scratch the surface of what is on offer in a wine region that has its roots in the late 18th century, the early zinfandel planted in time to be joined by a generous selection of European varietals thanks to a wide diversity of microclimates (the region includes 11 sub-appellations). One can find more than 40 different grapes, including reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, as well as lush whites such as Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
The wineries themselves are also varied, from the quaint valley stops at Claiborne & Churchill and the majestic Daou, perched on a mountaintop with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, to hip newcomers like Epoch Estate Wines, its wines served up in a sleek, modern building fashioned out of a historic winery where, in fact, the first vines were planted in the region back in the 1790s. In the two compact cities, tasting rooms abound, which includes a must-stop at Tin City just south of Paso Robles, an industrial park that is now home to a growing number of new vintners and chefs.
While the vibe here is a far cry from the bustling Napa Valley a half day’s drive north, the region doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the dining selections, from the upscale dining at places like Novo and Brasserie SLO (SLO Cal is the nickname for the boutique and coffee shop-filled city) to Paso Robles’ outdoor bbq shacks, farm-to-table restaurants and Fish Gaucho, where reservations must be made weeks ahead to sample its halibut and ahi tacos. And while there are more than ample choices for lodging — everything from upscale spas on mountain winery property to budget chains in town — this writer was more than happy with our stays at the chic Kinney San Luis Obispo and Stables Inn in Paso Robles, a newly renovated motor hotel that was recognized by Travel & Leisure as one of 2021’s best new hotels in the world.
If you’re arriving into the region from San Francisco, a must-do is the drive along California’s iconic coastal Highway 1, which passes through such fabled places as Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur. After an eyeful of spectacular ocean views, head east on Highway 46 on the way to Paso Robles, a winding, oaks-filled mountain route that introduces visitors to the wine-growing area that is nearly three times the size of Napa Valley. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.