Exploring the Stunning Wine Country of Central California

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I was standing with a small group of onlookers at Los Angeles’ Union Station watching a young virtuoso play a piece of classical music on a piano when I realized I didn’t have my wallet. I took a seat in one of the big leather chairs in the waiting area, started making phone calls and pieced together that I’d left it at the airport a couple hours earlier—at LAX between terminals five and six, to be exact. That’s the side of the airport that adjoins a neighborhood that got its name by being the location of the second Standard Oil refinery on the Pacific Coast. Which is to say that I was sitting in the waiting area of LA’s gorgeous Art Deco train station, with dramatic and complex piano music echoing off the high, vaulted ceiling of the main hall, when I realized that I literally left my wallet in El Segundo.

The train I was to catch to San Luis Obispo was scheduled to leave in less than an hour. I could either abandon my plans altogether and race back to the airport, or press onward to the wine country of central California with what supplies I had, which, in addition to my laptop, phone and clothes, amounted to 50 euros, 100 Moroccan dirhams, a full stomach, an apple and an orange.

But there was no chance I was turning back now. For one thing, I was only headed up for a night and day and most of my arrangements had already been made. I could probably get by without cash. More importantly, there might be no a better cure in the world for a man bummed out about losing his wallet than a long, quiet train ride up the coast at sunset on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. Plus, I was on my way to meet Christian Rougenant, who had recently been named winemaker of the year in San Luis Obispo County, a part of California that had long intrigued me.

So I rode the train north and watched the sky over the Pacific Ocean glow from orange to red to redder still and finally fade to black, until I arrived late that night in San Luis Obispo. I checked into my room at the Lofts above SLO Brewery—beautiful, rock & roll-themed, exposed-brick lodgings in the heart of downtown—set a Jim Croce album spinning on the record player, and, with Jim singing “New York’s Not My Home” in that warm and tinny tone of vinyl, I drifted off to sleep.

As an east coaster raised in the Great Plains, the section of coastal California between Santa Barbara and Monterey had always interested me. Here was a stretch of the California coast—the same coastline home to the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles—somehow still rural, where, in some ways, life was more like it was where I grew up in Oklahoma than in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Also, this was the wine-making region of central California made famous by the 2004 breakout indie comedy Sideways. I expected rolling hills of dusty vineyards and small-scale tasting rooms at quaint, rural wineries. In other words, I expected to find Napa before Napa became Napa. Before making the trip up to SLO, as Californians call it (pronounced like one complete word, not the letters—rhymes with “slow”), I didn’t know that winemakers in the area hate that movie. Apparently it seriously hurt the market for merlot. Go figure.

I woke up before dawn and jogged out to Terrace Hill, a lookout at the edge of the city limits, where I watched the sunrise over San Luis Obispo. From the top of the hill the size of the town was more apparent—with a population of only 47,500, SLO is still the biggest town in the area—underscoring the ultimately agricultural character of the community. I stopped for a quick coffee and croissant at Scout Coffee Company, then hopped in an Uber bound for the coast. Before heading to the vineyards, I wanted to get a look at the geography of the area from the ocean. At Pismo Beach, I linked up with John at Central Coast Kayaks, who took me out on the water and gave me the lesson I was looking for.

We paddled out beyond the boats moored in San Luis Obispo Bay, past harbor seals and sea lions making that whiney, melodic bark sea lions make, past sea birds and two dolphins and an otter resting in a bed of kelp with his feet up as if in a living room recliner.

John had gone through the training to become a docent at the San Luis Obispo lighthouse museum, a humble little structure at the tip of Point San Luis possessing one of those peculiar superlatives celebrated only in out of the way places—it’s “one of the least visited lighthouses” in California. John’s docent training meant a trip with him was peppered with more little insights like that than you might expect from an ocean kayaking guide. During our paddle, he pointed out to me the rugged and varied geography of the landscape first formed when two tectonic plates collided 120 million years ago, then roughed up further by the volcanic activity millions of years later that created the nine sisters mountain chain. The soil here is varied by diverse topography. The growing season is long (though people call it the “central coast,” this is still technically southern California). But situated just north of Point Arguello—the elbow in California that, roughly speaking, serves as a convenient climate-divider between the hot south and more temperate north—this region experiences the same ocean breeze and fog effect that inspired Mark Twain to declare the coldest winter he ever spent a summer in San Francisco. The winters here are mild and even warm, the summers cool. In time this landscape came to be called the Edna Valley, where the Niven family today raises more than 1,000 acres of grapes that Christian Rougenant turns into wine.

“I used to board a mule for grandma Niven,” John informed me during our kayak excursion.

For me, the comment epitomized the central California coast. The folksy familiarity. The small town connections between locals. The no-nonsense straightforwardness of rural life encapsulated in a task as prosaic—and yet, to a city-slicker like me, still charmingly exotic—as boarding a mule.

That afternoon I traveled a few miles back inland to the Niven family’s vineyards, where I met up with winemaker.

Christian Rougenant speaks English with total fluency, but still accented with the lilt of his native France. He grew up in Burgundy and worked in the French wine industry before moving to central California decades ago.

Christian and I walked through the vineyards talking about grapes more than wine. Just days earlier his team of pickers had come through for the harvest and we had to look hard for clusters still on the vine. He showed me how he spends hours of every day for months every year walking among the vines and tasting his grapes to determine when is the best time to pick. He feels for the elasticity in the grapes and the ease with which they come off the vine. He pops them into his mouth and squishes them gently between his teeth and between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, then spits the contents into his hand. He’s tasting for sweetness and acidity, and feeling for how juicy the grapes are on any given day. Separating the chewed up bits on his palm with a finger, he tastes the grape skins alone—do they break easily? Are they too tough? He tastes the seeds alone too—do they have a healthy, ripe, grilled flavor? Are they too bitter? I did all of this along with him, and in the arid California air the juice on my hands quickly dried, leaving my fingers sticky.

Christian balances these considerations against one another and against others still, like the weather forecast, and the availability of grape pickers. Niven’s farm workers make well above minimum wage and even get health insurance, but immigration politics in recent years, Christian told me, have made it increasingly complicated to get and keep a workforce.

“Sometimes people ask me what is it to be a winemaker, and I say being a winemaker is being a jeweler. You can’t make a diamond ring with a piece of quartz. It’s all linked to the raw material. Another comparison is if you make sashimi at home, sushi rolls. If you don’t have the freshest fish it doesn’t matter how good of a chef you are, it will never taste fantastic,” Christian told me, as we drove in his Porsche to the old schoolhouse built in 1909 that the company has converted into a tasting room for its Baileyana, Tangent and True Myth brands. The sun began to hang low over the Edna Valley, with the slanted light shining in through the windows and over the property’s bocce courts outside, and we sipped one wine after another as Christian pointed out the flavors we’d first tasted in grapes right off the vine, now balanced in finished wines: chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon. The acidity. The taste of green beans. The fruitiness of grapefruit and of blackberry. The hint of vanilla imparted by oak in his aging barrels.

"It’s really, really important to spend a lot of time in the vineyards,” Christian said, “to grow the best grape possible and pick them right. And I say my job is like being a jeweler because when you get those beautiful gem stones at the winery and they’re perfect, all I’ve got to do is polish them. Put them in the fermenter with some yeast, they ferment, put them in barrels. The reality? Seventy-five percent of the success of a wine is the vineyards. Good wines are made at the winery. Great wines are made at the vineyards.”

Denver Nicks