Three Central Coast California Wine Regions Are Making a Comeback
There’s no single reason why many of California’s pioneering winegrowing regions were almost forgotten by the modern industry. In some cases, such as York Mountain, located on the rugged ridges west of Paso Robles, it’s because nearby areas were flatter, closer to town and much easier to farm. These conveniences eventually eclipsed the challenges presented by York Mountain’s precarious terroir.
Similar disadvantages occurred for the southern Santa Clara Valley, which faded a half-century ago when commercial winemaking shifted north to Napa and Sonoma. Vineyards were further squeezed out by the rise of Silicon Valley, which led to rampant housing developments and skyrocketing land prices.
For Chalone, a remote region above the Salinas Valley, the blows were delivered by the global wine industry’s own success. Shifting ownership schemes and corporate consolidation leveraged a once esteemed name into near oblivion, while cost-cutting exchanged a long viticultural heritage for short economic gains.
But all is not lost for these three regions. Each is experiencing renewed energy right now, thanks to a mix of invested veterans and a fresh crop of vintners who recognize both the value of history and the advantages of truly special terroir.
Santa Clara Valley
Experimentation and Enhanced Quality
Wild grapevines were so abundant in the hills south of San Jose that the original Mexican land grant called much of it Rancho Las Uvas. Italians eventually brought European varieties; then the modern momentum started when the Santa Clara Valley AVA was christened in 1989.
That’s about the time developer Steve Dorcich, who was clinging to his Croatian roots by growing pear orchards, bought land to plant Merlot for Blackstone. Today, his family and Winemaker Terah Bajjalieh produce a number of varieties, from Mourvèdre to Malbec, under the Dorcich Family Vineyards name. The estate includes 45 acres on both sides of Uvas Creek, where rich alluvial soils are severely pockmarked with cobble.
“You come in with the mower and it breaks the blades,” says Dorcich. “But when you’re a farmer, you figure it out. A lot of this is intuition for me. I don’t need pressure bombs. I look at the tendrils and can see when they need water.”
A few miles to the northeast, a Rhône renaissance is being kindled by Kim and Todd Engelhardt—the latter an ER doctor by day. Named Lion Ranch after the 19th century Alsatian settler Lazard Lion, the estate’s five acres feature well-known red and white Rhône varieties plus others like Cinsault, Counoise, Picpoul Blanc, Terret Noir, Muscardin and Vaccarèse.
“We strive to be ‘Tablas North’ if possible,” says Todd Engelhardt, referring to Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, the source of most of their cuttings. “We strive to be restrained and elegant.”
The modern history of Sarah’s Vineyard starts in 1977, when Marilyn “Sarah” Otteman planted Chardonnay along Hecker Pass, where Italian pioneers once produced jug wine. Tim Slater bought the property in 2001 with stock money from his Silicon Valley engineering job, right before the dot-com crash.
“This was supposed to be a weekend hobby,” he says. “Six months after I bought this, my stock was worthless, so it became a job.”
Slater grows 15 varieties across 24 acres, with more on the way. “There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason,” he says of the varieties, which range from Charbono and Picpoul to Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc. “We’re just barely cool enough to grow a good Pinot Noir and we have such a long growing season that we can ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.”
In a critical move for raising regional standards, Slater built a shared winemaking space in Gilroy called Atelier des Savants Fous (which translates to “Mad Scientists’ Workshop”), where multiple tenants make wine from Santa Clara Valley and beyond.
“I’m an experimentalist, and now we have a few smart winemakers who want to learn,” says Slater. Winemaker Tim Li is running extended maceration and fermentation-temperature trials for the winery, and adds that “we hope to do more of this every year.”
One Atelier tenant is Calerrain, whose name reflects the impact of California terrain on wine. “We know that the place, climate and soils affect what goes in the bottle,” says Geoff Mace, a San Jose native who owns Calerrain with his South Lake Tahoe-raised wife, Chantelle Mace. “That’s why so many people enjoy wine over hard seltzers.”
They serve their wines in a built-out backyard behind their home, where visitors enjoy woodfired pizza, bocce ball, live music and just over two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese.
“We’re a day-trip spot,” says Mace, who sees locals’ loyalty as more important than tourist traffic. “People like being part of the story,” says wife Chantelle of that intimate nature. Guests will also often find winemakers working the tasting rooms scene.
New Life for Old Soils
Blaring bagpipes is an uncommon sound for a typical wine-country scene, but nothing is routine in the hardscrabble, high-desert setting of Chalone. Located on a rocky, rolling plateau between the Salinas Valley and Pinnacles National Park, the historical appellation, where surviving Chenin Blanc vines date to 1919, is dry to the bone but cooled by the nearby Monterey Bay, and loaded with a unique combination of decomposed granite and limestone soils.
“I love how it’s contained up here,” explains Chalone Vineyard Winemaker Greg Freeman after setting down his bagpipes. “It’s like a little bowl. It’s its own world.”
Hired in 2021, Freeman represents new blood for the winery, which Foley Family Wines rescued in 2016 after a dozen downhill years of multinational corporate management.
Consistency comes from vineyard manager Richard Boer, who joined more than 30 years ago, before Chalone’s cofounder Richard Graff died in a tragic plane crash in 1998. “Because the limestone is toxic to the vines, we have smaller clusters and smaller grapes, which mean more intense fruit and some of that mineral character,” explains Boer.
Outside interest continues to grow in the region, adds Boer, who also sells Pinot Noir from his small eponymous vineyard to such brands as Birichino and Flywheel Wines.
Freeman is excited about shepherding this historical property into the future. “There are no precedents—no precedents to follow and no precedents to fall back on, so anything is possible,” he says as he shares barrel samples with Boer for the first time.
Explaining how he plans to craft those lots into proper cuvées, Freeman turns to his preferred instrument. “Bagpipes are all about resonance,” he says. “They work when the sum is greater than the parts. Blends are the same way.”
A walk through the adjacent Brosseau Vineyard reveals numerous winery client names on end posts, including Folktale Winery, Marine Layer Wines and Roberto Cipresso. But Bill Brosseau, whose dad planted the vineyard in 1980, still uses many of the grapes for his own brand, Brosseau Wines, as well as Testarossa Winery, where he’s been the winemaker since 2000.
Last August, Brosseau kicked off his 25th professional harvest and a decade of certified organic farming on his family’s property by picking a few tons of Chardonnay under a nearly full moon as owls streaked through the tractor lights.
On the other side of the plateau, Chalone’s Graff also planted his own vineyard and orchard on land that’s now being farmed organically under the name Rodnick.farm.
“They jackhammered this place into existence,” says Kurt Gollnick, industry veteran and current owner of the property, where he lives with his wife, Janet Rodgers. The vineyard is about 28 acres and includes Graff’s original plantings of Mourvèdre and Melon de Bourgogne as well as newer plantings of Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Albariño, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Viognier. Many of the grapes go to emerging, natural wine-leaning brands, including a number that work out of a warehouse in Richmond called Purity Wine.
One of those brands is Lula, run by fashion designer Megan Sekermestrovich. “I thought it was just incredible,” she says of the property, where she sourced Mourvèdre in 2021. She believes wine is as much about people as it is about place and appreciates the support of Gollnick and Rodgers.
“It all coincides with who I am working with and what relationships I am building,” says Sekermestrovich. “For me, that’s number one ultimately.”
Good Vibes and Wild Terroir
Bonded in 1882, York Mountain Winery was the original home of commercial winemaking on the Central Coast. But there wasn’t much left aside from dead vines and crumbling structures when Epoch Estate Wines took over in 2010.
“This is York Mountain,” says Epoch’s Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini atop a 1,700-foot ridge, where about 21 acres of Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Roussanne were planted in 2015. “Cayucos is right over there,” she says, pointing toward the seaside town, from which comes a constant onslaught of fog and wind. “This gets the brunt of everything.”
Though the appellation is just one percent the size of massive Paso Robles next door, the varying aspects spread across chalky calcareous and sandstone soils make for a myriad of microclimates. That’s exciting to established winemakers like Russell From of Herman Story, Vailia Esh of Desparada Wines and Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards, who’ve recently purchased properties up here.
“The reason why the James Berry Vineyard does well is because it’s the coolest and wettest spot in all of the Paso Robles AVA,” says Smith of his signature property, located in the Willow Creek District. “With the weather getting hotter and drier, it makes sense to go somewhere cooler and wetter than that.”
York Mountain, he says, got three times the rainfall of downtown Paso Robles last year.
From and Esh, who own Chelle Mountain Vineyard and a newer York Mountain vineyard together as husband and wife, feel good vibes atop the appellation. “If I’m having a rough day in town, I’ll come up here and go for a walk in the forest,” says From. “There’s a special spirit up here.”
“No one can stand in those hills and not be struck by both the natural beauty and potential to grow exceptional grapes,” agrees Niner Wine Estate’s Andy Niner, who plans to conserve much of the land he just bought. “We want to do it right, so we will take our time to get to know both the land and the community that is already up there.”
Also involved is Juan Mercado, who sold the cult Napa Valley brand Realm to start a new label called Riise from Shadow Canyon Vineyard, which he bought in 2019. It now features about 17 acres of Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, which Mercado plans to make into bold blends. “We make them as hedonistic as possible,” he says.
Neil Collins, longtime winemaker at Tablas Creek, discovered York Mountain three decades ago. He notes that the 1990 Cab from York Mountain’s Carver Vineyard was “exceptional” and needs to be bottled as a single vineyard.
“I subsequently started Lone Madrone in 1996 doing just that,” says Collins, who named his family brand after a prominent tree in the vineyard.
Jason Joyce of Calcareous started making Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wine from Carver Vineyard in 2007. “It’s wilder out here,” says Joyce, who was used to the “totalitarian farming” of perfectly shaped rows down in Paso Robles. “At first, I tried to control it, but it’s like a forest. It taught me to accept that you can’t control it, that there’s only an illusion of control as a winemaker.”
A leader of this York Mountain tribe is Anthony Yount, who makes wine for Denner Vineyards as well as under his own label, The Royal Nonesuch Farm. That’s where he lives on York Mountain, tending to chickens, sheep and hillsides of Grenache, Syrah, Graciano and Clairette Blanche.
“York Mountain gives you flexibility that you don’t have elsewhere,” says Yount. “You can make big, heavy, ripe-style wines, and you can make elegant and light and fresh wines in the same place.”