Focus on the Central Coast

Vintage 2005 provides the perfect opportunity for exploring the diverse terroir expressions of California’s Central Coast, as conditions up and down that vast region were placid and essentially problem-free. Where I was able to taste the 2005 and 2004 vintages of the same bottlings side-by-side during my September tour of the top wineries of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, I almost invariably preferred the newer vintage, and sometimes by a wide margin. The 2005s mostly possess greater energy and clarity and are a welcome relief for those who value finesse and balance over brute force and extreme ripeness.

The 2005 growing season began with a rainy winter and early spring, which encouraged vine vigor and a heavier-than-normal crop. Following a moderate summer, a very warm period in early September ensured good ripeness and the resulting yields were higher than in 2004 and 2003. The fruit was uniformly healthy and, according to all the producers I visited in September, possessed ideal natural acidity to ensure vibrancy and clearly to communicate site and varietal character. This is a vintage to show to Old World curmudgeons, especially fans of red Burgundy and the northern Rhône. Contrast that year with 2004, when hot conditions throughout the region resulted in wines that, as more than one winemaker told me, “had all their individuality cooked out of them.” Producers who seek finesse over sheer impact were handed a gift in 2005, and the most talented among them, a goodly percentage of whom I visited in September, took full advantage.

I tasted an impressive number of wines with heady alcohol levels—often 15% to 16%, or even higher—but which are nonetheless balanced and almost astonishing for their lack of heat. I found myself shocked more than a few times at the actual alcohol levels of wines that showed freshness, balance and precision.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the Central Coast is the fact that, as in the Sonoma Valley, there are many instances where multiple producers work with fruit from the same vineyard. Wine lovers can thus actually search for, and identify, individual vineyard expression, as has been the case for generations in many Old World regions, such as Burgundy, the Piedmont and much of Germany. How can you determine if a site actually possesses a distinct personality if you don’t have the opportunity to taste wines made from the same vineyard over multiple vintages by a variety of winemakers? Fruit from the Pisoni vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, or Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, or the Sanford & Benedict property in Santa Ynez Valley, to name just a few examples, has been handled by a number of producers over the years, and it is now possible to find qualities that consistently characterize those sites. Compare that to a case where a vineyard is created and controlled by a single producer—where there’s no chance to see where the dirt ends and the winemaker begins, or vice-versa—and you begin to appreciate the promise and appeal of this region for serious enophiles.

That said, I still found plenty of overoaked, overextracted and poorly balanced wines that failed to escape the limitations imposed by this often hot region. Less-than-deft winemaking did not help, either: there are also plenty of by-the-numbers wines out there that taste as if they came out of a lab.

Incidentally, prices for prime vineyard land in top Central Coast appellations, notably on the cooler, so-called West Side of Paso Robles, continue to climb rapidly, and many of the most sought-after wines are priced accordingly. While not cheap, many of these wines enjoy rabid followings, and in some cases are tightly allocated or available only to mailing-list customers. But there are still some remarkably rich and satisfying wines at reasonable prices. And there are countless wines of character selling for half the price—or less—of strictly commercial bottlings from Napa Valley.