Top Ten Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Wineries
In this installment of my appellational series, I decided to profile two adjoining America Viticultural Areas in San Luis Obispo wine country: Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. These two areas share a proximity to the ocean and a cool climate that naturally lends itself to growing gorgeous Chardonnays and powerful Pinot Noirs. Edna Valley became an AVA in 1987, Arroyo Grande in 1990. Despite being twice the size of Edna Valley there are only three wineries in Arroyo Grande (compared to eighteen in Edna Valley.)
The area’s history dates back to 1772 when Father Junipero Serra founded a mission, planted grapes and made sacramental wines. Fast forward to 1973, when the Goss family planted Chardonnay in what is now known as Chamisal Vineyard (formerly Domaine Alfred). The Niven family planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varietals in the now renowned Paragon Vineyard. Chamisal began making wine commercially in 1980, followed by Edna Valley Vineyard, Claiborne & Churchill Winery, Saucelito Canyon and Talley Vineyards. In Arroyo Grande, Maison Deutz (now Laetitia) became the first Champagne house in 1982. Today, Laetitia Vineyard & Winery is the appellation’s largest producer, having added still wines, such as Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in addition to their extensive sparkling portfolio. Along with Talley Vineyards, Laetitia accounts for nearly all the production from Arroyo Grande.
My Top Ten from these appellations are:
Winemaker John Alban, having fallen in love with the Rhône Valley while a student at U.C. Davis, began planting Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier in the early nineties, and his brand took off with the speed of light. His highly sought after fruit was sold for a few years to a “little known” winery called Sine Qua Non. Critics, trade and public go wild for Alban’s rich, robust, opulent, full-bodied wines. He was the original founder of Hospice du Rhone, a marquee event for Rhône varietals enthusiasts.
I’m immensely impressed with Nathan Carson, a winemakers’ winemaker, a super talent and a darn good soul. The brand’s story started in 1979, when Lawrence Winery established itself in the region, which is now home to Center of Effort. Nathan’s winemaking philosophy is focused on purity of fruit and old-fashioned methodologies, including native fermentation and the use of natural yeasts. His thoughtful, meticulous approach goes a long way in crafting wines of distinction. Carlson, together with winemaking consultant Mike Sinor, are veteran Edna Valley winemakers, with over forty years between them. They achieve an impeccable level of quality in their Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Their wines are not to be missed pure varietal expressions.
I’ve had a good fortune to spend time with winemaker Fintan “Fin” Dufresne on a few occasions. Each time was more inspirational than the last. In his early career, Dufresne was a viticulturist in New Zealand at Martinborough Vineyards. This eventually led to a harvest job at Calera Wine Co. After being mentored by the legendary Josh Jensen, the dye was cast with his love for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fin was named winemaker for Chamisal in 2006, marking a new era in the life of the historic property. His single-minded focus is on the vineyard, where he spends as much time as he does in the cellar. His wines are bold, complex, expressive, age worthy and entirely irresistible. Whether you’re drinking his Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Rosé or Syrah; rest assured, it will be authentic and delicious.
Claiborne & Churchill is a small Edna Valley winery founded in 1983 by Claiborne Thompson and Fredericka Churchill, former Midwestern schoolteachers. Having fallen in love with Alsatian varietals, they initially focused on Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Today, they also produce Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Rosé of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Port Rosé and even a sparkler. Their talented winemaker, Cal Poly graduate Coby Parker-Garcia, is a San Luis Obispo native who traveled extensively throughout Europe South America in his quest to learn winemaking. Trained under the tutelage of winemaker Clay Thompson, he practices old-school European techniques.
The winery was the vision of Herb Filipponi, whose father, Lorenzo, emigrated to US from Switzerland in the early 1900’s who acquired a 300-acre dairy ranch, where Filipponi Ranch Cellars is now located. Filipponi’s goal is simple: make great wine. The grapes are hand-picked from some of the best vineyards in San Luis Obispo County. The wine is made in the estate’s original dairy barn. Winemaker Peter Cron crafts small lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mouvedre, Rhone Blends, Rosé, Syrah, Tempranillo and Chardonnay. Peter’s career started in the 80s when he joined Estrella River Winery. After taking a break to pursue a career in engineering, he returned to the wine world to join Filipponi Ranch in the early 90s. The wines are bright, pure, honest and a ton of fun.
Formerly Maison Deutz, Laetitia is an undisputed star of the Arroyo Grande Valley. Located in Southern San Luis Obispo County, the scenic property overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Originally known for its Methodé Champenoise sparkling wines, Laetitia also produces a Bordeaux-style blend, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Mouvedre, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Port, a dessert wine, Rhone Blends, Rosé, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
The winemaking duties are split between Eric Hickey and his dad, David. Eric started working at Laetitia in 1988 at age 16. After stints in the Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, and completing an extension program at U.C. Davis, Eric was named Head Winemaker and General Manager. He has since become the winery’s President. Dave became Laetitia’s sparkling winemaker in 1999 and now serves as a Vice President.
The Niven family farms the Paragon Vineyard and has an umbrella of six brands: True Myth, Tangent, Baileyana, Zocker, Trenza and Cadre. John Niven and Michael Niven Blaney hired veteran winemaker Christian Roguenant, who grew up in Burgundy and has made wine on five continents.The wines are fermented exclusively in stainless steel tanks at cold temperatures with no malolactic fermentation. The aim is to bottle fresh, crisp and vibrant wines of pure varietal character, higher acid and vivid minerality, that easily pair with food. They are affordable, delicious and low in alcohol. Tangent has enjoyed great success with their aromatic whites, such as Albariño, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Mike Sinor’s seaside vineyard, overlooking Avila Beach, is a perfect spot for Mike’s passion—storytelling. He tells the vineyard tales via his wines, with his vineyard being the vehicle. Sinor-LaVallee was founded in 1997 by Mike Sinor and Cheri LaVallee-Sinor. Starting with 2013 vintage, all of their wines are estate sourced. Their vineyard is planted to several clones of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Albariño. Sinor’s first wine industry job was at Laurance Estate, now home to Center of Effort. Following numerous positions in Bordeaux and Burgundy, plus a turn at Domaine Alfred, he is now responsible for winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery and consults for Center of Effort. At Sinor-LaVallee, he crafts Albariño, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Rosé of Pinot Noir and Syrah. Every wine I tasted was fantastic, however I fell in love with his Pinot Gris, the finest domestic one I have had to date.
Stephen Ross graduated from U.C. Davis in 1977 and soon became an assistant winemaker at Napa Valley’s Louis Martini Winery. Later he spent seven years as winemaker for at Edna Valley Vineyards. He formed his own brand in 1994. He has focused on producing flavorful, rich, and concentrated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition, Ross makes limited amounts of Albariño, Pinot Gris, Grenache, Rosé of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Made using traditional Burgundian methods, the wines are elegant, expressive and balanced. The fruit comes from the highly regarded estate vineyard, Stone Corral, and other notable vineyards such as Bien Nacido, Jespersen, Sierra Madre, and Dante Dusi.
Talley Vineyards’ farming history began in 1948 when patriarch Oliver Talley started growing vegetables in the Arroyo Grande Valley. In the early 80s, his son Don Talley added grapevines, planting a myriad of varieties; it turned out that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the stars. Brian Talley, third generation vintner, is continuing the legacy of wine growing. Talley family brand is admired worldwide for their viticultural prowess and ensuing wines of impeccable integrity.
The goal is to produce consistent, world class wines with each bottling showcasing the unique character of each of the Talley family’s six vineyards. Winemaker Eric Johnson, a Cal Poly graduate, joined Talley in 2007. Eric has worked harvests all over the world, including France, Italy, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile.
Find out more about Talley Vineyards here.
Talley’s sister brand, Bishop’s Peak, is focused on quality and value. It sources Central Coast fruit from Santa Barbara County, Edna Valley, Paso Robles, and Monterey County. Some wines are vineyard designates, all have an incredible QPR (quality-price ratio).
For years, I drove by Edna Valley on my way to Central Coast. Once I stopped, I kept coming back. Now I can’t wait to take a left at the familiar exit, where some of the most elegant and genuine wines made in California await. Well known in the trade community for their reds, the area is a Mecca for some of the most exciting whites made in California. Like most visitors, I came for Pinot Noir but left with a huge regard for the Chardonnays. Aromatics, acidity and delineation are off the charts. If you are looking for wines that deliver unbridled excitement and intellectual stimulation as well as longevity, find your way there.