The Road To Pinot

The road from Sonoma to the World of Pinot Noir doesn't deliver much for the wine loving driver intent on simply getting himself directly to the destination as quickly as possible. Without intent to investigate on foot, the vinious attractions seen from inside the car while driving 85 miles per hour south on Highway 101 just aren't inspiring.

World of Pinot Noir takes place in Pismo Beach, the first stretch of beachland one actually lays there eyes on when heading south from San Francisco. Between the City and Pismo, the car-bound wine lover only first gets a hint that he is in the country's great winemaking state when he sees Rapazzini Winery near Gilroy. The Rapazzini Winery sits in an old building next to the highway. It is most famous for Garlic Wine. No time to stop. No will either.

Only when one comes into the Salinas area do you get the sense you are in, or near, wine country. But you have to know it, rather than see it. The great Santa Lucia Highlands sit to the West and if you look real close you'll see America's newest Pinot Noir haven. But you have to look close and you have to look in the distance over row crops, migrant workers, dusty roads and shacks before you notice that bumping up against the western hills are rows of vines.

Again, for the driver it's not much of a sight.

Eventually you pull into King City where the vast central valley plonk vineyards extend on either side of the highway. This is where vines are cropped to 12+ tons of grapes per acre and are the source of many $4 bottles of wine that the country seems so intent on trading down to these days. Keep driving. These are not manicured vines and rows. They are work horses that are fueling a vast corporate wine empire.

Even the now well known Paso Robles area offers little or nothing for the Highway 101 traveler to gaze out on. Sure the rolling, oak-studded hills to the west are fine and a nice remove from the flatlands that you just drove though. But there is really very little sign of fine wine from the highway.

After that the trail goes even barer where wine lovers are concerned. You start to ascend over the foot hills until you land in San Luis Obisbo, home to Cal Poly—a university where I don't remember having one of the best times of my life at a party that I'm still told I enjoyed immensely. Happily, it's not age that blurs my memory of this place.

About seven miles south of San Luis Obisbo the vista opens up to a wide view of the Pacific Ocean. I'm there. Pismo Beach; World of Pinot Noir. It took about four and a half hours and 2/5 of a John Grisham potboiler on the iPod.

Imagine that. Almost 300 miles driven to get to what is by all past accounts an outstanding international wine event and nothing much more than a Garlic Wine Tasting Room, some distant Pinot vineyards you have to know are there, and rows of industrial vines for the wine-loving driver to enjoy.

Happily, the destination, the lovely Cliffs Hotel sitting on the beach, is full of comforts for the weary and the fact is, 4 hours and 300 miles later there is a weary bottom attached to this blogger. But this can be forgotten since ahead of me is a vast wealth of Pinot Noir learning to be had, great wines to sample and likely fantastic foods to try.

I just don't recommend the drive.

Posted In: Events


6 Responses

  1. Kathy - March 5, 2009

    You could have stopped at the outlets in Salinas… Actually, the great drive is down Hwy 1 going coastal around Monterey. Past Big Sur, Hearst Castle…and adding another couple hours. But you might be there in Pismo while the butterflies are still hibernating. That is amazing.
    Glad the trip was actually uneventful.

  2. Dylan - March 5, 2009

    As promised, you really are going to talk about every part of the process. Looking forward to it.

  3. Jeff - March 6, 2009

    Oh, yea of California-itis, the notion that the ocean isn’t in of of itself lovely, on 101, one of the most famous stretches of road in the world, try driving from Indianapolis to Evansville, IN and get back to me on wretched drives.
    Enjoy yourself.

  4. Perry - March 6, 2009

    I don’t know whether I should be happy that wine snobs such as yourself keep ignoring Paso Robles so that the snobs don’t destroy it like Napa and Sonoma, or angry that you are so tucked into your insular world you refuse to look at any region that hasn’t be approved by the “cool kids”.
    I think I’ll go with happy. You’re right, there is no good wine in Paso, keep passing it by.
    BTW, the person “intent on simply getting himself directly to the destination as quickly as possible” rarely sees much of interest. If you don’t take 101 (or I-5, which makes 101 look like heaven) but HWY-1, you see lots of beaches before Pismo. Small, high-quality, low-density beaches guarded by cliffs, very similar to the wineries you miss by speeding though Paso Robles.

  5. JohnLopresti - March 6, 2009

    One of the fine features of the grapevine is its known susceptibility to photochemical pollutants. Along Hwy 101 it might be possible to verify this by asking the folks who live in San Jose’s Almaden district to the south west or Cribari Village which is located to the south east, both of which used to have winegrapes but no longer are optimal for viticulture. It is the microclimates up the knolls out of the smog that continue to produce optimal fruit. The entire appearance of 101 in that former strong viticultural zone used to be different, with miles of prune orchards, almonds, apples. Even enology economics could not sustain the energetic expansion of silicon valley. Perhaps a northward return drive loop toward Los Altos Hills which is way west of San Jose might show the way to a still prime premium varietal district, I will look for the web coordinates and post that, if there is a moment.

  6. JohnLopresti - March 6, 2009

    Hi, Tom, it is too long since I went to that part of the countryside, I think I had a syrah place in mind, which is Los Altos Hills.
    Another interesting return path is rte.9 from Santa Cruz up the ridgeline into the San Lorenzo River winery row. If you stay on Rte.9 it ends in South San Francisco by the beach on Great Highway. I had thought of the more rapid Rte.280, but, again, an instance of photochemical smog wrecking plantlife in what was a pristine valley; residents in Portola resisted construction of rte.280 for several decades. Yet a further idea is the known hangout in Woodside, another locale I have not visited since vines supplanted orchards, but I believe some excellent wine writers are known to haunt Woodside; I defer to your expertise in that regard.

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