On March 9, 2022, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau named its newest American Viticultural Area (AVA): San Luis Obispo Coast. Also known as the SLO Coast, the AVA stretches roughly 60 miles, from just south of Big Sur to just north of Santa Maria. Some 15 miles wide, the newborn AVA encompasses a swath of land impacted by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and scoops up the town of San Luis Obispo as well as two “nested” AVAs, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. For wine drinkers, experiencing San Luis Obispo and the new AVA is akin to a visit to Sonoma, where cooler regions, ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay abut warmer areas, where Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are more comfortable.
An escape to San Luis Obispo provides the opportunity to experience, shall we say, a SLO-er pace of life, with its a walkable downtown and expansive wine country mere minutes from town.
Begin your exploration of the SLO Coast AVA with a stop at Wolff Vineyards. Owners Jean-Pierre and Elke Wolff or their son Clint, who manages the tasting room, are likely to greet you personally at the petite winery. Settle into an umbrella-shaded table and begin your exploration of the region with the its premiere grape, Chardonnay. More than 50 acres were among the first planted in the Edna Valley in 1976, and the small yields and deep root systems of the sustainably farmed vineyard express concentrated flavors. The 2020 Old Vines Chardonnay took silver in the 2021 Sunset International Wine Competition. Wolff also has a cool climate Petite Syrah and experiments with Teroldego, an Italian variety rarely grown in the United States.
Itching for some vroom in your tasting experience? New venture Sidecar Tours will shift your perspective on fun among the vineyards. While you and a friend sit in the open-air sidecar, a motorcycle (usually a British Triumph) driven by a professionally trained chauffeur, zips you through the vines. Feel the rush of the AVA’s breezes across your cheeks and chat about local wines and classic motorbikes before you stop and sip wines from local wineries.
On your way back to town, wine and whiskey await. Stop in at Tolosa Winery for a 1772 flight. Named for the year the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded, the wines, ranging from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Petite Verdot and Grenache, express the cool-climate flavors and the long history of the region. Choose the Perinet tasting experience to sample the wines of Tolosa’s sister winery in the Priorat region of Spain for a tray of Spanish cheeses and charcuterie to amplify the old world meets new world vibe. Nearby is Rod & Hammer’s SLO Stills, SLO’s one-two punch of brewery and whiskey still under a single roof. The open-air space boasts an expansive patio; menu filled with salads, nibbles and pizza; and, if you time it right, live music.
Back in downtown SLO, walk over to The Creamery on the southwest side of town. A former dairy is now an open-air marketplace chock-a-block with stores and restaurants. Taste artisanal mezcals on the patio at La Esquina before enjoying a modern Peruvian dinner at Mistura — we are partial to the tiraditos, Peru’s Nikkei-style sashimi with ají chile and leche de tigre. For dessert, Nite Creamery’s updated flavors (Pineapple Picante with Chimoy sauce or Thicc Mint with rice krispy) enchant adults and kids.
The town of SLO has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years with new hotels and restaurants opening to serve the nearby college, as well as tourists to the area. Opened amidst our first Covid-19 summer, Hotel Cerro is the new kid on the block, with a rooftop pool and rooms and suites that face the property’s edible gardens. Brasserie SLO boasts an open-air courtyard shaded by fig trees and a classic menu that includes a fine bouillabaisse, herb-roasted chicken and a not-to-be-missed Hammer cocktail. Across town, Hotel San Luis Obispo’s pool is at lobby level next to the S.Low bar. It makes for fine people watching before dinner at Ox & Anchor, a classic steak house where an “Oscar-style” option loads a Kobe flat iron with Dungeness crab, asparagus and bernaise.
A visit to the town almost requires a stop at the mission for which the town is named and around which SLO grew. A small museum and lovely gardens can be visited after walking through (or taking mass in) the sanctuary. San Luis Museum of Art sits on the west side of Mission Plaza and focuses on exhibiting works by Central Coast artists. After wandering the galleries, stop for lunch at Park 1039. A hub for international wines, the gourmet food shop is also a restaurant with a heated patio and a farm-to-table menu that changes daily.
The compact downtown is studded with coffee shops of all kinds and enough bohemian clothing stores to sate local demand for beachwear (Avila Beach and Pismo Beach’s Monarch Butterfly Grove are a short drive away), and Luis General Store stands out for its unique building (and creaky wood floors) and fun array of gifts and novelty items. After the shopping spree, the time is right to rest your feet and savor a quirky cocktail (Science, Midnight in the Garden) and a sausage plate with pineapple relish at Sidecar Cocktail Co. Vocalize your disgust after peeking at Bubble Gum Alley — it really is yucky — then head over to Lokum for an after-dinner Turkish coffee and baklava.
There’s always more to the SLO story – Edna Valley wineries, micro-brews at SLO Brew Rock, a farmers’ market with a range of Asian-inspired pop-ups and food trucks – but spending some time in California’s newly minted AVA invites wishes for return visits.
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South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.