Book Review: Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast by William Ausmus

Review by Arthur Przebinda.

The Central Coast is a huge appellation. Compiling a comprehensive guide to its wineries is nearly a Herculean task. William A. Ausmus, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Communications professor, set out do that with his book: Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast: A Complete Guide from Monterey to Santa Barbara.

The book consists of a very good 30-page introduction and a main section with winery profiles. The latter is divided into three parts, each focusing on a separate county: Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. Each of these contains its own detailed introduction, while appendices list Central Coast sub-appellations and few grayscale maps follow.

While he gets off to a good start in the introduction, Ausmus loses lift when it comes to the listings of the region’s wineries. The overall listing is extensive, but a good portion of the wineries do not have a full profile. Instead, only basic contact information is provided. This is quite problematic for a book that uses “complete” in its subtitle.

At minimum, a good wine guide should be comprehensive in its indexing of wineries. It should give in-depth information about all wineries, providing unique and novel information and insights. It should also be a purchasing guide, conveying the character and quality of the region’s wines, and should offer ancillary tools like maps, recommended routes, directions to off-the-beaten-path or hard to find wineries and proposed itineraries. The best guides are also entertaining reads and include great photos, and food and lodging recommendations. Sadly, besides being incomplete in its core section, this book often offers very rudimentary information and content..

By a rough count, the “meat” of the book consists of 174 full winery profiles and 107 index entries. Ausmus states that wineries receiving only an index mention have no tasting room or their operators did not wish to meet with him. I can’t accept this explanation as valid or accurate. Most people in the business of making and selling wine are not media-shy. Producers without a tasting room almost always will take guests by appointment. There are many must-try wines produced by those wineries that Ausmus left unprofiled. Among the most bothersome omissions were Ken Brown Wines and Cold Heaven Cellars in Santa Barbara, Cima Collina and Morgan Winery in Monterey and Halter Ranch or Jack Creek Cellars in Paso Robles. These are not obscure cult wines, either. They are available in restaurants and stores outside of California. Fully profiling only about 60% of the region’s wineries fundamentally leaves this book lacking.

The profiles that do exist weave salient (if common) elements of background information, occasional personal thoughts and observations from the interviews peppered with subtle humor – all told in a casual style. While it was amusing to see the personalities of people I personally know shine through some of Ausmus’ narratives, in many cases these profiles read like the “About Us” section of the winery’s website.

In addition to a winery profile, each full entry includes recommended wines from select vintages. Combining winemaker and author recommendations for these highlighted wines is a nice approach, giving the reader a sense of being part of a conversation. Insofar as the reader knows nothing of Ausmus’ tastes in wine, his preferences bear mentioning here: Ausmus seems to favor bigger, opulent wines and his winery ratings appear to be proportionate to the size of the wines, and reflective of the general reputation of the producer.

This book is not without some redeeming features. Ausmus goes into considerable depth in the introduction, discussing the genesis of the region’s gross geology and how that affects the climate and the soils. He also argues for redefining the Central Coast AVA by dividing it into three sections: North-, Mid- and South-Central Coast — essentially following county boundaries. Besides validating the scope of the book, this attempts to clarify the region’s identity and make it more understandable to the consumer.

I like that Ausmus takes an advocate’s stance. Unfortunately, climates, soils and geologies do not follow county lines and Ausmus’ proposed organization seems incongruent with the realities of soil, climate and finished wines. Many of the AVA boundaries in the Central Coast are a result of political compromise- as Ausmus acknowledges. Consequently, regions like Monterey differ dramatically from north to south (with the south resembling eastside Paso Robles) and appellations like the Santa Ynez Valley have trouble defining their identities and are often misunderstood by consumers and commentators alike. Ausmus fails to connect the dots between his proposed re-division and regional wine styles, but then he makes no discussion of common character of wines within the Central Coast’s sub-regions in the first place.

Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast should be more than an address book for the traveling wine taster. At a minimum, it needs to be more complete, providing a full profiles and recommendations for all wineries listed. Given that a book is a lot lighter and can take a lot more abuse than a laptop with wireless broadband, this one may be of some value to the wine vagabond who would rather thumb a paperback than Google a winery.

Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast: A Complete Guide from Monterey to Santa Barbara, University of California Press 2008, $18.96, (Paperback).

Since 2006, Arthur Przebinda has been publishing – an independent guide to California’s Central Coast wine which offers wine reviews, feature articles and interviews as well as general wine information and education. Arthur blogs about other wine-related topics at which Tom Wark of Fermentation called “smart, opinionated and well-informed, a deadly combination”. He also contributes regular content to several wine web sites.