The phrase ‘hidden gem’ has been horribly over-used as an introduction to wine regions throughout the globe for decades. But the metaphor nonetheless seems apt to describe a wine region that only recently came into existence, and one that falls both literally and figuratively outside the mental map most wine drinkers possess for California wine country.
Situated roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the newly minted (as of March 2022) San Luis Obispo Coast American Viticultural Area remains a sleepy bit of the California coast attracting far fewer visitors than most other pieces of the 350 miles (560 km) of coastline separating the state’s two iconic cities.
The SLO Coast, as it is more casually known, has been growing grapes commercially since the 1970s, however, and merits far more attention from wine lovers than it usually receives.
Padres, bandits, and cows
As with many of California’s coastal wine regions, the history of winegrowing in what is today San Luis Obispo County began with the establishment of the San Luis Obispo Mission in 1772. The infamous Father Junipero Serra, widely criticised today for his violent and oppressive attempts to convert Native Americans to the Christian faith, directed the planting of grapes for sacramental wine. Those initial plantings, likely of Listán Prieto, also known as País or Mission, never amounted to much, and were probably used to make a fortified wine known as Angelica.
The first real commercial winegrowing around San Luis Obispo began in the 1870s, when this stretch of coast was better known for harbouring bandits and murderers, who would hide out in the hills and prey on unsuspecting travellers. Surviving remnants of these 19th-century plantings can be found in what is today the upper Arroyo Grande Valley AVA, in the form of ancient Zinfandel and other ‘mixed black’ grapevines still farmed by Saucelito Canyon winery. Every other 19th-century vine in the area succumbed either to the predations of phylloxera or (more commonly) the onset of Prohibition in 1920, as the area became better known for cattle, dairy ranching and the fruit trees which still grow there in abundance.
This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.
Image of Derbyshire Vineyard courtesy of the SLO Coast Wine Collective.