You've heard the worn-out marketing lines before: 'Warm days and cool nights' … 'unique soils' … 'our wines express the terroir of our special sites' … 'We craft our wines to complement food.'
Nearly every winery in California can say the above is true of its vineyards and wines, as the claims are so superficial. How warm is warm, and how cool is cool? (In my part of Sonoma County, 'cool' is when the summer temperature drops to 80 degrees at 9 p.m., down from 100-plus.) Vines, like children, are indeed special when it's the owner/parent making the assessment. And wine is supposed to go with food (though some overripe, alcoholic ones certainly don't).
So it is refreshing -- on both the intellectual and sensory levels -- to visit a wine region where individuality is in your face, in the air and on your palate. Edna Valley and its viticultural neighbor to the southeast, Arroyo Grande Valley, in San Luis Obispo County, are indeed distinctive in their geography, soils, climate and the type of wines typically made from these conditions -- elegant, firmly structured, refreshing Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs that I'd be happy to put on my dinner table anytime.
The land looks different in the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys than it does anywhere else, with a string of volcanic cones, called the 'Nine Sisters,' stretching out into the sea, created by eruptive activity that spewed the 'dirt of the devil' across the region. The shallow, well-drained soils are also heavy in ancient marine sediment -- sand, seashells and whale, walrus and dolphin fossils -- as well as decomposed granite and clay loam.
Breezes from the Pacific Ocean (Pismo Beach is just six miles away) smack you in the face in the early morning and early evening, channeled by east-west-oriented valleys that cut through the Santa Lucia mountain range and run counter to the north-south California norm.
Fog during the growing season generally doesn't lift until noon, and while afternoons are 'warm' and there is plenty of sun to ripen grapes, daily highs reach only in the mid-70s to low 80s, creating a very long, dry, even growing season that's the envy of those in warmer regions such as Paso Robles to the north and the coolest pockets of Santa Barbara County to the south.
Another point of difference: the presence of the Spanish grape variety Albarino and Austria's Gruner Veltliner, and not just experimental plots, but with enough planted acres, and growing, to produce volumes for national distribution.
Too, the area is important enough to host World of Pinot Noir, California's answer to Oregon's International Pinot Noir Celebration. Each March, WOPN lures a diverse mix of Pinot producers and consumers from around the globe to a weekend of tastings, seminars, meals and glorious sunsets off Shell Beach.
Another grand site -- Islay Mountain, one of the conical Nine Sisters -- can be seen from Baileyana winery's Firepeak Vineyard in Edna Valley. Baileyana winemaker Christian Roguenant, a Burgundy native who came to Arroyo Grande in 1986 to make sparkling wine for Maison Deutz (now Laetitia) and joined Baileyana as full-time winemaker in 1999, produces Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs that combine California ripe-fruit intensity with European refinement and structure.
Farther south in the valley, John Alban of Alban Vineyards began planting vines in 1989, using plant material from France's Rhone Valley. He started with Viognier and added Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre and Roussanne; his commitment to Rhone varietals is total, his wines among the finest of their type in California -- deep, rich and intensely colored (for the reds), yet with Edna Valley's signature structure and succulence.
Although Franciscan missionaries planted vines here 200 years ago, modern Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande winemaking began in the early 1970s, when Norman Goss planted Chamisal Vineyard in Edna Valley and Catharine and Jack Niven followed with Paragon Vineyard. By 1974, the Greenough family purchased an old-vine plot in Arroyo Grande and began making wine under the Saucelito Canyon label.
It wasn't long thereafter that the Talley family, longtime growers of peppers, Napa cabbage, avocados and cilantro in Arroyo Grande, began adding grapevines to their ranch. Brian Talley, whose late father Don first planted vines in 1981 - 'He put in grapes where veggies wouldn't grow,' Brian says - and the plantings were later expanded to Edna Valley and Paso Robles.
Today, Talley is one of the top makers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the state; Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals come from Paso Robles fruit and are bottled under the Bishop's Peak label.
One new Talley planting, the Stone Corral Vineyard in Edna Valley (2001), is a novel partnership between Talley, Stephen Ross Wines and Kynsi Wines. All three shared the development costs, and Stephen Ross and Kynsi each received a long-term lease for one-third of the vineyard. Each has a Stone Corral Vineyard-designated Pinot Noir on the market.
After pioneering with the planting of Paragon, the Nivens joined with Chalone Wine Group to build the Edna Valley Vineyard winery in 1979 (now owned by Diageo). In 1995, the Nivens planted Firepeak, later brought on Roguenant, and in 2006, third-generation family members John Niven and Michael Blaney launched an exciting new brand, Tangent, for Chardonnay-alternative white varieties, including Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Ecclestone, a riper, fuller blend of Viognier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Canelli and Albarino.
With little or no oak, no malolactic fermentation, alcohol levels of around 13.5 percent and a screwcap closure, Tangent wines ($13 to $20) are clean and vibrant, with refreshing acidity. Soon, Tangent will have 50 acres of Albarino planted, 16 of Gruner Veltliner and a bit of Grenache Blanc, a remarkable commitment to grapes not yet mainstream in California.
Another producer of delicious aromatic, dry whites is Claiborne & Churchill, owned by Claiborne and Fredericka Churchill Thompson, former University of Michigan professors who fell in love with Alsatian wines and relocated to Edna Valley in 1981 to reproduce the style. Their Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer whites, and a delicate Pinot Noir, are made in an energy-efficient, straw-bale winery.
Others to watch include Tolosa, with former Acacia Vineyards (Carneros) winemaker Larry Brooks overseeing production of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, and Ortman Family Vineyards, where Chuck Ortman (formerly of Meridian), his son Matt and daughter-in-law Lisa, make Edna Valley Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that have finesse and, yes, complement food.
Now there's a novel idea.
Alban, Reva Edna Valley (California) Syrah 2004 ($74): Expensive and worth it for those who love deep, dense, super-rich Syrah. It's meaty/smoky, with blackberry pie, black cherry and licorice flavors and a spicy note on the finish. Despite its considerable size, it's supple and balanced. 94
Baileyana, Grand Firepeak Cuvee Edna Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2005 ($38): Richly textured and full-bodied, with vibrant wild berry and plum flavors and touches of baking spice and toast. It's beautifully made and fresh-tasting, with brisk acidity. 91
Claiborne & Churchill, Central Coast (California) Pinot Gris 2006 ($18): Minerally and cracking with acidity, this bracing wine bubbles with luscious stone fruit and Granny Smith apple flavors, plus hints of pineapple and green papaya. 90
Claiborne & Churchill, Edna Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2005 ($20): This is an admirable price for such an elegant, varietally true Pinot Noir. It has pretty cherry and rose petal aromas, juicy Bing cherry flavors and a complex stemmy note. 88
Edna Valley Vineyard, Paragon Edna Valley (California) Chardonnay 2005 ($15): Medium-bodied, and balanced, it has straightforward, juicy tropical and citrus flavors and a clean, refreshing finish. It's a bargain and widely available. 87
Ortman Family, Edna Valley (California) Chardonnay 2005 ($24): Seamless and exciting, with tangy lemon and apple fruit, a rich mid-palate and a minerally, citrus finish. It's a lively, palate-cleansing style. 91
Saucelito Canyon, Estate Arroyo Grande (California) Zinfandel 2005 ($22): Edna Valley isn't known for Zin, but this is a fine one, with crisp cherry and raspberry flavors, a dash of baking spice and a hint of vanilla on a lush palate. 88
Talley, Rincon Vineyard Arroyo Grande (California) Pinot Noir 2004 ($50): With a firm backbone, this is a Pinot for the cellar, yet there is plenty of ripe black cherry fruit to make it enjoyable now. It's juicy, spicy and concentrated, with impressive length. 93
Tangent, Edna Valley (California) Albarino 2006 ($17): Very aromatic, with fresh acacia and citrus scents. The palate is packed with white peach, grapefuit and lime flavors, with flinty minerality and a mouthwatering finish. 90
Tolosa, '1772' Edna Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2004 ($52): A weighty, ripe Pinot named for the year Franciscans built Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Exuberant black cherry and wild strawberry fruit, subtle earthiness and rounded tannins make it easy to drink now. 89