Discovering the hidden treasure of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande vineyards

Drake is a former Times Food managing editor

There’s some question about who was more enthusiastic about my move to the Central Coast--my friends or I. During the five years I lived in Oregon’s wine country, many wine-weather friends from Southern California accepted my invitation to visit. Now they were only a $20 tank of gas away instead of the air fare to Portland.

Have you checked out any wineries? one friend asked. Sure, I said. Stopped at several while looking the area over last year.

But when she started talking about Talley, Corbett Canyon, Claiborne & Churchill and Edna Valley Vineyard, I went blank. You know, she said, the ones between Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo.

No, until then I didn’t know that there are two distinct wine growing regions in the mid-Central Coast. I had visited the one near Paso Robles, but was unfamiliar with the Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande region just south of my new home here.


It wasn’t difficult getting four friends from Los Angeles to spend a couple of days checking out these wineries with me.

We started one spring Saturday at Laetitia Vineyard and Winery on U.S. 101 just south of Arroyo Grande. The winery was known as Maison Deutz until last year, when J.C. Tardivat bought out two partners and renamed it for his daughter. The Laetitia Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay were introduced to the public last July.

The weather was clear and warm, so we took our samples and settled at one of the winery’s outdoor tables to enjoy a mini-picnic of bread, cheese and pa^te I’d brought from home.

I’m no expert at judging wine, but I sure can pick wineries with spectacular views. You don’t realize it driving along the highway, but the short ascent to Laetitia’s tasting room is enough to provide a 180-degree vista, from vineyards in the south to ocean and beaches in the northwest, across a valley that in April was still winter-green.


It was tempting to sit and while away the day, but other wineries beckoned.

We drove north on 101 to Arroyo Grande, east through town to Huasna Road and, following the signs to Lopez Lake, to Talley Vineyards. The distance between the modern, window-walled Laetitia and Talley’s adobe tasting room is less than 10 miles, but it’s a leap backward of 130 years.

The tasting room is on the lower floor of the two-story El Rincon adobe, built in the 1860s by Ramon J. Branch on property granted to the family by the Mexican government in 1837. Ramon and his wife, Isabela, raised their 11 children in the six-bedroom house.

We wandered through some of the downstairs rooms while sipping the winery’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The tasting room also pours the wines of Saucelito Canyon, a small winery located in a remote canyon above Lopez Lake.


Talley will be the site of the eighth annual Harvest Celebration this Nov. 7. The wine and food tasting will feature the 15 wineries and vineyards of the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys, as well as wineries that buy grapes from the two viticultural regions.

Backtracking a quarter of a mile, we turned north on Orcutt Road, a scenic back route to San Luis Obispo. A left turn onto Tiffany Ranch Road, then a right on Corbett Canyon Road brought us past Corbett Canyon Vineyards. The winery’s tasting room is closed, but a house on the property serves as headquarters for the Edna Valley Arroyo Grande Valley Vintners Assn. John Niven is the current president.

The Niven family began planting premium varietal wine grapes in Edna Valley in 1972. They were the first plantings since Prohibition, but “this was a very active wine growing region back in the early 1800s,” Niven said.

Today there are nearly 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande region. A state crop report for 1997 shows that Edna Valley-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes commanded the highest prices of any in California.


“I don’t think the public has any idea of the quality level that is coming out of here,” Niven said.

That may be because almost three-quarters of the grapes are sold to wineries outside the Edna Valley. “They might buy 100 tons from us and mix it with 1,000 tons from other areas,” Niven explained, “and we bring special characteristics to the blend, much like spices and herbs.”

That is changing a little as more grapes are being grown and wineries are developing a product that can be specifically identified with Edna Valley or San Luis Obispo County.



Just north of where Corbett Canyon Road dead-ends into California 227 we turned into the parking lot of Claiborne & Churchill. With walls built of straw bales, the winery has become the brunt of more than a few huff-and-puff jokes, but it makes a lot of sense. The 16-inch-thick walls provide enough insulation to keep the inside temperature about 70 degrees in the summer and 60 degrees in the winter, just about ideal for wine storage. About the size of a small barn, the earth-tone building will blend well with the landscape in the dry summer months.

Claiborne & Churchill produces crisp, dry Alsatian wines--Riesling and Gewurztraminer--in addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

It was getting late, so we headed to my home. While my friends got settled and then joined me in preparing dinner, we enjoyed some of the wines picked up that afternoon.

Wonderful fresh produce is available to home cooks at farmers markets Thursday nights and Saturday mornings in San Luis Obispo. I’d picked up fresh asparagus to serve with grilled lamb, accompanied by some local Pinot Noir. Eyelids were getting a little droopy by the time we finished freshly baked shortcake topped with strawberries and whipped cream.


You don’t find much cutting-edge restaurant cuisine on the Central Coast, but plenty of chefs take advantage of the local fresh fish and quality produce. For this article my focus was on places where I’ve enjoyed good selections of local wines.

There are numerous Italian restaurants, but so far, my friends and I favor Giuseppe’s in Pismo Beach and Buona Tavola in San Luis Obispo.

When fresh tuna is available, Giuseppe’s offers it in a carpaccio antipasto that is so good that one of my friends ordered two servings. Osso buco is his favorite entree because the veal is seared over an oak fire before being simmered.

At Buona Tavola, the most popular appetizer is the grilled eggplant baked with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, then topped with chopped tomatoes, basil and oregano. The homemade tortellini stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta cheese has a mascarpone cheese sauce. For the entree, we like the veal scaloppine with Portobello mushrooms.


Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo and Gardens of Avila at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort near Avila Beach offer eclectic menus with an international flavor.

Chilled sesame ginger noodles are a vegetarian favorite at Big Sky, but chicken or shrimp can be added. Three types of locally made low-fat chicken sausage--Thai, Santa Fe and Mediterranean--are featured in their mixed grill.

The mixed grill at Gardens of Avila includes a lamb chop, chicken breast with pesto, Italian sausage and bacon-wrapped shrimp. The signature pasta is fettuccine tossed with olive oil, roasted garlic, tomatoes, basil, spinach and Parmesan cheese.



Day 2 dawned sunny and warm. Our group spent the morning in downtown San Luis Obispo, visiting the mission and shopping. About 42,500 people call this small city home, and since moving here last fall, I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think it’s a great place to live.

By late morning we were ready for more wine tasting, so we headed for a pair of what locals endearingly call “garage wineries.” Windemere and Laverne occupy warehouse space in the same industrial complex just off Broad Street on the south side of town.

Winemaker Cathy MacGregor uses grapes from her family’s vineyards in Edna Valley and Paso Robles for Windemere and MacGregor Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Orange Muscat. She rolls up the garage door for tastings Thursdays through Sundays.

Laverne has just begun offering samplings of its Cabernet Sauvignon, made with grapes from the Paso Robles region, and expects to release its Edna Valley Chardonnay in July or August.


Other small wineries in the area, such as Claiborne & Churchill, got their start in similar settings. Windemere expects to follow suit and break ground for a winery and tasting room on Old Price Canyon Road late this year.

After a lunch stop at home, we drove to the San Luis Obispo tasting room of Cottonwood Canyon Winery. The winery’s main tasting room is in Santa Maria, but its Estate Vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be sampled at its warehouse here, on Santa Fe Road behind the county airport.

Our last stop was Edna Valley Vineyard, south of the airport on Biddle Ranch Road. The tasting room has a 30-foot-long cherrywood bar backed by huge windows that look out over the vineyards to the range of hills known as the Seven Sisters. The rest of the room is devoted to wine-related food and gift items.

A joint venture of Paragon Vineyard, owned by the Nivens, and Chalone Wine Group, based in Napa, the winery specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also produces smaller amounts of Sparkling Brut, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Syrah and Pinot Blanc.


As we were heading back to the car, one of the group noticed the demonstration vineyard. “Reminds me of Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon,” he said. “It was nice visiting you up there, but it certainly is easier to come here.”

Guess I’d better keep the linens clean.




Wine and Dine

Getting there: Via U.S. 101, San Luis Obispo is 212 miles north of Los Angeles, about four hours’ drive from downtown Los Angeles.

Where to taste wines: For a free copy of “Wine Tasting,” a map and guide with addresses and hours, contact the Edna Valley Arroyo Grande Valley Vintners, 2195 Corbett Canyon Road, Arroyo Grande, CA 93420; telephone (805) 541-5868, fax (805) 541-3934, Internet:

Here is information on tasting rooms that I visited:


Claiborne & Churchill; tel. (805) 544-4066. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cottonwood Canyon Winery; tel. (805) 549-9463. Open Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Edna Valley Vineyard; tel. (805) 544-5855. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Laetitia Vineyard and Winery; tel. (805) 481-1772. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Laverne Vineyard and Winery; tel. (805) 547-0616. Open Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.

Talley Vineyards; tel. (805) 489-0446. Open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., June through September; open Thursday through Monday, October through May.

Windemere; tel. (805) 542-0133. Open Thursday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where to eat: Big Sky Cafe, 1121 Broad St., San Luis Obispo; tel. (805) 545-5401. Dinner entrees from $6.25 to $11.95.


Buona Tavola, 1037 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo; tel. (805) 545-8000. Northern Italian cuisine. Reservations recommended. Dinner entrees from $12.95 to $16.95.

Gardens of Avila, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, 1215 Avila Beach Drive, San Luis Obispo; tel. (805) 595-7365. Dinner entrees from $6 to $20.

Giuseppe’s, 891 Price St., Pismo Beach; tel. (805) 773-2870. Southern Italian cuisine. Dinner entrees from $8 to $20.

Where to stay: Accommodations range from chain hotels to bed-and-breakfasts. Here are three of the latter that I have visited (rates based on double occupancy):


Arroyo Village Inn, 407 El Camino Real, Arroyo Grande; tel. (805) 489-5926. Seven suites; rates $125 to $350 per night.

Crystal Rose Inn, 789 Valley Road, Arroyo Grande; tel. (805) 481-1854 or (800) 767-3466. A restored 1890 Victorian home; rates run $95 to $185 per night.

Garden Street Inn, 1212 Garden St., San Luis Obispo; tel. (805) 545-9802. Rates from $90 to $160.

For more information: San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, 1037 Mill St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401; tel. (800) 634-1414 or (805) 541-8000.