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The Wine Mavericks of California’s Central Coast

For cutting-edge wines, look to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties

Betsy Andrews By June 10, 2021
photo collage of California wines from the Central coast
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

As a sea breeze from Morro Bay blew across Chêne Vineyards, Gina Giugni admired her weeding crew’s handiwork. “They’ve done a really good job,” she said. “Plus, we’re swimming in eggs.” 

The chickens, foraging in their tractor coop, are integral to Giugni’s stewardship of these 6.5 chalky acres. Thanks to her, Chêne is the second biodynamic-certified vineyard in California’s Edna Valley. Giugni, 29, grew up on a biodynamic vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. But she hadn’t worked vines herself until Chêne’s owners, disillusioned with their vineyard management company, tapped her. 

“Now I wouldn’t make wine unless I was connected to a place,” says Giugni, who takes a third of the fruit she farms for her label, Lady of the Sunshine. “I know where the soils shift, where I can find the stinging nettle. It’s very much a piece of my project.” 

A foot-tread, native-ferment, whole-cluster Chardonnay, aged on the lees for a lemon-curd mid-palate; a Pinot Noir/Sauvignon Blanc rosé with a raspberry-lemonade zing—Giugni’s farming is the driver behind wines with the angularity and verve to buck Californian expectations. Where grape prices are a fraction of those in Napa/Sonoma, and vineyard parcels are waiting to be discovered, winemakers like Giugni can experiment. Along with her husband, Mikey, whose Scar of the Sea has garnered accolades, Giugni is part of a cadre of Central Coasters who are using unique sites, unusual grapes, and low-intervention, creative methods to take California wine in a fresh direction.

Coastal inspiration

San Luis Obispo (SLO) County has long been dominated by Paso Robles’ rich Bordeaux and Rhône wines, from hotter vineyards east of the coastal mountains. But a proposed SLO Coast AVA would encompass cooler-climate vineyards closer to the coast. Such sites produce the leaner grapes that new-gen winemakers prefer. One is Bassi Vineyard, where Mikey Giugni gets the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir for a co-fermented wine that tastes of sea spray and dried flowers. Those flavors make sense because Bassi is a mile and a half from the ocean. From the top of its organic slope, you see the waves. 

“It’s a unique spot,” says Tyler Eck, associate winemaker at Santa Barbara’s Fess Parker, who has his own label, Dunites, with his wife, Rachel. “That’s what drew us. Santa Barbara is awesome, but its grapes are expensive. Well-known producers make $55 Pinot Noir there. How do we put a foot in? Then Gina started farming Chêne, and Mikey’s been more involved in this area. It feels like momentum.”

The Ecks, who named their label after a utopian artists’ community that occupied the dunes of nearby Pismo Beach in the 1930s, make a Pinot Noir from Bassi full of bright cherries, earth, and smoke, and a fresh, saline Brut Nature Blancs de Noir from Chêne grapes. “There’s nothing like it in Santa Barbara, where you have vineyards this close to the ocean retaining a lot of acidity,” says Tyler. “We have all that fruit and California sunshine, and then we just try to not mess it up and let the vineyards show through.”

“We want to work for ourselves and show that you don’t need millions of dollars for a vineyard winery.” 

Living off the land

That’s not to say there aren’t vineyard finds in Santa Barbara County. The Giugnis share winery space with Natalie Siddique and Ryan Pace of Outward, who make a Chenin Blanc from own-rooted vines planted in 1978 in Los Alamos. That sounds impressive, but as Pace explains, “They’re just big, gnarly vines that have been neglected.” 

For years, the grapes were blended into big-production wines. “Now we want to raise this vineyard up,” says Siddique. “Maybe smaller producers like us can have those conversations, elevate the farming practices, and find new places that have been overlooked.” Lees-aged, the Chenin shows a balance of luscious texture and crispness.

Another of the Giugnis’ friends, âmevive wine’s Alice Anderson, farms Ibarra-Young Vineyard in Santa Barbara’s Los Olivos District with her partner, Topher De Felice. Ibarra-Young was planted in 1971 and has been farmed organically since the 90s, but Anderson took it further. On a recent afternoon, she showed off her compost: “Cow poop, stinging nettles, egg shells, basalt dust, quartz dust, and biodynamic preparations 502 and 507.”

She recycles winery pomace and vineyard prunings for fertilizer. Ducks and sheep mow between her vine rows. She eschews tilling to protect the soil’s microbiome. She welcomes weasels and other natural predators. And she’s planning on using garden edibles—squashes and melons—as cover crop.

She has a restless energy for earth-friendly farming, and a curiosity for the charms of her historic vines. Planted along a fence where the grapes soak up irrigation from the neighbor’s lawn, her old-vine Mourvèdre, Marsanne, and Syrah grow clusters “the size of your head.” She co-ferments them for a carbonic-style summer wine called périphérie, easy-drinking but with a white-tea structure. 

She also inherited a Spanish variety that’s rare in the States. “I had never grown Graciano before,” she says. During 2020’s heat spikes, its canopy shriveled. “I thought everything was ruined.” But the whole-cluster, stainless-aged rosé she made from it has an electric, blood-orange hue and flavor.

Anderson has tripled production each of her three years. In 2021, she’ll make about 1,000 cases. “There’s this moment when you take this jump because we can’t make our living off 350 cases.” She is out to make it alongside Santa Barbara’s monied châteaux. “We want to work for ourselves and show that you don’t need millions of dollars for a vineyard winery.”

Beyond Pinot and Chardonnay

Spanish expat Mireia Taribó knows Graciano. Her wife is Tara Gomez, winemaker at the Chumash tribe’s Kitá Wines, the nation’s only indigenous winery. Taribó and Gomez produce their own label, Camins 2 Dreams, in Lompoc. The biodynamic Graciano they source fits their philosophy of winemaking in Santa Barbara. 

“Everybody here has Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s difficult to compete. We’re so small that we need to look outside the box,” says Taribó. Among the alternative varieties they make is Grüner Veltliner, its green apple notes resolving to lemon zest and brine. Their Syrah from foggy, sandy Spear Vineyard is wildly aromatic—black fruit, black pepper—but with racy acidity. It shows what Taribó’s preferred AVA can yield. 

“In the Sta. Rita Hills, we have all these microclimates, and that’s why we have, like, 70 varieties planted. There’s nothing better than to be able to choose from different styles of wine,” says Taribó. “You want to have all the colors to paint with.”

Cameron Porter would agree, but as a musician-turned-winemaker, his metaphors come from music. “It’s that improvisatory quality of jazz musicians,” he says. At their Los Alamos winery, Amplify, Porter and his wife, Marlen, constantly experiment. 

Composed of Merlot, Cabernet, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc, their 2020 Subliminal pays homage to old-school, red-and-white California field blends. Their flor-aged Sangiovese rosé has the fruity freshness of a strawberry eau de vie, undergirded by earth and salted almonds. They make a gingery, oxidized Garnacha Blanca, a solera-method Merlot, semi-carbonic Carignan, a rancio sec–style Roussanne, and are planning a Sangiovese passito. 

“You gotta find your own voice,” Porter says. “With natural winemaking, you have to have the mindset that it takes you on a journey. I learn from this, and my faith is, it’s going to turn out good.” 

The Porters are co-founders of Natural Action Wine Club, the brainchild of the young, Black winemakers Justin Trabue and Simmone Mitchelson, who launched the Cal Poly Scholarship Fund for Black, Indigenous, People of Color in Wine and Viticulture last year. The club sells bottlings from low-input winemakers to support diversity in the industry. It will fund the scholarship this year to the tune of $100,000. Among the first partner wineries is Mikey Giugni’s Scar of the Sea. He sees his generation as change-makers.

“I’m optimistic on winemaking in California. I think the younger generation is continuing to ask questions. California winemaking is going to be pushed,” he says. “It’s momentum. It’s about critical mass and time and energy and continuing to do the work.”

5 Central California wines to try:

bottle of Amplify San Ynez ‘Four on the Flor’ 2020

Amplify San Ynez ‘Four on the Flor’ 2020 ($20)

This skin-contact Sangiovese rosé from the San Ynez Valley is aged like sherry, under a blanket of spent yeast. It has a bright strawberry personality with savory hints of nut skins and chalky earth. 500ml bottle.

bottle of Lady of the Sunshine Edna Valley ‘Chevey’ 2020

Lady of the Sunshine Edna Valley ‘Chevey’ 2020 ($28)

Named for the Loire commune of Cheverny, where similar blends are made, this 40/60 Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend is what winemaker Gina Giugni calls her “margarita wine.” Think: lime zest, sea salt, and pineapple.

bottle of Scar of the Sea Bassi Vineyard Pinot Gris-Pinot Noir CoFerment

Scar of the Sea Bassi Vineyard Pinot Gris-Pinot Noir CoFerment ($28)

Mikey Giugni is known for masterful Pinot Noirs. But this wine shows off his creativity. Made with whole-cluster Pinot Gris topped with de-stemmed Pinot Noir, it has citrusy panache with dusty rose and sea spray accents. 

bottle of Dunites Bassi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019

Dunites Bassi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($38)

One third whole cluster and aged 10 months on the lees, this Burgundian-style Pinot offers high, bright notes of raspberry and bass notes of leaf cover and humus. It’s tightly structured, so try decanting it.

bottle of Camins 2 Dreams Sta. Rita Hills Spear Vineyard Syrah 2018

Camins 2 Dreams Sta. Rita Hills Spear Vineyard Syrah 2018 ($42)

Zingy acidity buoys layers of brambly fruit and peppery spice in this silky yet quaffable Syrah from the Sta. Rita Hills.