History of the Central Coast

Viticulture in California began on the Central Coast in the 1770’s. It began there with the Mission economy, for religious purposes, and it pretty much died there sixty years later as the Missions were secularized. Wine needs a market, and the Central Coast was too far away from the people to be transporting casks of wine on ox carts. The Gold Rush (1849 to about 1875) brought a thirsty market to California, but not to the Central Coast. Los Angeles, Sonoma, and the Sierra Foothills were the main sources of supply to the miners, and after the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870’s the Bay Area had the best route to supply markets on the East Coast. There were a few big growers in warm areas near Paso Robles: Frenchman Pierre Dallidet from about 1860; Englishman Henry Ditmas at Rancho Saucelito near present day Lake Lopez; and an apple farmer from Indiana named Andrew York from the 1870’s. York built Ascension Winery in 1882. It has operated continuously ever since (now York Mountain Winery). Additional local color was supplied by Drury James, a founder of El Paso de Robles in 1868, part owner of the Hot Springs Hotel, and an uncle to bank robbers Frank and Jesse James, who visited for long stays on several occasions. These wine estates used Central Coast piers to get their product onto ships, but Monterey County and Santa Barbara County were largely ignored by the California wine industry. With the possible exception of a small vineyard planted in 1890 up in the parched eastern mountains of Monterey County, 10 miles from the Salinas River, by a man names Charles Tatum. The vineyard was called Chalone, and it later became iconic, but not until it had been resurrected in 1964 by a musicologist from Yale named Dick Graff.


Large scale revitalization began in the warmer districts of Paso Robles with Italian immigration during the late 1890’s. Six million Italians arrived in America between 1900 and 1910. They not only brought winemaking and viticultural skills, they brought their own market with them. Prohibition (1918 to 1933) smothered expansion, but it hardly put a damper on the ethnic Italian market for table wine in Paso Robles. Celebrity interest by personalities as prominent as pianist Ignace Paderewski, who purchased 2,000 acres in Paso Robles and made widely acclaimed Zinfandel, meant the period after WWI was hardly a wasteland. Still it didn’t do anything to enliven wine in Monterey or Santa Barbara. The Salinas Valley of that era was largely cattle and wheat, with a few fruit orchards (cf: Of Mice and Men or East of Eden by John Steinbeck).

Soldiers returning from Europe after WWII began the process of breathing life into a comatose American wine industry. They’d been introduced overseas, in rather compelling circumstances. They made up the initial market. Then the University of California stepped in with some scientific research suggesting that climate conditions in Monterey and Santa Barbara might be conducive to very good quality wine grapes. Plantings began in the late 1950’s, and increased in the 1960’s as the wine-happy Baby Boomers started coming of drinking age, and Silicon Valley industrial development ended agricultural use of land in Santa Clara Valley. Big wineries (such as Paul Masson, and Mirassou) were forced out of Santa Clara Valley by land prices, and began looking for vineyard property in Monterey County.

In Santa Barbara County growers Uriel Nielsen and Bill DeMattei followed UC’s advice in 1968, planting a vineyard near Tepusquet Canyon with a 5-year contract to sell grapes to Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers Winery in Napa at $325 per ton. Brooks Firestone established the first estate winery in Santa Barbara County, and produced his first wine in 1975. Zaca Mesa was planted about the same time, and acted as a training ground for future Santa Barbara winemaking superstars. The nature of Firestone’s wine knowledge at the time held the European notion that Santa Ynez Valley was 400 miles south of Napa. Therefore it had to be warmer and more likely to bring late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon to full maturity. Good theory. Firestone made Cab rosé for a couple years (because they couldn’t get their Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ripe). Then they grafted their Cab Sauv vines over to Merlot and Riesling. Made some fabulous Rieslings too. Called it Ambassador’s Vineyard after Brooks’ father Leonard, who had been US Ambassador to Belgium, a country that drinks a lot of wine, but produces very little.


Santa Barbara really took off in the 1980’s. Michael Benedict and former TV weatherman Richard Sanford lived (without electricity) for two years on the Santa Ynez Valley property they had exhaustively researched before acquiring, while they planted it to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It became an instant classic selling grapes to Au Bon Climat, a very artistic partnership between fast-talking Jim Clendenen and laconic Adam Tolmach. ABC, as the winery was known to many Americans, also bought grapes from Bien Nacido Vineyard planted by the Miller family, where ABC eventually leased space to give their peripatetic winery a permanent home. Clendenen’s energetic personality helped sell some Au Bon Climat wines in Burgundy through an ex-pat named Becky Wasserman, and the promotional fuse for an explosion of Central Coast wines was lit. Shortly beforehand Louis Lucas had forged an extraordinary reputation for Tepusquet Vyd when all sorts of mediocre wineries throughout California began buying his grapes and overnight started making really good wine. Lucas reputedly paid for Tepusquet (a 500-acre vineyard) with winnings from the quarter-horse track at Los Alamitos south of Los Angeles. The bumper sticker on his Corvette used to read, “Younger women, faster horses, Tepusquet wine,” but that was thirty years ago. By the end of the decade there were nearly 30 wineries in the County, nearly 10,000 acres of vines, and the Chardonnay grapes were selling for more money than Chardonnay grapes from Napa. At that time 70% of the grapes in Santa Barbara County were exported to wineries elsewhere, many of them in Napa Valley.

Monterey County had gotten the same attention from UC professors Harold Winkler and Maynard Amerine that Santa Barbara had. But the Santa Ynez Valley was a day trip from the gigantic marketplace of Los Angeles, without much competition for that attention. It was a foregone conclusion Santa Barbara County would see considerable wine tourism business. Despite the reputation of Carmel and the golf resorts of Monterey Peninsula, there was no such confidence about wine tourism in the Salinas Valley. Paul Masson Winery planted a 1,000-acre vineyard east of Greenfield in the early 1960’s. The called it Pinnacles. Mirassou followed with a 300-acre vineyard near Soledad.


These vineyards were considered quite successful for white varieties like Chardonnay and Riesling. So Wente planted their Riva Ranch in Arroyo Seco, and J. Lohr soon followed. Controversy arose, however, concerning red wines. They all seemed to have a vegetive aromatic taint. Some writers attributed the smell to leaves included with clusters by mechanical harvesters. More hysterical commentators claimed the land had previously been used for asparagus, leaving a residual taste. Nevertheless Monterey County grape acreage stood at more than 6,000 acres by 1970 when the first boom struck.

Federal tax law at the time allowed absentee investors with big income (think doctors and lawyers in Los Angeles) to write off the cost of vineyard and orchard development against the income from their professional practices. Massive plantings of pistachio trees went into Paso Robles. Vineyard acreage in Monterey County rose to 27,000 acres at the end of 1974. Josh Jensen planted Calera on the San Benito County side of the Gabilan Mtns in 1974. There were more acres of grapes in Monterey than in either Napa or Sonoma. Moreover, having taken home a tidy tax savings, investors were not tremendously critical of whether or not these agricultural schemes ever turned a profit. Prudential Life Insurance began the planting of San Bernabe Vyd during this period. San Bernabe was then, and is today, the biggest contiguous vineyard in the world: 13,000 acres. Another player on the scene was Doug Meador, with December-Pacific a 2,500-acre vineyard and nursery near Soledad. Then the tax law changed in 1975. Vineyard acreage in the Salinas Valley went down that year.


There are two points you should take away from our previous three paragraphs:

(1) Unlike Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, the Salinas Valley grape scene has always been dominated by agri-business. Through the year 2000, five business entities owned 80% of the grapes in Salinas Valley. These people are farmers. They aren’t really marketers, except on a mass scale to supermarkets. And, in most cases the winemakers have been hirelings. Change has been afoot since 2000, but changing the agri-business culture of the Salinas Valley is like trying to turn an ocean liner. It takes time. Oh, did I mention the headquarters of the United Farm Workers union is in Salinas?

(2)  From the beginning, vintners coming to Monterey County needed to learn a whole new set of rules for growing grapes and making wine. People like Doug Meador, who carved his Ventana Vyd out the December-Pacific investment holdings, and Dan Lee at Morgan Winery, and Steve Pessagno were all on the forefront of figuring out new trellising systems, new irrigation regimens, different ways to analyze grapes prior to picking, and novel winemaking techniques to emphasize advantages conferred by the Central Coast without succumbing to the problems dished up there.

Paso Robles started to realize bigger ambitions in the late 1960’s when Dr. Stanley Hoffman planted his Hoffman Mountain Ranch property on the Westside with an emphasis on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. André Tchelistcheff was his consultant. Cliff Giacobine and Gary Eberle began planting 700 acres on the Eastside for Estrella River Winery in 1973. They were the first importers of a commercial level of Syrah cuttings in California. Ken Volk started Wild Horse Winery in 1981 after graduating from Cal Poly. Ken’s dad owned Public Storage, with franchisees coast-to-coast. It was a learning period. Dr. Hoffman couldn’t sell high-alcohol Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a premium price point. His property was broken up. Giacobine lost the winery in an ugly divorce (Eberle left to start his own place). Volk sold Wild Horse for a bundle, and started another winery located in Santa Barbara. Then in 1989 the Perrin family of France’s famous Ch. Beaucastel set up shop on the Westside. From which point the Central Coast has not looked back.


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