Big Coast, Small Wonders

Scott Lucas | March 28, 2018 | Story California Destinations Weekend Escapes Travel National

This story was originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

From Google to Goats

The sign at the turnoff reads “Not the way to Hearst Castle. Your phone is wrong.” We plow ahead—we haven’t driven three and a half hours from the Bay Area to ogle gold-enameled pools or dark, heavy tapestries that block the sunlight. On this gleaming morning on California’s Central Coast, we’re after more earthbound pleasures. Our car winds for miles along a narrow country road near Cambria until we come upon Michelle Rudolph, the co-owner of Stepladder Creamery, who greets my wife, Elena, and me with a toothy grin from atop her all-terrain vehicle and unlocks the gate that leads to the farm.

The core of the Central Coast between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo is several times the size of Napa and Sonoma wine country, but it receives only a fraction of the attention. As a result, the region, which in so many ways rivals the state’s best-loved getaways for beauty and bounty, feels tight-knit: The cook knows the farmer; the hotel owner is buddies with the brewer. With a new generation of restaurants, hotels, and attractions coming online, the question hangs over us like coastal fog: Can it retain its closed-loop, back-to-the-land charm while opening itself up to the rest of the state just a little more?

Within moments of parking at Stepladder, we’re about as back to the land as we can be—a brown-pelted Lamancha goat is nuzzling at my pants as the dew lifts from the green grass. Michelle and her husband, Jack, make some of the best goat cheese you’ll find anywhere.

As it turns out, Michelle is a transplant from the Bay Area, having grown up in Danville before relocating for college at Cal Poly and meeting her husband, a product manager who took over his family’s farm after Google acquired the company he worked at. Together, the couple learned their way around the property—they studied how to birth goats by watching videos on YouTube—and fixed up equipment that had fallen into disrepair.

They also restructured two guesthouses on the property that are available for rent (from $500 to $1,200 per night) and launched hour-long tours that include cheese tastings, goat pettings, and surprisingly detailed accounts of the capital required to keep a farm going. Michelle bounds from animal pens to a milking contraption to the onsite cheesemaking facility with the charm of a 21st-century Anne of Green Gables, if Anne with an e also had a page on Instagram gleaming with pictures of Lucy, the resident poodle. The dog curls up with my wife as Jack points out the pipes that carry milk across the barn.

After gleaning wine tips from Michelle—she worked at a few wineries before embarking on life as a dairy farmer—we putter down the road through the hills in the brilliant midday sun, armed with a notebook full of references for getting the most out of this breathtakingly beautiful place.

Finding Another Wine Country

By late afternoon, we’re 50 miles south at the Edna Valley Vineyard, looking out an enormous plate glass window onto the bare winter vines. “We call this our Dolly Parton,” Kamee Knutson says, pouring glasses of the reserve chardonnay. (It’s well-rounded and…big.) This is chardonnay country—the volcanic soil, cool fog, and long growing season are ideal for the most accessible of California’s grapes. It’s almost impossible to believe, but the ocean is five miles away, just over the hills. This tasting room, recently reopened after a four-month renovation, has the vastness of anything in Napa, but without the titanium credit card vibe. It’s also much more laid-back—the dearth of tour buses makes it feel as if we’re in the most remote part of Sonoma. That feeling holds steady at all the wineries we visit, like Halter Ranch and Justin, both on the west side of Paso Robles. (Also worth checking out are standbys like Turley in Templeton or Laetitia in Arroyo Grande.)

As marketing director Tony DiCataldo explains to us in the tasting room at Allegretto, the Paso Robles resort where we stay for half of our trip, the region is hoping to retain that small-town feeling while also drawing in more visitors who typically fly by along Highway 101 to or from SoCal. “We want to give people a reason to stop here,” he says. Allegretto makes a compelling case. The 107-room hotel is designed like a Tuscan villa and has its own vineyard of tannat grapes, a relatively obscure varietal, along with vermentino and viognier, whose vines were (accidentally) planted together on the hillside behind our room. The grounds also have poolside cabanas and a cozy chapel, hinting at the place’s postmodern aesthetic—it’s filled with a mélange of spiritual artwork collected by Doug Ayres, whose family owns the property. Pieces include a jovial-looking statue of Ganesh outside our room, a serene Buddha chilling by the hot tub—he and I have a long conversation there over a glass of tannat one night—a torus chandelier in the lobby that cycles through the seven colors of the chakras, and an enormous cross section of a giant sequoia with a small placard beside it inviting us to contemplate the works of the Great Spirit.

Also contemplated: the drinks at Cello, the in-house bar and restaurant, which include an old-fashioned made with whiskey distilled five miles west by Alex and Monica Villicana, who turn local produce into grape-based vodka, gin, and whiskey. Intrigued, the next morning we stop by the distillery, Re:Find, where Alex is hard at work making whiskey. He lets us sniff the acetone-smelling burn from the heads—the early, unpalatable part of the distillation. It’s as if we’re at the county’s recycling plant. Juice from grapes not used for red wine goes into the vodka, while extra cucumbers, lemons, and kumquats go into liqueurs. Even the mixers are local—supplied by a friend of the Villicanas, Dominique Gonzales, who runs the Root Elixirs soda company in San Luis Obispo. Elena spends the rest of the trip cadging bottles of the cucumber elderflower.

It’s a very friends-oriented distillery. The grain juice that Alex turns into whiskey comes from SLO Brew, a brewpub in San Luis Obispo. “We run hoses from the second floor to the pickup truck,” Monica explains. As it happens, we’re headed there tonight, not only to drink but to stay in one of the lofts nestled above the bar. In our room at the SLO Brew Lofts, a picture of Steve McQueen greets us and a six-pack of the brewery’s Mustang IPA beckons from the mini-fridge. I pop a can as Steely Dan’s Aja plays on vinyl. We’ve crossed into Southern California. (The dividing line is probably the Cuesta Pass, just north of San Luis Obispo.) After touring nearby boutiques and coffee shops, we stop off at the Sidecar Cocktail Co., where my wife orders a drink made with vodka, roasted beet shrub, and black pepper tincture. It’s a little adventurous for me, so I park back at the SLO Brew bar, where the on-tap offerings include a silky-smooth old-fashioned.

Keep Your Worries at Bay

By day four, we’re toasted. And as enjoyable as our nonstop boozing has been, you don’t want to see the Central Coast only through the bottom of a highball glass. So now we are inside a two-person kayak on Morro Bay, 13 miles from downtown San Luis Obispo, guided by John Flaherty, whose company Central Coast Outdoors offers biking, hiking, and kayaking tours. He skims across the limpid blue water to where sea lions laze about, impassively watching big flocks of terns. We run our kayaks aground on a shoreline where, decades ago, oyster farms dumped empty shells. “I call this white-man archaeology,” Flaherty says, explaining how these dumping grounds echo the middens left by people before colonization. Then we cut out west to a barge where oysters are still farmed today. By seasonal regulation, they aren’t allowed to be served in restaurants just yet, but when we get back, we order the oysters—they’re from elsewhere—at Blue Heron, a new restaurant in Los Osos, a tiny town just to the south. In a dining room done up in nautical blues and whitewashed driftwood, the restaurant serves a salmon tartare with pickled Meyer lemon and smoked mushrooms and lentils grown two miles away by a farmer named Larry Kandarian. We shake hands at the farmers’ market the next day. That’s the way it is here: The beer people are friends with the whiskey people, the whiskey people are friends with the soda people, and you can shake hands with the lentil guy. Small-town charm: intact. As the Buddha, my hot tub wine-drinking companion, is reputed to once have said, “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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