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A day on the road: My drive to Santa Maria



Set out on my Santa Barbara trip yesterday around 9:45 a.m. It was still mild in Oakland, but those clouds were moving in in advance of a big storm. Which we need!

Not for nothing is the 880 Freeway known as the Nasty Nimitz. They don’t allow big rigs on the 580 freeway, so the 880 gets them all, rumbling along. The freeway, besides being a parking lot most of the time, is also an ugly freeway, 40 miles from Oakland to San Jose of strip malls and degraded infrastructure. In Milpitas, traffic came to a complete halt, but fortunately I had good radio to listen to. Michael Krasny was interviewing Jacques Pepin on KQED’s Forum. What a fascinating man Chef is. I recalled a time when the two of us, Pepin and I, had been at a gala gourmet thing down in Carmel Valley. I was going back to Oakland, so he hitched a ride to SFO with me, to catch a plane back east. We piled into my little Honda, but I proceeded to get lost—I missed the turnoff back to the 101, so we had to go over Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Poor Jacques was frantic that he’d miss his plane, but we got to the airport in plenty of time. But he was so nervous that I parked at the airport and accompanied him into the terminal, where we had coffee. So that’s my Jacques Pepin story.

Just before the 237 exit I saw why traffic was so backed up: a horrible accident. The fire department was loading someone onto a stretcher. You really take your life into your hands on these freeways, especially the Nasty Nimitz.

Well, as bad as 880 is, it’s always a relief to hit the 101 South at San Jose. You’re pretty much assured of smooth sailing for the rest of the way to Santa Barbara. Whenever I drive through the Coyote Valley, I always look to the mountains, to the west. Ridge is somewhere up there, although I’m not sure which peak. It’s funny, how the same thoughts hit me at the same places.

For the next hour or so, we (Gus and I) will be traveling through this part of southern Santa Clara and San Benito counties, until we come to the city of Salinas. This used to be one of the great vineyard regions of California. Today, it’s Silicon Valley; most of the vineyards are long gone, although I do notice a billboard advertising the Santa Clara Valley Wine Region, about which I know precisely nothing.

Of course, you also go through Gilroy along this stretch of 101. In high summer, the air is perfumed with that heady scent, slightly sweet and acrid, of garlic, and even now, with November just two days away, it’s there—such a good smell.

When I come to the big red Disneyana barn, we’re about one-quarter of the way. That barn is one of my landmarks for progress along the road. From here, the turnoff to Monterey is just down the road, if I were going that way. Then it’s Salinas City, and, just beyond, the opening up of the Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, and the tremendous wall of the Santa Lucias, a spine of the Coast Ranges that peters out west of Paso Robles, more than 100 miles to the south. Along the flank of the mountains are the Santa Lucia Highlands; I think of old friends, like Rich Smith, the Pisonis and Dan Morgan Lee, as well as new friends, like Kris Kato, at Carmel Road. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.

One by one the Salinas Valley’s little farm towns file past: Chualar, Gonzales, Soledad, King City, Greenfield. At Gonzales, I always remember my car getting stuck in the mud outside one of the Pisoni boys’ house, hard by the freeway. That was embarrassing. That was the same trip when Gary Pisoni kindly offered to share his game with me: an entire haunch of venison. I was grateful, but had to decline. I mean, what am I going to do with half a deer?

On this hazy but sunny day, the broad expanse of the valley lies like a sleeping infant cradled in the embrace of the Gabilans and the Santa Lucias. At Soledad, the temperature is 73 degrees. I used to get a lot of speeding tickets on this stretch of the 101 until I wised up and slowed down. How much earlier will I get to Santa Barbara if I go 80 instead of 70? Not enough to risk getting busted.

As we approach Soledad I see the big sign that always makes me grin: “It’s Happening in Soledad.” I’m not sure what’s “happening” there, but for me, it’s about a quick pit stop at Starbucks for a caffeine jolt and maybe a cookie. Now, we’re about halfway to my destination.

At Lagomarsino Avenue, approaching King City, comes another of my landmarks: a few miles of enormous eucalyptus trees, planted on the west side of the freeway, presumably as a windbreak. In the famous hundred year freeze of December, 1990, these trees froze to death in the 17-degree temperature. Or so it seemed: they remained blackened, with no foliage, that summer. But the next year, the leaves came back, and today they’re as sturdy as ever. Somewhere deep down inside their tree-souls, a spark of life remained.

I have my favorite landmarks, but Gus has one of his own: The Camp Roberts Rest Stop in Bradley, with its dog walk!


Rest Stop

“I give this rest stop 100 points.” — Gus

I always try to imagine what goes through Gus’s mind when he does all his sniffing. One analogy is a big wine tasting. All those different scents. Probably Gus is looking for the best ones, the most interesting and savory. Some don’t interest him at all: those are the smells ordinaires. Gus, a connoisseur of smells, is looking for the Grands Crus of scent!

Beyond the rest stop we come to the oil wells on the east side of the freeway. I always wonder why some are pumping and some aren’t. Guess I’ll never know, but those rigs do signal that Paso Robles is just down the road.

The temperature gradient between the northern Salinas Valley and Paso Robles is well known. It heats up rapidly in summer. Even though winter is just around the corner, this season has been so mild that there’s still a temperature effect. At Paso it’s 82 degrees as I drive by. After that, the landmarks pile up: The slow, gradual climb to the top of the Cuesta Grade, and then the 1,500-foot, roller-coastery plunge through the Los Padres National Forest (so fire plagued), with its dramatic canyons and soaring vistas. Then past SLO town (I could live there). Then the 101 veers closer and closer to the coast, so on a typical summer day you lose all the heat of Paso as you approach the Five Cities, whose names I always try to remember, usually unsuccessfully: Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Oceana and Grover Beach. (Calling them “cities” is s stretch, but that’s what the locals like.) At Shell Beach is one of those dramatic views when the freeway rounds a curve and suddenly the Pacific Ocean is revealed in all its blue glory. (Another one is on Highway One, just south of San Francisco, as you drive into Pacifica.) Today, it’s not blue, because the fog is rolling in as the big storm front approaches. By the time we hit Pismo, Santa Maria is so close, you can smell it: just 26 miles away. At some point, south of the Five Cities, coastal vineyards pop into view. The best known is Laetitia’s, in the Arroyo Grande Valley, a fine if underappreciated terroir for Pinot and Chardonnay. A few miles south of that, and the vista to the east levels out and opens up to show the San Rafael Mountains, the northern boundary of the Santa Maria Valley. Just inside the Santa Maria city limits, the mountains take an abrupt curve to the southeast, and on a clear day you can see Bien Nacido, a little carpet of greenery on the brown slopes of the Santa Maria Bench. Just next to it, but not visible, is Cambria.

And that is my destination for Friday, when I’ll be tasting and chatting with my remarkable panel of winemakers for our big Dec. 2 event in L.A., of which I will be writing much more.

Have a great weekend!

  1. James Rego says:

    What would you do without Gus? Your love for your dog shines through!

  2. It’s fun to read this piece, Steve. Like an unprecedented version of GPS, your road-trip guide is a combination of Google Map & Ms. Siri. “Listen to these trees – they have a soul”; “Stop here and let Gus sniff the Grands Crus”; “Look, that’s the spine of the Coast Ranges”; “Roll down your window now and smell garlic”; “Shop here for fresh artichokes”…

    I remembered that our AVA instructor asked us to use less than 200 words to promote the less-known SLO wines. So I used the tile “YEAP, SLO (Yap, Slow)” for my piece. YEAP stands for the 4 AVAs of SLO at the time: York Mountain, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles. If you still have a bit trouble remembering names of the Five Cities, try this and see if it helps: A GPS Ocean.


  3. Bob Henry says:


    “Ridge [winery] is somewhere up there, although I’m not sure which peak. It’s funny, how the same thoughts hit me at the same places.”

    You really should visit Ridge sometime, located on the hillside in Saratoga overlooking Silicon Valley. Likewise visit nearby Mt. Eden and Cooper-Garrod.

    The Santa Cruz mountains gets short shrift when it comes to publicity.

    Sometimes it takes an outsider — from across The Great Pond — to remind us of greatness right under our noses. Specifically, Jancis Robinson, M.W. back in 2001 . . .

    ~~ Bob

    “California Cult Cabernets – Ridge Monte Bello is the Steal”



    “We [Jancis Robinson, M.W., Michael Broadbent, M.W., Hugh Johnson, M.W., Warren Winiarski, Gordon Getty, Hardy Rodenstock and Hans Johannson] tasted flights of four to six vintages from the nineties of seven of California’s best Cabernets old and new: Araujo ‘Eisele,’ Caymus ‘Special Select,’ Dalla Valle ‘Maya,’ Harlan ‘Estate,’ Ridge ‘Monte Bello,” Screaming Eagle and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ‘Cask 23’ . . ”

    “The next flight brought some respite for California though in the form of six vintages of Ridge ‘Monte Bello,’ from 1990 to 1995, the only wine in the tasting from outside the Napa Valley (and by far the most keenly priced — simply because it is made in reasonable quantities). This lovely and well-proven wine was certainly distinctive, consistently delicious and characterful, well balanced, not too big, and the best wine was, tellingly, the oldest. This is a Californian wine made to a more recognisably European formula, one that requires age of a wine . . .”

    — And —

    “Ridge ‘Monte Bello’

    “1990:19 [points] and not there yet

    “Really appetising, layered, interesting mineral-scented nose. Massive dry (as in not sweet) structure with lots still to give. This Santa Cruz Mountains style contrasted markedly with the ultra-ripe Napa Valley ferments from further north.

    “1991:18 [points] and at its peak

    “Relatively pale in colour and simple in flavour but still round, full and gentle with many appetising layers. Quite evolved.

    “1992:18 [points] and still climbing

    “Very very deep colour, layered fruit. Ultra-ripe and very youthful. On the palate, big and tough and a bit of a bruiser. Massive palate impact. Dry (as opposed to sweet) but not drying in terms of its neat tannic charge.

    “1993:17.5 [points] and extremely youthful

    “The least impressive of this array. Very dumb indeed with a nose of essence of tea and the palate completely dominated by tannins. There is even a hint of some slightly unripe fruit. This wine will need considerable ageing.

    “1994:18 [points] and youthful

    “A much more restrained wine than the other 1994s. There is obviously lots of ripe fruit and ripe tannin here but both are well hidden and tucked in for future development. Quite stern in Ridge’s typically confident, almost Latourish style.

    “1995:17.5 [points] and climbing

    “This wine is so unevolved it is difficult to judge. Savoury but extremely deeply buried notes on top of obvious sweetness from ripe grapes. Tannins at present contributing to a note of dryness on the finish.”

  4. Bob Henry says:


    The label on Ridge states “Cupertino, California” — not “Saratoga, California.”

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Mt. Eden and Cooper-Garrod are located in Saratoga.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Jancis Robinson, M.W. praised Ridge in this 2006 interview with Wines and Vines magazine:

    “JANCIS ROBINSON: The popular author addresses California sweetness, global values and the MW exam”



    “. . . probably my favorite California Cab of all is (Ridge) Monte Bello, which truly expresses its location. … I am a huge admirer of the consistency of Ridge wines. That 1971 Monte Bello, even if supposedly a ‘weaker’ vintage, looked great at the [Judgement of] Paris [30-year reenactment] re-run [in 2011, in which the 1971 Ridge took top honors].”

    Decanter magazine praised Ridge in this (undated) article titled “100 Wines to Try before you Die.”


    “Monte Bello, Ridge 1991

    “[Reviewer] Adams rates this as one of the greatest and most accessible Cabernet-Merlot blends he has ever tasted from the New World. ‘There is a silkiness and texture which is almost ethereal and an intensity of fruit and minerality which marks out all world-class wines,’ he says. £100+ [suggested retail selling price]”

    And see this Ridge profile from Eric Asimov’s 2010 “The Pour” column in The New York Times:

    “Letting a Grape Be a Grape”


  7. Yup, Bob….that would be Cupertino, not Saratoga.
    The MonteBelloRidge runs right up to the top of BlackMtn, the tallest mtn along that eastern ridge of the SantaCruzMtns. Easy to ID when you fly into SFO/OAK/SJC. There’s a bunch of tall antennaes up there. Fun walk from the end of MonteBelloRd to the top. The hike up the north side of BlackMtn is a bit more ambitious.

  8. Bob Henry says:


    Some years ago, a Caltech grad buddy (who did post-doc studies in chaos theory at the Santa Fe Institute) was getting married under the redwoods in his backyard in Santa Cruz.

    I flew into San Jose airport, rented a car, and drove to Ridge to buy him and his bride a mixed case of wines.

    A traffic accident closed the road behind us tasting room visitors.

    The tasting room staff announcved that since we were all “stranded” for the next few hours at the winery, it was “fair game” to open up anything for tasting — including the library wines. (And invited us to walk the Monte Bello Vyd. — while keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes.)

    A great winery visit . . . and I still made the wedding on time.

    Halcyon times.


  9. Bob Henry says:

    For those who wish to learn about about the historic Mount Eden Vineyards (whose genesis dates back to Santa Clara Valley winemaking pioneer Martin Ray), see this book tout.

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section (December 12, 2008, Page F4):

    “Kevin Kelly: Salina Wine Co., Lioco”

    By Jon Bonne
    Chronicle Wine Editor



    “Most wine loves start with a memorable glass. Kevin Kelley’s started with a memorable book. As a history-obsessed high schooler in south San Jose, he dove into Charles Sullivan’s ‘Like Modern Edens,’ about the Santa Clara Valley’s wine roots.

    “The Pinot Noir long grown on nearby slopes at Saratoga’s Mount Eden Vineyards intrigued the science-minded Kelley enough to abandon his medical ambitions and head for UC Davis, though not before marrying his high school sweetheart Jennifer Hatley, who attended UC Berkeley.”

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