Wines shaped by the sea
And it is the ocean ― a little more than 5 miles away ― that accounts for both the cool weather, perfect for the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that the valley is known for, and the minerality that comes through in the wines' flavors.
"This is an old estuary," says Edna Valley Vineyard's winemaker, Harry Hansen, as he walks the rolling hills planted in Chardonnay grapes, some on vines dating to 1973. "When they built the winery, they unearthed fossil shells."
While cool weather–loving Chardonnays with lots of pear, lemon, and mineral flavors are what originally brought fame and accolades to the Edna Valley, it's Pinot Noir and Rhône varietals ― Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache, and Syrah ― that are getting the most attention these days.
Winemakers will tell you there is no more difficult or fickle wine to produce than Pinot Noir. Says Hansen, "Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail to winemakers. She's a woman ― the woman you fell in love with but who got away."
Stephen Ross Dooley, a former Edna Valley Vineyard winemaker who now runs Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, recalls tasting one of Domaine Alfred's first Pinot Noir vintages and saying, "My god, you did it." Now the valley has several wineries ― Edna Valley, Baileyana, Stephen Ross, and Tolosa, among others ― that are doing Pinot and doing it well.
The Rhône meets the Central Coast
While the Edna Valley's Pinot Noirs are a shared success story, interest in the area's Rhône varietals can largely be attributed to the success of boutique winemaker John Alban.
"I started a winery because I fell in love with Viognier," says Alban, who, when he planted his first 30 acres of the grape in 1993, practically doubled the worldwide acreage of the almost-forgotten varietal. Alban's Viognier, as well as his Syrahs, have gained international attention ever since critic Robert M. Parker Jr. wrote a few years ago that the wines are "a reference point for what Rhône varietals can achieve in California."
Though the quality of Edna Valley wines has matched and sometimes exceeded those of the Napa or Russian River Valleys, the crowds have not. "We're sort of a mellow appellation, reminiscent of the Napa Valley 30 years ago," says Baileyana's winemaker, Christian Roguenant. Tasting rooms like the historic schoolhouse used by Baileyana might have only one or two couples leisurely tasting wines. Drive the two-lane roads midweek, and you'll pass only a few other cars. As Speizer puts it, "The Edna Valley is all about the wine. When you're in the tasting room, you're 25 feet away from the vineyard, and there's a good chance you're actually going to meet the winemaker or owner."
And his chickens.