Tasting SLO County Wines with John Niven

I’ve got another wine region for you to drink! It is San Luis Obispo County, along California’s Central Coast – known as SLO County. I was excited to participate in a Zoom tasting seminar with John Niven, whose family were pioneers in the region, because I’ve never spent any meaningful time in SLO County. Come take a mini-break with me to SLO County and get to know some really delish wines that maybe you want to ask for at your wine shop.

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First a little geography. SLO County is home to three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas, also known as appellations): Paso Robles, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. The whole region is almost exactly mid-way between L.A. and San Francisco, and in 1982, John Niven’s grandfather wrote the application for Edna Valley to gain status as an AVA – cool! It’s a transverse valley – just like the Sta. Rita Hills is, in Santa Barbara County – meaning that it gets amazing cool ocean breezes that make it a perfecto wine growing region. Despite the fierce heat that builds during the day, those breezes actually make SLO County the coolest growing region in all of California!

So what does the coolness do? It keeps the grapes from over-ripening and allows them to retain freshness. This all results in wines that are really elegant – never jammy (my pet peeve) – and well- balanced between fruit, earth and alcohol. Ready to meet these wines? Come on!

Tangent Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($17) From Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard, this wine explodes with fresh-cut grass, grapefruit and gooseberry. It’s bright, fresh and zesty and an easy pairing with fish tacos, ceviche or fresh oysters. It’s almost like a New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc had a baby with a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, so if you like either of those styles, you will like this one. The vines were planted in 1973, and are the oldest in the region. As with most Sauvignon Blanc, there is no wood used, so the wine stays bright and pure. More info here.

Zocker Grüner Veltliner 2017 ($20) First, how much do you love the name? “Zocker” means gambler” in German (Grüner Veltliner’s homeland), and indeed it was a bit of a gamble to plant it in Edna Valley, but dang – it totally works! There is zero oak on this wine, which sings with lemon curd, marzipan (even tho I hate marzipan, it’s welcome in this wine), and white flowers, all wrapped up in some lovely, satiny textures – rather creamy, in fact. I loved it for its silky ribbon of lemon chiffon spooling out like a Slinky. (God, sorry – that’s a little too poetic, but that is indeed what I wrote while tasting it!) Would be amazing with Asian food, like sushi, Pad Thai – or bratwurst and sour kraut, like I did!

Baileyana Firepeak Chardonnay 2018 ($28) Holy oh my Chard, I LOVE this wine. I’m a big Chard fan overall (with a notable exception: I hate the big oak bombs), and this Edna Valley stunner landed smack in my sweet spot! Gushing with sunny, ripe pineapple and cantaloupe, it has just a kiss of oak from aging in 30% new French oak for nine months, and really nice acidity. I also love that it spent time on its lees (spent yeast cells), so you get a little toasty note. (Do not tell Chablis that I am cheating on it with this SLO Chard.) This is a wine that will wake up your palate and have you wishing you had some aged white Cheddar or Gruyère, or spaghetti with truffle butter, so plan ahead! More info here.

Baileyana Firepeak Pinot Noir ($30) John Niven made me laugh when he said, “I like to drink this with my nose – it’s all about the cherries.” And he is right! It is indeed like a basket of ripe cherries, fall leaves and a little cola, underscored by some fresh white mushrooms and a mild kiss of fennel. I loved it. The wine is from Edna Valley, and again – those cool temperatures are everything, because everyone knows that Pinot Noir is a mighty finicky grape – thin skins, super temperamental and high maintenance, it loves the warm days and cold nights. These Baileyana wines were all new to me and the cool thing is, it was John Niven’s grandmother who started Baileyana as her own project and a beautiful winery was built in 1999, turning out these gorgeous wines.

True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($24) This sexy minx of a wine has a secret ingredient that really sets it apart and that is 10-15 percent of Syrah blended with Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. You get all the fruits – blueberry, cherry, blackberry – with a nice pop of spice from that Syrah. It’s a big wine, so best paired with something with some fat in it – like a grilled steak, juicy cheeseburger or beef stew. I really like it – it’s super approachable, too, with hard cheeses, like aged white cheddar and salty Parmesan.

Chronic Cellars Sir Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($15) For starters, how can this label not stop you in your tracks? It’s fantastic! And you know, what? This $15 Cab is damn tasty, too. We’ve got a cocoa-mocha-cherry trifecta going on here. It’s like a river of cherry juice flowing over chocolate rocks. It’s satiny and silky and has a subtle vanilla exclamation point on it. The label might make you think it’s a cheap joke, but don’t be fooled by Sir Real, my friends – he makes a mean Cabernet.

I want to thank John Niven of Niven Family Wines for his time and generosity with samples. These Zoom tastings with winemakers and winery owners are one of the most magical things that has come out of this crazy Covid world we all live in now. It’s a way to feel like you’re “there” even though you’re in your dining room in Chicago. Really fun and I’m so excited to share some new wines with you! Cheers!

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