Ryan Chartrand

Suitable for its ideal microclimate and distinct soils, and soothed by moist air flowing directly from the Pacific Ocean, wine grape vineyards flourish in San Luis Obispo County.

Experienced or not, wine tasting in San Luis Obispo County is a great place for beginners and wine aficionados alike.

With more than 26,000 vineyard acres and 170 wineries, 100 of which offer tastings, the Paso Robles wine country is the fastest-growing wine country in the state of California, behind Napa and Sonoma.

Situated just north of San Luis Obispo along U.S. Highway 101, turn off on Highway 46 and make a right or left. Either way you will hit an array of wineries that offer wine tasting.

“Paso Robles wine country is gaining notoriety among the wine press and critics for quality wines,” said Chris Taranto, communications manager at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “We have diverse and distinct wines because we don’t specialize in a single type of wine, which offers a great variety. This region is fun and explorable, and is welcoming for first-timers. The wineries still hold traditional values and have a welcoming atmosphere.”

There are more than 40 wine grape varieties grown in Paso Robles, ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Syrah, Viognier and Zinfandel. Some also feature the area’s heritage and specialty wine varietals. Paso Robles and the Greater San Luis Obispo County Wine Country internationally distribute about 3.2 million cases containing a dozen 9-liter bottles per case.

Niels Udsen, a Cal Poly agribusiness alumnus, along with his wife, Bimmer Udsen, established Castoro Cellars with the same Gold Medal winemaking team for more than 20 years.

Castoro’s wine tasting room is located off Highway 46 West toward Cambria. Their flagship wine is Zinfandel, or Zinfusion, and they produce a custom wine for Trader Joe’s called “TJ Coastal.” They also offer Cabernets, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, special blends and dessert wines, to name a few.

Castoro Cellers produce about 60,000 to 65,000 cases of wine a year, and are well represented locally and throughout California, the U.S., Japan and in some countries in Europe, said Greg Phifer, a tasting room employee at Castoro for five years.

Wine tasting is fairly inexpensive, even for a 21-year-old college student on a budget. At Castoro, you get seven tastes for only $3 or seven tastes for $5 if you want to keep the wine glass. But, if you buy any wine, you get a free tasting.

“This is a fun atmosphere and a fun way to become knowledgeable about wine,” Phifer said. “We’re not snobs. . We make the experience fun for first-timers so they want to come back again.”

“We have high quality and affordable wines,” Phifer said. “Castoro Cellars is family-owned by husband and wife for 24 years, and the same winemaker for 18 years, which offers a consistency in the wines and winemaking.”

Castoro also has picnic grounds and holds concerts up to twice a month.

Summer and fall are the busiest times of the year for wine tasters to get their sip on in Paso Robles wine country, Taranto said. October marks the beginning of the vintage, and wineries celebrate during the Harvest Wine Tour from Oct. 19-21 this year. At the weekend event, wineries hold open houses and feature grape stomps, music, art and barbecues.

“The Harvest Wine Tour is great for first-timers,” Taranto said. “It’s a good chance to experience Paso Robles wine country for the first time.”

Along the back roads from San Luis Obispo to Arroyo Grande, you will uncover wineries on Orcutt Road and Highway 227. Located in the heart of Edna Valley on Biddle Ranch Road, in-between Orcutt Road and Highway 227, is the quaint wine tasting room of Saucelito Canyon.

“We’re very friendly, casual and our craftsman-style tasting room is charming and smaller in size for intimacy, and highlights the taster’s experience,” said Nancy Greenough, co-owner of Saucelito Canyon. “We’re family-owned, and we live next door, so we’re always at the tasting room.”

Nancy co-owns Saucelito Canyon with her husband, Bill. The Greenoughs possess a 125-year-old vineyard in Arroyo Grande near Lopez Lake. Their flagship wine is Zinfandel, and they also offer a specialty of red blend wine such as Hi Mountain, and other varieties such as Cabernet, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc. They are also affiliated with the Ortman Family Vineyard and offer tasting of their wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.

Saucelito Canyon offers six tastes for $5. They produce about 3,000 cases of wine per year, and distribute mostly in California, nationally, and export to countries such as Japan and Switzerland.

On Sept. 19, Saucelito Canyon will be a participant at A Taste of San Luis Obispo, which will be held at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, featuring the best wineries and restaurants in San Luis Obispo.

This year marks Saucelito Canyon’s 25th harvest, and on the weekend of Nov. 3-4, they will celebrate the Vintners Harvest Celebration in Avila Beach on Saturday, and will hold an open house on Sunday at the vineyard, which will feature music, Ray Cataneo Bros. sausage and more. At the tasting room, they will commemorate the Ortman Family for their 40th year in the industry.

Tickets for the 17th annual Harvest Celebration in Avila Beach are $75 per person and can be purchased online at www.slowine. com. A map of San Luis Obispo tasting rooms is also available on the Web site.

Wine tasting for the experienced and newcomers can be fun if taken with precautions. “First you want to identify what it is you’re attempting to do,” Taranto said. “Always have a designated driver, and don’t be afraid to spit. Some people feel they will look stupid if they spit, but wine tasting is not about looks, it’s about the experience.”

For first-timers, it’s helpful to join a structured tour with someone to guide you, Taranto said. Taranto suggests having a small group of four to six people. With larger groups you may feel disconnected, so it’s best to be in a smaller group and talk about the wine.

But if you don’t want to join a tour and would rather travel with your buddies, first designate a driver, Taranto said. Get a map of the wineries, plot your course and try to work a meal into your tasting.

There are a number of companies offering tours of the Paso Robles wine country, which can be viewed on www.pasowine.com, along with a printable map of the wine country and profiles of wineries in the area.

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