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Magic in the Middle: San Luis Obispo has great wine, food, beaches in center of coastal California

Magic in the Middle: San Luis Obispo has great wine, food, beaches in center of coastal California

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Arizonans know about the beautiful beaches in southern California, superb dining in the Bay Area and wonderful wines in northern California. However, most of us don’t know that California also has a single area with all of this, as well as fewer people and lower prices.

The area that has it all is SLO Wine Country, and it is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “SLO” is short for San Luis Obispo, which is the name of the wine area, county and city of about 45,000. “SLO” is pronounced “slow,” and it’s fitting because life in SLO Wine Country is something to slow down and enjoy. 

I recently visited SLO Wine Country and was impressed by the beaches, outdoor activities, wines, foods, ambiance and people. The average distance between the beaches and wineries is only five miles, and there’s much to enjoy within those five miles.

Beaches and outdoor activities

My small hotel was a one-minute walk from the ocean in Avila Beach, a village of 2,000 people only 15 minutes from the SLO County Regional Airport. Avila Beach is five miles from Shell Beach, which is two miles from Pismo Beach, which is two miles from Grover Beach. So yes, SLO Wine Country includes miles of beaches.

Mornings in Avila Beach begin quietly, with bicyclists taking a breakfast break and people strolling to the beach with towels, folding chairs and coolers. The coast also has activities such as swimming, fishing, boating, sailing and kayaking. Plus there is mountain biking, hiking and running along or near the coastline.

The wines

Visiting the wineries of SLO Wine Country was the focus of my trip, and I enjoyed the small, uncrowded tasting rooms. Our group was shuttled from winery to winery by 101 Wine Tours, which features tailor-made excursions (see

SLO Wine Country is best known for its clean, not-overly-oaked Chardonnays and wonderfully complex Pinot Noirs. The region also has a reputation for aromatic whites (with strong floral, spicy aromas), such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Albarino. Additional reds include Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Better-known wineries include Laetitia, Edna Valley Vineyards, Talley and the Niven Family stable of wineries. Less well known to most wine lovers, but producing superb wines, are small wineries such as Kynsi, Saucelito Canyon and Sinor-LaVallee. Look for more on these wines in a future wine column on SLO Wine Country in the Arizona Daily Sun.

The food

SLO Wine Country is a paradise for food lovers seeking locally produced vegetables, fruits, meat products and seafood. This is such a major agricultural area that the annual crop of strawberries is valued at $200 million (exceeded only by wine grapes). 

Unsurprisingly, there are wonderful restaurants. I enjoyed the Ocean Grill in Avila Beach and Big Sky Café and the Novo Restaurant in SLO. Novo has a large patio area above a small stream in the back, a setting that reminded me of San Antonio’s River Walk. Another option is to cook your own fish and shellfish after shopping at PJ’s Live Seafood, an outdoor market on the Harford Pier in Avila Beach. 

But most impressive to foodies — and reason alone to visit the city of SLO — is the Farmers’ Market. Every Thursday evening, five downtown blocks are closed to vehicles and 5,000 to 15,000 people show up to browse more than 120 stands stocked mostly with local foods. 

Some items are ready to eat (particularly barbecue) and others are to be enjoyed at home. Imagine the joy of buying just-picked fruits and vegetables throughout the year, even in December and January. The Farmers’ Market also includes live music at street intersections. I particularly enjoyed a rock-and-roll band that incongruously included an orchestral harp (hey, it’s California).

The travel

SLO Wine Country is only a day’s drive for most Arizonans, and U.S. Airways offers three direct flights per day between Phoenix and the city of SLO. Fall days are generally very pleasant, with daily high temperatures in the 70s and moderate rainfall. 

Highs decrease to the 60s in winter, the wettest time of year. Spring sees temperatures rising through the 60s and precipitation decreasing, as well as wildflowers becoming stunning. Summer days are beautiful, as fog usually burns off by mid-morning, there is little rainfall and ocean breezes limit high temperatures to the 70s.

John Vankat writes about wine for the Arizona Daily Sun and Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine. Contact him at


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