Back in fall of 2013, you'd find winemaker Nicole Bertotti Pope tending the hillside vines of Cambria's coastal Stolo Family Vineyards all by her lonesome.
Well, that's not exactly true. Her newborn baby boy, Grayson, would hang from her body, watching the fog roll in from the Pacific Ocean below, less than 3 miles from the vines. He'd watch his mother inspect the grapes, popping one into her mouth, thinking about the harvest soon to come.
These cool climate blocks of chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah were planted some 20 years ago with the elevation (and epic view) in mind. Down below, a second vineyard more recently planted with sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, plus more pinot, and more syrah is splayed out like a brown and green tapestry.
These are the closest vineyards to the beach in SLO County, yet, surprisingly, they might also be the most serene. It is absolutely still and quiet here on this hillside oasis, save for birds fluttering from avocado to citrus trees.
In 2018, the scene is very much the same, except you might see Bertotti Pope's daughter Averie toddling around the vines or barrel room below, begging to smell this or taste that. She was born in 2015, and all the while, her mother has continued to press, punch, and blend.
Bertotti Pope is a serious, skilled winemaker, passionate about crafting fragrant, fresh wines that exude a certain breezy Cambria charm. She's also a laid-back mom.
So, she relents to her kids' pestering at times, provided that they dutifully eject the grape juice into the tasting room spit bucket. Really, the youngsters just want to hold the wineglass and giggle.
"I didn't grow up tasting wine; I'm not from a winemaking background like some people around here. But my kids? They're a whole different story," she says, rolling her eyes. "When they come into the winery they want to play with the bungs; they know the winemaking terms; they sit on the forklift."
Her husband, Lucas Pope, is vineyard manager at Paso's iconic Halter Ranch, and recently made Wine Enthusiast's 40 under 40 list. The magazine has also recently awarded one of Bertotti Pope's wines with 90-plus points, among other accolades. If these two are a "winemaking power couple" however, you'd never know it. "Down to Earth" is Bertotti Pope's vibe. Literally, she is "way down, in the earth." This is why she loves crafting small batch boutique wines in a totally free, family-owned environment. She gets to do everything herself, and she revels in it.
On this clear and unseasonably warm winter day, the rolling lawn (a popular space for live music and picnics) is still green from recent rains. An ancient barn flecked with mustard-colored moss adds a stately focal point across from Stolo's cozy tasting room.
A pair of horned fainting goats, Chet and Betty, lazily trot around their pasture, welcoming new visitors with a hungry look.
"We used to give out goat food, but they've gotten too fat," the winemaker says, which—of course—makes us both crack up a little.
Bertotti Pope is as approachable, refreshing, and authentic as her wines, inviting me to jump onto a four-wheeler with a glass of 2016 gewürztraminer in hand. I soon realize that all of her wines are aromatic, often floral, and exceptionally bright, with a vibrant fruit flavor and fresh acidity that makes me want to reach for my boogie board, if not some smoked salmon tacos.
Bertotti Pope graduated from Cal Poly SLO with a bachelor's of science in biological studies before realizing that winemaking stimulated both her inquisitive and creative nature. A former winemaker at Talley Vineyard in Arroyo Grande, she met the Stolo family through regular games of volleyball in Pismo Beach.
What started as a part-time gig soon turned into a full-time passion that has grown year to year. We rumble up the mountain (a little tenuously in some spots; the winemaker admits she normally walks around the property), where the reserve vineyard grows against a cloudless blue sky.
She tells me that the brightness in her wines isn't just about her style, per se—it's also what naturally happens when you grow grapes this close to the sea.
The loamy clay soil combined with the cool, breezy marine air coaxes out compelling aromatic nuances in each wine, and critics have taken note. The entire tasting list is lower in alcohol and higher in acid. Everything smells lush and lovely. The syrah is refined, with white pepper notes. The pinot noir is more spicy and herbaceous than its riper, jammier counterparts to the east.
Shouldn't wines get more and more relaxed as you head toward the coast? I think so, but that doesn't mean these selections should be taken lightly (they are American classics, not trashy tabloids thrown into your beach bag). Wine Enthusiast recently named Stolo's 96-point 2014 estate syrah as No. 27 on its top 100 Wines of the Year list and the 2015 pinot noir won 93 points.
What you do need to know, if wine is your second language, is this: These are the modern, elegant beachy-fresh wines you should be sipping now, as spring rears its brunch-obsessed head.
At Stolo, 800 cases have grown to about 2,500, and the winemaker is still enchanted by her work. The soil, an ancient marine floodplain, is always speaking to her in new ways. The rustle of the salty wind is a flirtatious and constant friend.
"This is such a beautiful property, and the wines really express the land so incredibly; I don't have to doctor anything," the winemaker says. "It's just a really cool little winemaking pocket, and I love having complete freedom."
About a half hour from SLO and Paso Robles, nestled at the mouth of the Santa Rosa Valley, the winery—part of Highway 1's Pacific Coast Wine Trail—is perhaps not the first stop you might think of when someone says, "Let's go wine tasting."
That's not necessarily a bad thing.
If you seek real relaxation and peace along the coast, this is it. But you'd better get it while you can.
In other words, Stolo might not always be this chill.
"We're out here. You have to come find us," the winemaker says, taking a sip and looking to the western fog. "But once you do, it's a little paradise."
Enjoy the view
Stolo Family Vineyards is located at 3776 Santa Rosa Creek Road in Cambria and is part of the Pacific Coast Wine Trail. The tasting room is open daily between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. For more information, go to stolofamilywinery.com or visit pacificcoastwinetrail.com.