Gourmet Gifts: Central Coast

A trip into the West’s wine country is an excellent opportunity to savor the grape—that’s a given. But it’s also the perfect chance to find one-of-a-kind gifts with a story and a sense of place. Here’s our indispensable guide to where to shop on the Central Coast.

Published: 9/01/2019

Paso Robles

All of those sub-AVAs are a hint that Paso is relatively spread out. From charming Cambria at the coast to the Creston District in the much hotter east with fine wineries like Chateau Margene but little shopping. Most of that is in Paso Robles the city itself, with its Downtown City Park, an old town square and leafy respite on warm summer sipping days.

If you think candy is dandy, don’t miss SLO Sweets, replete with confections you didn’t think were manufactured anymore. Perhaps you like baked goods better. Then don’t miss Brown Butter Cookie Company, whose simple name belies their addictive, sea salt-powered delights.

Right off the park is General Store Paso Robles, a treasure trove of local pantry and gift finds, including cheeses from nearby Central Coast Creamery. You could leave with anything from beloved Paso Robles Almonds to a Paso-labeled cowbell. Once you’ve had your fill of foodstuffs, check out the mother-daughter owned Firefly to pick up one-of-a-kind jewelry and vintage-inspired fashion. Right around the corner you have two more stops: Score some olive oil to take home at We Olive and Pasolivo (or at least taste their numerous flavored varieties) and then grab something more spiritual at EarthTones, where you can find the perfect crystal to center yourself.

If you’d rather leave the center—of town at least—you can nibble cheeses at Vivant Fine Cheese, which specializes in matching up local wines with fromage. 


San Luis Obispo County

Tucked between the coastal range and the Santa Lucia Mountains, the idyllic Edna Valley wine growing region—with its white-fenced horse farms and wind-ruffled grasslands—offers an ideal climate for Burgundian grape varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as a myriad of others.

The town of San Luis Obispo is located to the west of the Edna Valley, close to the Pacific Ocean and Highway 101. While the historic brick storefronts and old-timey architecture lend it a quaint vibe, the youthful energy of the town’s college crowd provides a lively atmosphere and fuels an array of fun, ultra-trendy shops. Higuera Street is the epicenter of its thriving retail scene.

Meander through the downtown arcades and tree-lined streets. For antiques and quirky gifts, duck into Ambrosia or Junk Girls, where you can find jewelry, art, and collectibles. EcoBambino has natural products and clothing for the little ones on your list, while Humankind Fair Trade offers unique gifts from around the world for grown-ups, like hand-woven baskets from Rwanda, hemp sun hats, and colorful felt crafts from Nepal.

Stroll through the Farmer’s Market on Thursday nights, when fruit and vegetable stands, flower vendors, and musicians line six blocks of Higuera Street. For the inside scoop, local tour company, Taste of SLO, offers delicious downtown adventures with expert guides introducing visitors to Santa Maria–style BBQ, freshly baked breads, and an array of craft beers.

If you’re still hungry, pop in to We Olive to sample a spectrum of olive oils, vinegars, and tapenades, or for an audio treat, check out the impressive collection of DVDs, CDs, and vinyl albums, at Boo Boo Records. And when you’re ready to refuel, pause for a coffee at a café overlooking the creek or an ice cream cone at the legendary Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, where flavors like Merlot Raspberry Chocolate Truffle combine some of our favorite things.


Los Alamos & Los Olivos

Continuing south on the 101 gets you to Santa Barbara County. Be sure to jump off the freeway at Los Alamos, a two-block town filled with culinary superstars. Allow time to enjoy breakfast or lunch at Bob’s Well Bread, which even offers culinary gifts like local honey. But what you will most remember is the food, from sticky, flaky morning buns to avocado toast. Next, get lost in the warren-like Los Alamos Depot Mall across Bell Street, an antiquers’ dream. If you prefer something less overwhelming, Sisters Gifts & Home may be more your speed.

A mere 15-minute drive and you will arrive in Los Olivos, where more than 30 tasting rooms await. You’ll have to shop, just to pace your drinking. Or you can do both at once at the charming and homey Liquid Farm Tasting Room, which not only offers Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also one-of-a-kind home furnishings. Right across Alamo Pintado you will find R&D Los Olivos, not nearly as technical as it sounds. Instead, find curated jewelry and art, often nature-inspired.

If you’d prefer some actual nature, explore J. Woeste Home & Garden Treasures. You practically grow a green thumb just wandering through their restful outdoor displays, but there are still rooms of unique gifts and home accessories inside too. If you prefer something with a bit of je nais sais quois, there’s Avec Moi Décor, with everything from finely milled soaps to hotel silver. Of course, Los Olivos is a dream of an Old West hamlet, right down to its flagpole in the town’s crossroads, so you must mosey into Jedlicka’s Saddlery but be ready to exit in new goatskin boots or a Stetson. Make time to dine at Bear and Star while in Los Olivos—much of the exquisite food (even the Wagyu beef) comes from the nearby Parker Ranch. On the way out of town, stop in at Global Gardens where owner Theo Stephan will regale you with stories of growing olives as you taste her oils and vinegars.


Santa Barbara

To get to Santa Barbara itself, choose between driving the 101 along the coast while enjoying the sparkling Pacific, or head over the winding 154 so you descend from the Santa Ynez Mountains into what looks like a postcard.

There’s a happy, healthy clump of tasting rooms and shopping sites in what’s called the Presidio District, which is right along the middle of the major thoroughfare, State Street. After tasting at Au Bon Climat or enjoying Grassini Family Vineyards’ hearty Cabernets, stop at C’est Cheese for a selection of cheeses and house-made charcuterie and their gift shop La Maison Rouge. Not far is locals’ favorite Plum Goods, with everything from jewelry to T-shirts with Godzilla threatening the Santa Barbara Mission. If art’s your thing, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art not only has work from the likes of Monet and the only intact mural in the United States by David Alfaro Siqueiros but also an irresistible gift shop. Nearby is Lewis & Clark, chockful of antique and antique-inspired whimsy that’s especially delightful during the holidays.

The latest hip neighborhood in town is the Funk Zone, which has lost most of its former “funk” to a sheen of tasting rooms, restaurants, and stores. That might mean you hang in an “adaptive reuse project,” as they refer to The Waterline. It used to be an industrial warehouse but now is home to two beer bars (Topa Topa and Lama Dog), wine tasting (Fox Wines), and a café (The Nook, which boasts two of the best burgers in town) and a series of shops featuring the wide-ranging wares of local artisans selling everything from ceramics to bikinis.

Elsewhere in the compact Funk Zone there are the trendyofferings of The Shopkeepers, including designer clothes, a rock and roll vibe, and three stories of mid-century collectibles at The Blue Door. Funk Zone–adjacent and in the same commercial strip are two more essential finds. At Folio Press & Paperie you can letterpress your own designs or buy any of their artful cards. At Chocolate Maya there’s sure to be a truffle to tickle your fancy. Gourmets in the know can even purchase a private tasting. —George Yatchisin

As seen in the issue Harvest 2019 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.

Despite often getting lumped into one region, the “Central Coast,” all it takes is traveling this 125-mile stretch of highway to learn how different each mile between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara can be. That’s especially true if you’re interested in wine—Paso Robles itself is now divided into 11 sub-AVAs, each with unique soil, climate, and suitable grapes. So, as you cruise down the 101, get ready to stop, frequently to taste but also to shop. The range of varietals you’ll be able to enjoy, from Albariño to Zinfandel, will be matched by your retail-therapy options.