Photo: Alex Bresler

This Central California Winery Hosts the Best Lobsterfest on the West Coast

San Luis Obispo Wine Festivals
by Alex Bresler Aug 21, 2023

If, like me a few months ago, your only concept of an American lobsterfest came from reading David Foster Wallace’s 2005 essay on the Maine Lobster Festival, you might have shown up to Chamisal Vineyards’ 15th annual Lobsterfest in San Luis Obispo, California, expecting a carnival of literal and touristic gluttony, as I did in May.

My first hint that Chamisal’s Lobsterfest would be unlike the “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed” festival that Foster Wallace describes in “Consider the Lobster” should have been its location. Far from Maine, where lobster is practically the state bird, San Luis Obispo is a city in California’s Central Coast region that’s primarily known for four things: the 18th-century Spanish mission that anchors the downtown core; nearby beaches, such as Pismo and Avila; Cal Poly university and its pervasive student presence; and, more recently, wine.

San Luis Obispo’s SLO Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) is among California’s newest AVAs, having been awarded the designation in 2022. Positioned between the Monterey and Santa Barbara county lines, the appellation spans roughly 60 miles, houses 78 vineyards, and includes some 30 member wineries. In addition to the signature chardonnay and pinot noir grapes that thrive so close to the Pacific Ocean, SLO Coast wineries experiment with varieties such as grenache, syrah, zinfandel, albariño, and riesling.

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Alex Bresler

Chamisal Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the region. It planted its first vines in Edna Valley in 1973. Now a subregion of the SLO Coast AVA, Edna Valley went on to become San Luis Obispo’s very first AVA in 1982. Chamisal celebrated its 50th anniversary this past weekend.

The celebration that I attended centered on seafood, but as you’d expect from any event hosted at a vineyard’s production facilities, wine shared the spotlight. This was my second hint that Chamisal’s crustacean-focused affair would be a far cry from the beer-swigging lobster festivals that spread across large New England fairgrounds.

Only 260 guests attended Chamisal’s Lobsterfest in May. The event’s second weekend in July saw 388 attendees. Ticket caps help to keep the event exclusive, as does the price tag. Tickets for the general public cost $265 per person, with discounts available for winery members.

Admission, of course, includes unlimited wine. Upon arrival, guests are greeted with aprons and wine glasses, then ushered toward tables lined with pinot noir, chardonnay, and sparkling wine, which I favored for a welcome drink.

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Alex Bresler

I’d sampled two of Chamisal’s chardonnays at a tasting event earlier that day, but as a longtime chardonnaysayer, I didn’t fully appreciate the winery’s signature white varietal until I wandered over to the fresh oyster bar and tasted a chardonnay-based mignonette made with four types of citrus and a variety of herbs and aromatics that I’ve been dying to recreate ever since. The oysters, unlike the Maine lobsters that were served for the main event, were sourced and supplied locally by San Luis Obispo County’s Morro Bay Oyster Company.

Were it not for the vats of crustacean being boiled behind the butcher-paper-protected banquet tables beyond the amuse booths, I might have mistaken the dining setup for white-table-cloth service. Upon closer inspection, however, I saw that the tables were not set with delicate flower arrangements but bouquets of wine, hot sauce, and other condiments, complete with name cards for each attendee.

Admiring the surrounding vineyard as I took my seat, I wondered if the string-lighted setting might be too elegant for a first-timer’s American lobster festival experience. My worries were quickly assuaged when, after a few words from Chamisal’s newly appointed head winemaker Brianne Engels, guests were as to stand as the boil team from Napa-based Menegon Catering spilled the contents of their vats across the clean white tables.

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Alex Bresler

We ate with our hands, hungrily ripping lobster meat from shells, shucking corn with our teeth, popping entire potatoes and half sausages into our mouths, indelicately unsheathing artichoke hearts, and sopping up juices with crudely torn baguettes. No one cared that the wine we sipped now imparted notes of Old Bay seasoning that earlier glasses had not. It was as down-home as the backyard crayfish boil I attended in New Orleans the same time last year.

Chamisal’s classy yet casual Lobsterfest is a perfect representation of the winery’s ethos and SLO Coast AVA tastings at large. For another example, all you have to do is look at the winery’s Malene label.

Malene is Chamisal’s Provençal-inspired rosé label, headquartered in a vintage Airstream that’s usually parked adjacent to the main winery but doubles as a mobile tasting room. The pink-accented trailer and its peachy draught wines are Instagrammable enough for a bachelorette’s Pinterest board yet equally inviting of a quiet afternoon kick back. The Malene Scene, as the trailer is affectionately known, is reminiscent of the retro chic motor lodge renaissance that’s been sweeping the hospitality industry — rustic yet refined, curated but not overly aesthetic.

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Alex Bresler

Fringing the lawn where the Malene Scene is typically stationed, there’s another landscape feature that captures Chamisal’s values: one of the first Miyawaki Forests in the US. The Miyawaki forestation method is designed to sequester carbon through the strategic planting of native, fast-growing flora. In Chamisal’s case, that includes 45 different species of native oak trees and a variety of attractive shrubs whose presence reminds visitors of the winery’s dedication to sustainability, regenerative agriculture, carbon neutrality, and biodynamic practices.

Ask about it if you’re lucky enough to attend next year’s Lobsterfest. Better yet, make a weekend out of the event to experience all that Chamisal Vineyards, the SLO Coast AVA, and San Luis Obispo have to offer.

Where to stay in San Luis Obispo

Between its touristic appeal, position on Amtrak’s popular Surfliner Route, and revolving door of friends and family who come to visit Cal Poly students, San Luis Obispo is flush with charming hotels, inns, and Airbnbs. I spent the weekend of Lobsterfest at Hotel SLO, a trendy downtown hotel that’s quite popular with wedding guests, if my stay was any indication.

Hotel San Luis Obispo

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Expedia

Conveniently located a few minutes on foot from the Mission San Luis Obispo and everything else downtown, Hotel SLO is equipped with all the staples you’d desire in a Central California accommodation, including a pool and jacuzzi, full-service spa, two restaurants and bars, a rooftop terrace, and complimentary bikes. It’s located less than 10 miles from Chamisal vineyards and takes approximately 15 minutes to get there by car.

Where: 877 Palm Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Price per night: From $324

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Madonna Inn

chamisal-vineyards

Photo: Expedia

For the quintessential San Luis Obispo experience, however, there’s really only one place to stay: the Madonna Inn. The landmark inn is an icon of kitsch, so much so that it’s treated as an attraction, as well as an accommodation. The Madonna Inn is located a little bit outside of downtown San Luis Obispo off Highway 101 — approximately five minutes away by car — but takes roughly the same amount of time to get to Chamisal Vineyards as Hotel SLO.

Where: 100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Price per night: From $164

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