Newbie to natural: My wine-tasting education courtesy Pacific Coast Wine Trail wineries

Chateau Margene cabernetUp until a couple weeks ago, I had never been to a wine tasting. As a relatively new wine drinker — 7&7s, margaritas, and martinis my longtime cocktails of choice — the idea of stepping up to the counter of a cellar and sipping sirahs and sauvignons and such intimidated me to no end.

A mother/daughter trip to California featuring stops along the Pacific Coast Wine Trail courtesy Highway 1 Discovery Route and Morro Bay Tourism Bureau cured me of my wine-tasting trepidation. I owe my conversion from newbie to (kinda sorta) natural to three delightful wineries and the patient, passionate sommeliers who shared their spirits, stories, and expertise with this admittedly ignorant wine drinker.

The Pacific Coast Wine Trail features ten wineries along Highway 1 spanning California's central coast. The first wine tasting on the itinerary for my daughter and me was Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room.

Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room is the most northern stop on the Pacific Wine Coast Trail, located across the street from Hearst Castle State Park in the historic Sebastian Brother's General Store in San Simeon. Built in 1852 at the peak of the whaling industry boom, the general store also features a lunch counter serving up Hearst Ranch Beef and other hearty delights.

Hearst Ranch Winery

My partner in my first wine-tasting adventure, my oldest daughter, is a far more educated and experienced wine drinker than I am. So she nearly snorted when my first question to Simon, our engaging and informative sommelier, was "Do I have to spit it out?"

My daughter chortled and Simon merely smiled. He assured me I did not have to spit out the wine after sipping, that such things were typically done only by folks tasting and judging competitions (as Simon often does) to prevent overindulging during the event.

Hearst Ranch Winery

With that opener behind us and my idiot newbie status thus revealed, Simon proceeded to kindly answer my next question of, "Okay, so exactly how should I go about tasting wine?"

Simon patiently guided me through the process. From the first "give it a good swirl in the glass" to considering the bouquet to intaking a wee bit of air with the sip and finally mulling over the notes subtle and strong, Simon showed me the ropes step by step on that first sample.

From there, he offered up an array of tasty reds, whites, zinfandels, cabernets and more. As my daughter and I sampled and sipped, Simon shared the story behind the Hearst Ranch Winery's hand-crafted offerings culled from grapes grown in California's Central Coast vineyards. I enjoyed each sampling for different reasons, and not a single one tempted me to "dump it" in the nearby receptacle Simon said was there for that purpose (not for spitting).

Lessons learned: How to not look like a wine-tasting newbie. And how to seek out subtle scents and flavors.

Favorite white and red: Hearst Ranch Winery 2014 Chardonnay "Proprietor's Reserve" and Hearst Ranch Winery 2013 Malbec "Babicora"

440 SLO San Simeon Road, San Simeon, CA 93452

The next day, my daughter and I had the pleasure of a complimentary wine tasting at beautiful Harmony Cellars in the itsy bitsy town of Harmony, population 18.

Harmony Cellars 

Harmony Cellars, located a few miles south of Cambria, is a family-owned and numerous award-winning winery founded in 1989 by Chuck and Kim Mulligan. It sits on property that's been in the family for four generations, most notably once belonging to Kim's great-grandfather, who made homemade wine in the basement of his creamery in the 1800s. (The creamery, in lower right photo above, is visible from Harmony Cellars). The Mulligans are committed to crafting quality wines at affordable prices and continue to be directly involved in the winemaking and business.

Our wine steward, Erin, shared not only chocolates and such for clearing our palates between sips, she explained how pairing wines with foods need not be a pretentious affair. In fact, she pointed out, their flagship wine — the 2014 Chardonnay — pairs particularly well with popcorn, and the 2013 Zinfandel goes fabulously with pizza and burgers. (Their website highlights similarly down-to-earth food/wine pairings, including mouthwatering recipes.)

Harmony Cellars

Not only did the Harmony Cellars prices and food/wine suggestions appeal to my "common" tastes and sensibilities, Erin endeared herself to me when I revealed our visit was only my second wine tasting ever. "I would have never guessed," she said, "You look like a pro!" (I refuse to second guess her sincerity.)

After our wine tasting, my daughter and I enjoyed wandering about the peaceful grounds of Harmony Cellars. It's easy to see why locals and tourists flock to the spot for their many events throughout the year as well as those seeking special moments and relaxation with a partner or pal and a glass or two of pure perfection.

My daughter and I also were treated to a tour of the boutique production facility with manager Mike, who explained the grape-to-barrel process. We were impressed by the massive barrels of aging wine as well as the equipment and hard worker that smoosh and smash the grapes, converting them to the luscious liquid in a far more efficient (and sanitary) grape-stomping technique than the one Lucille Ball made hilariously famous.

Harmony Cellars

The Harmony Cellars staff explained an aspect of the wine industry I hadn't considered: the importance of wine clubs. The subscription services are the lifeblood of Harmony Cellars and most wineries, Erin and Mike stressed, with each winery offering varied membership benefits for wine-lovers who would like bottles available "on call" at the winery or delivered right to their door — with generous discounts applied to the cases of wine. (My daughter and I were delighted to learn the Harmony Cellars Wine Club ships to Colorado and are mulling over the membership options.)

With a complimentary bottle of their flagship wine in hand, my daughter and I reluctantly left the tranquil estate of Harmony Cellars, where my wine-tasting education went far beyond simply sipping and sampling.

Lessons learned: The hard work, dedication, and passion that goes into every bottle of wine; that great wine need not carry a high price tag; that popcorn can be a perfect accompaniment to a glass (or two) of a buttery smooth Chardonnay.

Favorite white and red: Harmony Cellars 2014 Chardonnay and Harmony Cellars 2013 Grandpa Barlogio Zinfandel

3255 Harmony Valley Road, Harmony, CA 93435

Our final full day in California, my daughter and I capped off our wine-tasting fun at Chateau Margene Tasting Room, situated along the Embarcadero in Morro Bay. Tasting room attendant James treated us to a complimentary Luxury Wine Tasting Package (part of the Morro Bay Adventure Pass) as well as a continued education on the wine-making business.

Chateau Margene

Chateau Margene is a boutique micro-winery launched by Michael and Margene Mooney in 1998. Michael's family history in California dates back to the 1700s and includes many rancheros plus a vaqueros named Pio who joined up with the infamous James Powers Gang and whose colorful story, as told by winemaker Michael Mooney, adorns the Chateau Margene El Pistolero 2014 Chardonnay "Limitado" bottles.

The importance of story — and backstory to the business — was shared by James as he poured sample after sample of the vintages culled from grapes grown on the Mooney's estate. Several couples lined the counter of the chic tasting room, and James strolled casually from group to group, relating the beginnings of each bottle.

Chateau Margene 

As anyone who drinks wine knows, the wine's year is a big deal. I asked James why and which years are supposedly best, and he offered up great words of wisdom on the importance of the numerous factors affecting the vintage. Weather (water!) during the growing season being, seemingly, the biggest deal of all. For that reason, the drought in California has had an impact on the wine industry there. The 2015 production was limited, James admitted. But 2013? That's definitely one of note, James said, featuring some of the best from winemaker Michael Mooney.

After a good hour or so of sipping and learning, my daughter and I bid James farewell and headed out onto the Embarcadero, cheery and chatty — and thankful we didn't have to drive to our home-away-from-home at nearby Blue Sail Inn.

Lessons learned: Story matters... as does growing conditions, hence the importance of vintage year.

Favorite white and red: Chateau Margene 2014 El Pistolero Chardonnay and Chateau Margene 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

845 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, CA 93442

Learn about all ten wineries on California's central coast that make up the Pacific Coast Wine Trail at