Part one of a two-part series on California Central Coast wines.

Several years ago, in an article in Food & Wine magazine, wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. stated, "Look for wines from California's Central Coast ... to take their place alongside the hallowed bottlings of Napa and Sonoma valleys. No viticultural region in America has demonstrated as much progress in quality and potential for greatness as the Central Coast."

Wow, high praise indeed coming from one of the most influential names in the wine industry. And now I may get my chance to experience firsthand the ever-evolving wine industry of the Central Coast of California. It appears that my college-bound son has narrowed his higher-education sights on a school that is located smack dab in the middle of the Central Coast American Viticultural Area, or AVA. I can predict, with some certainty, that a few winery tours during parent's weekend are in my future.

According to the Wine Institute, an advocacy and public policy association that promotes California wine, the Central Coast AVA stretches roughly 250 miles along the coastline of California, from San Francisco County in the north down to Santa Barbara County in the south, averaging about 25 miles in width. The appellation has about 90,300 acres planted to wine grapes, which accounts for almost 15 percent of California's wine grape production. There are more than 350 wineries located throughout the AVA, and more are popping up every year.

There are three distinct subregions within the Central Coast AVA. They are San Francisco Bay, Monterey and San Benito, and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. Since our son is considering colleges in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, I will focus on wines from those areas this week and tackle the former two subregions next week. Retail prices are approximate.

According to their website, the original owners of Wild Horse made their first wine in a plastic tub, stirring it with a baseball bat, as a senior project at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Today, the wines are made with much better equipment, like the 2009 Wild Horse Central Coast Chardonnay ($15), which has a touch of Viognier blended in for depth. The wine is vibrant and lively, with scents of green apple, lemon/lime citrus, and a touch of buttered toast on the nose and repeated on the crisp palate. Part of the wine is produced in stainless steel and then aged sur lie in barrels, which provide balance and a creamy, textured finish. QPR 9.5

The 2010 Opolo Summit Creek Zinfandel ($20) from Paso Robles is a full-bodied zin that is bright and lively in the nose with scents of raspberry and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, it exhibits rich flavors of red fruit framed by sweet tannins and balanced acidity. Creamy vanilla and peppercorn on the midpalate enhance the solid core of fruit, while additional notes of black pepper provide a deep and spicy finish. QPR 9

In 2005, entrepreneurs Tim Perr and Scott Knight pooled their resources to found a winery dedicated to producing small lots of artisan Pinot Noir that they loved to drink. They named their winery "Pali," after their hometown of Pacific Palisades. The Pali Wine Co.'s 2011 "Huntington" Pinot Noir ($22) from Santa Barbara County is full of pretty plum and spring strawberry aromas on the nose. The flavors of dark raspberry, bright cherry, wild strawberry and wet stone are well-balanced and nicely textured. The supple finish is simply delicious, with a touch of cinnamon for added charm. QPR 9.5

The Hope family began farming in Paso Robles more than 30 years ago, starting out with apples and grapes. Eventually, they discovered that the unique climate and soils of the region provided an ideal terroir for growing some of the best wine grapes in the Central Coast. The 2009 Treana Meritage Red ($34) displays aromas of plum, dark cherry, mocha and dried herbs. Flavors of rich cocoa and coffee join the dark cherry and blackberry notes echoed from the nose. Juicy and deep, this wine stays bright and lively thanks to smooth tannins on the well-balanced finish. QPR 9

Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.