When most people think of California wine country, Napa Valley is usually the first place that comes to mind. But would you be surprised to learn that roughly 200 miles south of the famed Napa Valley is a wine region that’s producing truly exceptional wines you definitely need to know about…especially if you’re a fan of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Did I get your attention?
In fact, it was only a few short years ago that the Hubs and I found ourselves heading south on Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway or “PCH”) towards the Santa Lucia Highlands - NOT north towards Napa. It was a strange feeling, however, we were meeting friends for a long weekend in Carmel-by-the-Sea and were looking forward to the adventure that also included winery visits as well.
THE SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS AVA BY THE NUMBERS
The rugged California coastline was a beautiful sight to behold and definitely worth adding a little extra time to our drive (see photo above). When we arrived at our destination, we checked into the posh L’Auberge Carmel hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property, and it didn’t take long to completely fall in love with our accommodations as well as the quaint, charming town. And while many of the local wineries have beautiful, well-appointed tasting rooms conveniently located downtown, we wanted to experience the real thing. So the next morning, we headed towards wine country for our appointments.
Approved as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1991, the Santa Lucia Highland’s 6,400 acres of grape vines are nestled along the eastern-facing slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountain range that measure 40-2,330 feet in elevation. Below, on the Salinas Valley floor lie expansive fields of vegetable row crops that are collectively referred to as “The Salad Bowl of the World.”
In stark contrast to chic Carmel-by-the-Sea, the pungent aroma of brassicas permeated the air while vegetable-laden trucks lumbered past us, kicking up plumes of dust on the the dirt roads. The change in ambiance confirmed we were getting close and we knew arrival was imminent when the dirt roads ultimately gave way to no roads and our cell service ceased altogether.
Our first appointment was a tasting of the Morgan Winery wines with winemaker Gianni Abate in the famed Double L Vineyard. The winery was officially founded in 1982 by Dan and Donna Lee who have done much to build the reputation of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. The Double L Vineyard was named for the Morgan’s twin daughters (Double Luck) and even today is widely regarded as the “crown jewel” of the appellation. We were situated at a picnic table under a solitary shade tree in the middle of the Double L and I gotta say, you just cant beat this special vineyard as the place to taste wines made from its hallowed fruit.
The bucolic beauty of the region was breathtaking and Abate was in great spirits having completed an early harvest a few weeks prior to our late October visit. He guided us through the flight of Morgan wines consisting of the Double LRiesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Rows of vines surrounded us on all sides as the late morning sun provided ample light to evaluate the wines. The wines were truly sublime, demonstrating exceptional structure and depth of flavor across the board.
Following our wonderful tasting of the Morgan wines, we headed to our next stop, Pisoni Vineyards. The Pisoni family is another one of the area’s pioneering families who were farmers first before making the leap to wine and their influence on the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation cannot be understated. What followed at Pisoni was one wild ride - literally! Patriarch and Pinot Maverick Gary Pisoni hosted a delightful lunch for us which also included a tasting of the Pisoni’s wines (which include the Luli and Lucia labels as well), and a tour of the family’s legendary vineyards in Gary’s beloved 1966 jeep.
At Pisoni it’s very much a family affair with Gary’s sons Mark and JeffPisoni serving as Vineyard Manager and Winemaker respectively. And as if that weren’t enough vinous star power, Jeff’s wife Bibiana González Rave is also an accomplished winemaker in her own right. In addition to holding winemaking positions at Pahlmeyer and other prestigious labels, she also makes her own wine under the Cattleya label (scroll down for more information). Lucky for us, the entire family was in residence during our visit so it was a wonderful vinous experience - for more details, please click here.
Our visit to the Santa Lucia Highlands left me wanting to learn (and taste) more about this unique, under the radar region that’s been making wine since the 1790’s. It wasn’t until a small group of pioneering families behind the Hahn Estate, Paraiso, Sleepy Hollow and La Estancia labels united in the 1970’s that the region’s potential was truly discovered. Over the following 20 years, local ranching and farming families like the Pisonis, Franscionis, Manzonis and Boekenoogens joined in to develop this potential into what it is today.
In addition to these pioneering families, another important factor makes this region truly unique: location, location, location! In order for cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to truly thrive, a dramatic temperature shift needs to occur each day to shut down photosynthesis (aka the ripening process) and preserve the grapes’ acidity. The region’s close proximity to the Monterey Bay on California’s Central Coast allows the region’s legendary wind to blow the marine layer that’s created when the warm air mass contacts the cool water of the bay into the vineyards where it blankets the vines, providing the perfect cooling effect for these precious grapes after a day of ripening under the California sun.
In addition to moving the marine layer, the region’s winds serve another important purpose: to alter the composition of the grape skins. The ever present wind that has an average daily speed of 10-15 miles an hour with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour, actually increases the presence of phenolics in the grape skins which results in deeper flavors in the grapes and their final wines.
As we wound our way down to the valley floor after our visit, we actually got to witness the marine layer rolling in off the bay, cresting the peaks and unfurling down the slopes of the hills like a ethereal mist. It was magical and dramatic to watch and we were amazed at how the climate can change so quickly from warm and sunny to cool and foggy.
I hope you’re inspired to seek out the wines from the following fantastic families of the Santa Lucia Highlands:
10 SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS WINERIES TO KNOW
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