The Wines of California's Santa Lucia Highlands

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 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 L Riesling, 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.

Our visit to Pisoni featuring from left to right: Jeff Pisoni, Gary’s wife Margeurite, Gary Pisoni, me + the Hubs

At Pisoni it’s very much a family affair with Gary’s sons Mark and Jeff Pisoni 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.

During our visit, we were able to catch the marine layer blowing in off of Monterey Bay - what a beautiful sight to see!

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:


Pisoni Vineyards

Inspired by a passion for Burgundy + Bordeaux he developed in college, Gary Pisoni asked his father to plant grapevines in addition to their many other crops. And while Dad initially said no, Gary finally won his father's approval by appealing to his vanity + asking, "Dad, have you ever been to a $250, black tie lettuce tasting?" Armed with his father's consent, Pisoni went on to overcome many challenges which included finding an adequate water source. After numerous, unsuccessful water studies over more than ten years, it was a Native American's uncanny talent with diving rods that finally located the spring which made Pisoni Estate possible. Today they produce some of the finest Chardonnay + Pinot Noir from the SLH AVA.

WINE TO TRY: 2018 LUCIA SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS CHARDONNAY ($45) This Chard delights with fragrant aromas of white flowers + spice while on the palate, decadent notes of baked apple tart + spiced pear are counterbalanced by lemon curd + wet stone. Complex layers continue to reveal themselves throughout the lengthy finish.

Morgan Winery

In 1982, Dan + Donna Lee opened the doors of Morgan Winery. Since then, Morgan has become one of the Central Coast’s most recognized labels, earning “Winery of the Year” honors from Wine & Spirits in 1996 and from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. Able to pick + choose fruit sources from around the state, Dan eventually turned more of his attention to the Santa Lucia Highlands + single vineyard releases. Dan + Donna invested in their belief in the Highlands with the purchase of the Double L Vineyard in 1996. Today the Double L is one of the best known vineyards in California. Dan’s leadership + expertise in the district led to his being named the first Board President of the newly formed Santa Lucia Highlands’ winegrowers association in 2005.

WINE TO TRY: 2019 MORGAN DOUBLE L VINEYARD RIESLING ($24) This aromatic, dry Riesling delights with notes of lime, peach, honey + white flowers accentuated by a racy, vibrant acidity + a long, lingering finish.

ROAR Wines

Gary + Rosella Franscioni started ROAR Wines with the knowledge that Pinot Noir had a shining future in the Santa Lucia Highlands, + a dream that their farming know-how would translate amazing grapes into amazing wines. Rosella’s Vineyard was planted on their home ranch in 1996, followed by Garys’ Vineyard in 1997 in partnership with the Pisoni family. The first vintage of ROAR was released in 2001, made from these two vineyards. Two more beautiful vineyards were planted about a decade later: Sierra Mar + Soberanes. Today, Gary + his sons continue to improve + innovate in the vineyards + winery to produce the best quality their land can create.

WINE TO TRY: 2018 ROAR SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS PINOT NOIR ($45) This wine entices with notes of red currant, cherry + pomegranate accentuated by leather + spice with supple tannins + a lively, food-friendly acidity.

HAHN Family Wines

Nicky Hahn’s commitment to the Monterey region began in the late 1970s. With a background in international business + a deep passion for wine, Nicky committed himself to making the Santa Lucia Highlands a beacon of world-class winemaking. He + his wife Gaby purchased what is now Hahn’s Smith & Hook Vineyards + produced their first vintage in 1980. In 1988, Nicky embarked on the multi-year process of submitting the Santa Lucia Highlands for AVA status — hard work that paid off in 1991. Nicky retired from day-to-day operations in 2007 and passed away in March of 2018. Philip Hahn, the son of Nicky + Gaby, returned in 2007 to take the helm as Chairman of Hahn Family Wines.

WINE TO TRY: 2016 HAHN SLH ESTATE GROWN ORCHESTRAL ($90) Alluring aromas of spice, earth + juicy red fruit provide a preview of the palate which is rife with opulent notes of red cherry, pomegranate, mocha + black pepper with a bright acidity + smooth, supple tannins.

Wrath Wines

Wrath produces site-driven Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, + Sauvignon Blanc from their estate vineyard + respected properties in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Their production is small, distribution is limited + their wines reveal attitude, passion + an inherent respect for what a vineyard can offer. For the ancient Romans, ira or wrath, was a tool of a god, an unstoppable anger driven by forces greater than man. One can argue that the team at Wrath see such fury in both the might of nature + the passion of art. Wrath also appears in the edgy power of Robert Plant’s voice + the raw wail of Eric Clapton’s guitar. It is frozen into Jackson Pollock’s violent splatters of paint. Wrath is also in the wall of maritime fog that rolls into the Salinas Valley + the relentless afternoon winds that scream through our grape trellises. Wrath wines represent a nexus of nature + an unbridled passion for winemaking.

WINE TO TRY: 2017 WRATH KW RANCH SYRAH ($39) Perfumey aromas of black fruit, violets + pepper lead up to a flavor explosion on the palate with robust notes of blackberry preserves, plum, cassis, leather, meat + black pepper framed by polished, yet bold tannins that will soften nicely with age.

Clarice Wine Company

Launched in 2019 by Adam Lee, legendary founder of Siduri Wines, Clarice Wine Company is a new + truly unique type of winery. Named for his beloved grandmother Clarice, the company combines aspects of an online wine community, a wine education website + a limited-enrollment wine club. Members of the Clarice Wine Community will have the opportunity to interact with 625 fellow members, sharing wine opinions + wine list guidance, as well as recommendations for wine travel, restaurants, hotels, events + more. Clarice Wine Community Members will also gain exclusive access to Wine Industry Leaders from all fields of the wine business, enjoying the opportunity to interact with them in a private + intimate forum.

WINE TO TRY: 2018 CLARICE ROSELLA’S VINEYARD PINOT NOIR ($90) Intense aromas of ripe black fruit, earth + spice are followed on the palate by notes of black cherry, roasted plum, blackberry tart accented, game + baking spices accompanied by a fresh acidity that unifies the flavors on the long, lingering finish.

Cattleya Winery

Having grown up in a country where vineyards were virtually non-existent, Bibiana González Rave wasn’t exposed to wine until she left her native Colombia + traveled to France where she trained as a winemaker in some of the country’s most revered wine regions. She ultimately moved to California in 2007 with the goal of making extraordinary wines + by the end of 2011, after many harvests perfecting her craft, she founded her Cattleya label which focuses on making wine in Sonoma County, Napa Valley + Santa Lucia Highlands. Her goal is to bring her soul + character into unique representations of terroir. Expect extreme purity, power + finesse in each + every one of her bottlings. The icon for her wines is an embossed Cattleya orchid flower, the national symbol of her native Colombia.

WINE TO TRY: 2018 CATTLEYA THE INITIATION SYRAH ($70) This full-bodied stunner unfolds with time in the glass + rewards with powerful notes of blueberry, cassis, licorice + bacon fat. Bright acidity + age-worthy tannins mingle with dark berry flavors to create a wine with immense aging potential.

J. Lohr Winery

J. Lohr Vineyards + Wines was founded more than four decades ago by Jerry Lohr + is still family owned + operated today. Even after almost 50 years of winegrowing + celebrating 80 years on the planet, Jerry is not slowing down. He continues to explore, learn + lead in all aspects of the industry + the many accolades he has received reflect the admiration + respect of his peers + are an acknowledgment of his place in California wine history. Today, J. Lohr crafts wines from its 4,000 acres of sustainably-certified vineyards in Monterey County's Arroyo Seco + Santa Lucia Highlands appellations, Paso Robles + St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Jerry’s hands-on partnership with his children and co-owners Steve, Cynthia + Lawrence ensures his legacy + one of America’s favorite wineries will endure.

WINE TO TRY: 2018 J. LOHR HIGHLANDS BENCH PINOT NOIR ($35) Heady aromas of red fruit, spice + black tea are followed on the palate by robust notes of strawberry, cherry + baking spices accentuated by a fresh acidity + dusty tannins.

Miner Family Winery

Miner Family Winery is a well-known, family-owned winery tucked along the eastern hills of the Oakville appellation in the heart of Napa Valley. Founded in 1998 by Dave + Emily Miner along with his parents, Ed + Norma, Miner makes reserve style wines using fruit from Napa Valley + other specially selected California vineyards. Well known for a powerhouse collection of red wines, Miner's portfolio is lead by The Oracle, an elegant Bordeaux-style blend. Each of the Miner wines is crafted to encapsulate the distinctive elements + the indelible fingerprints of their respective vineyards. This combination of excellent vineyard sites along with passionate + thoughtful winemaking injects the necessary components for creating profoundly enjoyable, joyful wines.

WINE TO TRY: 2017 MINER GARYS’ VINEYARD PINOT NOIR ($60) Redolent of ripe red fruit, spice + pastry this wine entices on the palate with opulent notes of juicy black cherry, raspberry tart + cranberry accentuated by baking spices + dried herbs. Firm tannins + a delightful acidity provide a fabulous frame for this stunner.

Talbott Vineyards

The renowned Talbott Vineyards crafts 100% estate-grown Chardonnay + Pinot Noir inspired by the traditions of Burgundy in one of Santa Lucia Highlands’ oldest + coldest vineyards. With two estate vineyards located in Monterey County, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard + Diamond T Vineyard, Talbott offers a portfolio of exceptional wines to enjoy. Their winemaking team is led by head winemaker David Coventry, who prides himself on putting the fruit first + maximizing vineyard expression in the wines he crafts. Planted in 1972, Sleepy Hollow is a Grand Cru vineyard that provides the perfect foundation for the winemaking team. For more than three decades, Talbott wines have consistently garnered praise from wine critics + enthusiasts alike.

WINE TO TRY: TALBOTT SLEEPY HOLLOW VINEYARD CHARDONNAY ($42) Fragrant aromas of tropical fruit, citrus peel + toasty oak are followed on the palate by lush yet lively notes of golden apple, honeyed citrus, pineapple, spice + vanilla accompanied by a zesty acidity + lengthy, pastry-tinged finish.

Stephanie Miskew
Stephanie Miskew