There is something you have to love about a wine region that, when discussing who they are, leads with the concept that they are, first and foremost, a farming community. Yes, the next statement is that the region produces some of the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in California, but the heart of who they are lies firmly in those two words – farming and community. Welcome to Santa Lucia Highlands.
Sitting at elevations ranging from 50-1650 feet above sea level, on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey County. Just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean in California’s Central Coast, the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH for short) became an AVA in 1991. However, many of the region’s farming families have been working this land since before the turn of the 20th century.
Families like the Pisoni’s, the Manzoni’s, and Franscioni’s settled in the area in the late 1800s, becoming dairy farmers and cattlemen (this is the home of Monterey Jack cheese,) then moving to vegetables like lettuce, asparagus, and beets, eventually finding their way to winegrowing within the past fifty years. They joined the founders of modern-day SLH wine who planted their first vines in the 1970s, including Nikky Hahn/Smith & Hook & Hahn Family Wines, the McFarlands/Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Rich Smith/Paraiso, and Steve McIntyre/McIntyre Estates & Monterey Pacific Growers. (McIntyre is personally responsible for managing over 12,000 acres of land.)
Along with the early farming-family pioneers, these individuals embrace the sentiment of “one-community” in their story. With only 50 vineyard properties, 6400 acres under vine, and 153 member wineries, SLH lives by the “one succeeds, we all succeed” attitude.
They like to say, the region is small but mighty. I say the wines are elegant, expressive, and sublimely elevated.
Within a few decades of development in the 1970s and 1980s, winemakers quickly realized the quality of fruit coming out of SLH, making it some of the most sought after and highly regarded. Keeping that community spirit in mind, SLH vintners have often embraced taking a chance on the up and coming winemakers who could appreciate and respect their high-quality fruit.
Since the early days, these family growers have sold grapes to smaller producers, many unseasoned and unknown. This gave those just starting out the ability to buy quality fruit even though they didn’t have an extensive resume of credentials or a powerhouse owner behind them.
What they did have was passion, dedication, determination, and grit, (essential qualities required in making great wine.)
Over the years, SLH fruit has delivered highly rated wines for wineries like Miner, Siduri, Walt, Kosta Brown, and Mer Soliel. But they also supply fruit for the smaller production, boutique brands like Vision Cellars, Capiaux Cellars, and Cattleya.
So what makes SLH so special?
Vineyards benefit from a very long growing season thanks to 10-15 mph daily winds that blow off the Pacific through the Monterey Bay. These winds moderate the pace of photosynthesis, with slow ripening allowing the fruit to maintain freshness while gently evolving flavors. The winds tame intense sunshine-filled days, creating “refrigerated sunshine.” The resulting wines are concentrated, highly structured, and intensely flavorful, without being aggressive, overbearing, or harsh.
These are wines you want to enjoy slowly, allowing appreciation of the nuanced characteristics. These include the everyday options as well as those you open for special occasions. Pinot Noir dominates the plantings, followed by Chardonnay, Syrah, and a small amount of Riesling.
A testament to their family history, the Pisoni family launched Lucia Vineyards in 2000 with their first Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, quickly gaining acclaim for both their exceptional grape-growing ability, but also winemaking. Lucia Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines continuously over-deliver from vintage to vintage. Their Soberanes Vineyard sits adjacent to Gary’s Vineyard, on the SLH bench, an ideal location for Chardonnay. Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay ($65) reveals a mineral-intense, crushed stone base leading to layers of ripe apple and pear, lemon blossom, and honeysuckle.
Bursting with fruit-forward stone fruit and mineral-intense crushed stone flavors, Master Sommelier, Sara Floyd, and the Pisoni Family’s Luli Chardonnay ($20) is fresh, racy, and vibrant. The wine is produced without oak to allow the fruity palate with incredible freshness to shine, perfect for sipping on its own as an aperitif or throughout dinner.
Opulent and expressive, Miner Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) has long been one of my favorite wines from not only SLH but all of California. The twenty-five-year-old, 50-acre vineyard is a joint collaboration between friends and growers Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, nestled along the SLH terraces, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. Beautifully integrated, the wine melds blackberry, blueberry, and toasted spice, with firm tannins that linger on the palate for days.
Hahn Estate strives to ensure their estate vineyards produce premium quality fruit that harmoniously brings together acid, tannin, structure, and texture, all with an elegant touch provided by the Director of Winemaking, Paul Clifton. Hahn Lucienne Pinot Noir showcases the essence of SLH, produced in small lots, revealing distinct expressions of the land. Earthy, dusty, and truffle filled, blending clones 667, 115, and Pommard, Lucienne Lone Oak Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) opens with finishing with ripe cherry and raspberry compote, followed by mushroom, dried herb, and toasted cedar.
Honoring her Columbian roots, Winemaker Bibiana González Rave began her Cattleya Wines in 2011, quickly becoming one of California’s rising Pinot Noir stars. In 2014 she was named one of Wine Enthusiast “40 Under 40 America’s Tastemakers,” followed by being awarded “Winemaker of the Year” in 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her wines are powerful and polished while expressing an ethereal purity, showcasing their terroir. Rich, dense, and concentrated, Cattleya “The Initiation” Syrah ($70) offers a meaty, spicy wine with woody herbs, black fruit, savory balsamic, and a hint of smoked bacon fat.