California’s Overlooked Treasure: Santa Lucia Highlands 1

Photo by Frank Gutierrez, Wagner Family of Wine
Photo by Frank Gutierrez, Wagner Family of Wine

Right smack dab in the middle of the state of California sits the Santa Lucia Highlands in the massive Salinas valley—California’s prime agricultural region located 20 miles southeast of Monterey between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. They grow everything there from lettuce to raspberries, and chances are your local grocery store may have produce in their store grown in Salinas.

Right around 1971 a few guys got together and said, “you know, we could grow grapes here”. Richard Smith was a young family man working for a company that was looking for new places in California to grow vines. After analyzing the region’s sand and clay soils, sun exposure and other variables, he realized this was a place that could grow some decent wine grapes. The company he was working for balked, but he saw potential. Early plantings of Bordeaux varietals seemed like a good idea as Bordeaux the wine region is also composed of sand and clay soils. But the first bottlings came out tasting too green. The Merlot was underripe and the Cab Franc undrinkable.

After a spending a few vintages farming the land with his family, Smith realized it was too cold here for those thick-skinned grapes. But maybe Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could flourish. Smith was one of the first growers to switch vine spacing from 12×6 spacing to 6×6 spacing, allowing 3 tons an acre. Smith turned his growing into a family operation with sons and grandsons joining the family business. The family produces wines under the Paraiso label, and coming soon under the Alexander-Smith label.

Off the coast of California near Monterey is where you’ll find the ‘big blue hole’ in the Pacific Ocean. That’s where a deep trench in the ocean floor can be found that’s deep enough to hold cold arctic water. The wind comes off the ocean where that deep hole sits and with it comes cold temperatures during the growing season that winds its way down the Salina valley.

Temperatures can reach 80 degrees by 11am, but around lunch time the wind starts picking up and cooling the vineyards. Temperatures can drop off dramatically in the afternoon. So the grapes get the two best things they love—sunshine and cool temperatures. Particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The result is a long, gentle growing season. Soils are clay loam or sandy loam and not very deep. There’s no water unless growers add it as these are on alluvial benches.

Still Just a Baby

If your child was born when the Santa Lucia Highlands were established as an official wine growing region, your child would just be graduating from high school now. In just under 20 years, winemakers have gone from standing start to world class region. Conversely, another Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producing region in France called Burgundy got a 400-year head start, yet wines from both regions show up on America’s top wine lists and collectors cellars.

On a recent sunny Saturday Master Sommelier, Fred Dame led a panel of SLH winemakers at Mer Soleil winery in a library tasting. Master Dame seems like the best sherpa to lead any wine tasting, but this one was special to him as he was born and raised up the road in Monterey. He cut his teeth in the early days on the floor at the Sardine Factory, then went on to pass the Master Sommelier exam and founded the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers in the mid 1980’s. He and Bill McIntyre shared stories of the ‘early days’ when McIntyre was a delivery driver delivering wine to Dame before he started his own winery (the #2 wine in this panel tasting).

Photo by Frank Gutierrez, Wagner Family of Wine

SLH has come a long way in a short amount of time. The learning curve around clone selection, row spacing, trellising and vinification has been dramatic. Wheras Burgundy or Oregon’s Pinot Noir’s have beautiful earthiness from the soil coming out in the wine as damp soil, coffee grounds, dried leaves and turned earth, SLH Pinots are grown in sand and clay which can lead to earthy aromas but I didn’t see that as much on this day.

The panel looked at three pinots—2007, 2008 and 2010 respectively. A few things stood out as we went through the lineup: the quality potential in the region is obvious, but without many vintages in the cellar nobody really knows how well the wines will age. As Master Dame pointed out, it doesn’t matter as 90% of wine is consumed within a few days of purchase. Pinot Noir, however, if it is to be taken seriously is one grape we want to see age for a while in the cellar. And the acid profile of SLH seems to give that backbone the wines need to get better over time, not much unlike Burgundy.

The three wines we looked at on this day:

Faite Santa Lucia Highlands

2007 Paraiso “Faîte” Pinot Noir – Moderate ruby color fading out to a rust/ruby rim with watery meniscus. Ripe red and black fruits, pomegranate, cranberry, crisp apple skin and still youthful, mountain ridge of acid right down the middle with lightly integrated new and neutral oak. The resonating acid will keep this party going for years, in fact, it’s probably just now ready to drink but it’ll be even better given 10 years in the bottle. “Faite” is a French word that means pinnacle. Pinot Noir lovers who dig the “hippy” style of Pinot (ie.. lighter and more feminine) will like this effort from Paraiso. Long, pretty finish showing what’s possible in SLH.

McIntyre Santa Lucia Highlands

2008 McIntyre “Estate” Pinot Noir – 60 acres purchased in 1987. In the early days grapes were sold to J. Lohr until they could work out the wrinkles, then started making their own. “In Burgundy their precision is like a sniper with a laser scope, but here we’re still like a shotgun that scatters. We’re still learning about our vineyards and want to make changes to refine the farming techniques.” Moderately ruby colored ‘cowboy wine’ with bright, almost-underripe red fruits on the nose with maraschino cherry and cranberry coming forward the most. Reductive new oak laid as a foundation with a summer mix of red berried fruits on top almost like a picnic table. In recent vintages the vineyard manager lays white reflective cloth on some of the vines to minimize afternoon sunlight until rows can be replanted.

Testarossa Santa Lucia Highlands

2010 Testarossa “Fogstone Vineyard” Pinot Noir – Young and sexy, and ironically more evolved fruit than the two older wines. Darker fruits like black cherry and non-fuits of RC cola, apple skin, spice box and red carnations, ready to drink now with the help of toasty oak. Aromatic and fun to drink now with a little bit richer foods as this is also a ‘cowboy’ wine. The winemaker referred to himself as a ‘grape whisperer’ while his marketing gal referred to him as a ‘savant’. I’m not sure either of those are correct (or if anyone should refer to themselves as such), but Director of Winemaking, Bill Brosseau took the reins at age 23 and hasn’t looked back. He grew up playing in the vines and knows what he wants from each of his growers.

Santa Lucia Highlands reminds me of another youngish wine growing region that makes exceptional age worthy wines. Walla Walla is around the same age as SLH and both regions are short on library wines that show off how well the wines can age, but over time we’ll add both the conversation of where America’s best wines are created.

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