Top Ten Santa Lucia Highlands Wineries 7 min read
That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex... but it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. - Steve Jobs
Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) has been quietly cultivating some of the state’s best cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The appellation boasts six thousand sprawling acres of vineyards, planted on Santa Lucia mountain range. The area received its official AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1991.
Many of you have heard how “cool climate wines” are all the rage these days. Prominent producers flock to procure grapes from cooler climate wine growing regions that arguably deliver superior fruit.
SLH Appellation unique geographical location is all about maritime influenced, cooler climatic conditions and terraced vineyards, planted at various elevations. Bathed in chilly Monterey Bay breezes, nestled in layers of fluffy fog, along with graduated temperatures throughout the day, the grapes mature slowly and steadily. The ensuing natural phenolic development of flavors is craved by both local growers/vintners and many venerated wine brands sourcing fruit there.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the region is its ever evolving viticultural learning curve. With six thousand acres under vine, dominant varieties being Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and no holds barred, the possibilities are endless. Each vineyard features unique clonal selections and viticultural practices. Cumulatively, the region is actively learning what works for their combination of soil type, climate conditions and farming regimes by carefully gathering and sharing information with their peers.
With four dozen mountainside vineyards and counting, some SLH estates are exclusively growers, who sell fruit to many distinguished winemakers such as Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), Ed Kurtzman (August West), Adam Lee (whose recently acquired brand, Siduri, featured SLH bottlings since 1996), Brian Loring (Loring Wine Co), and many more. A handful also produce their own, remarkably well-received labels.
This list is slightly different from my usual format since it highlights five estate growers/vintners and five who source fruit from the area.
The iconic J. Lohr has holdings in Monterey County, including forty-five acres of Pinot Noir planted in an area between Arroyo Seco and SLH. They make a lovely Pinot Noir called “Falcon’s Perch.” My first taste of 2013 validated previous impressions as one of the strongest domestic QPR (Quality-price ratio) Pinot Noirs.
Named after the bird that decided to take up residence in a single tree in the middle of the vineyard, and effectively employed himself as pest control, it is precise, plump with red fruit and palate-pleasing. At mere $17, enjoy it daily without the guilt.
A well-established brand, in existence since 1999, Pessagno is another example of high quality, well-priced offerings. Forsaking a flourishing career in mechanical engineering to pursue his winemaking passions, owner Stephen Pessagno’s focus was always on quality, not quantity. Small lots of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a handful of other varieties are made from both estate and purchased fruit. Winemaker Olivier Rousset who also makes wines for Puma Road (see below) previously worked at Jeff Cohn Cellars, Koehler and Verite by Kendall Jackson. He was involved in some newly released, terrific 2013s.
I am convinced that without Gary Pisoni, the wine world would never be same. A man sporting a broad smile, whose formidable presence enters the room before he does, Gary is a highly respected, sought-after grower with a waiting list for his fruit. Known for his meticulous, borderline obsessive approach to grape growing, with strong emphasis on low yields, Pisoni brand is a family affair. His sons Mark and Jeff are thoroughly involved in every aspect of viticulture and vinification. The Pisoni’s approach is all about seamless synergy of the vineyard and winemaking. The result is some of the best Pinot Noirs made in the New World. There are three distinct brands: Gary’s, Pisoni and Lucia. Pisoni is group of vineyards planted by Gary and his family in 1982. Gary’s Vineyard, named as such in honor of Pisoni’s partnership with another famous grower, Gary Franscioni. Finally, the Soberanes, the latest gem joining Pisoni portfolio, was planted in 2007 and is now under a long-term lease with the partners. All three brands are well-worth seeking.
Not as many of us are familiar with Gary Franscioni relative, Ray, who has been quietly producing some high quality, bargain priced wines. I recently acquired and sampled his charming Chardonnay (interestingly, during the Chardonnay Symposium in Avila Beach), and tasted many of his Pinot Noirs over the years. Ray is the third generation grape grower who recently transitioned to vintner. He utilizes fruit from his own vineyards as well a site called Vigna Monte Nero, known for its ideal positioning in terms of diurnal temperature swings (warm days followed by cool nights) which ensures vibrant, energetic fruit. There are Puma Road, Pedregal and Lilia designations. One of my favorites is 2012 Monte Nero Pinot Noir, with its tense, yet generous fruit and lengthy finish.
Gary Franscioni’s family spans three generations and over a hundred years of SLH farming history. The first vineyard, Rosella, was planted in 1996, followed by “Gary’s” in partnership with Pisoni family, in 1997. Sierra Mar followed along and the Soberanes marked a second joint venture with Gary Pisoni. ROAR was launched in 2001 with the idea of highlighting the finest characteristics of their vineyard’s terroir. The name “ROAR” pays tribute to the roaring winds sweeping the vineyards, that burst in from Monterey Bay and make their thunderous way through shivering grapevines. Their small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnays have been my favorites for over a decade. Their 2013s are the best made to date with the sublime Sierra Mar Chardonnay and stunning Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. They easily rival top flight Burgundies. In a word, Bravo!
My favorite producers sourcing form the area will look very familiar to my readers. I have written about them numerous times, along with posting my impressions of their wines on social media. I’ll therefore refrain from background descriptions and focus on their SLH bottlings:
Mega-talented winemaker’s Ed Kurtzman purchases fruit from both Rosella and Sierra Mar vineyards for his SLH Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Exceptionally reasonably priced, given the high quality of his wines, the offerings are focused, generous and age-worthy.
One of my favorite Anderson Valley based producers makes a Soberanes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they both blew my socks off. Winemaker Jeff Gaffner (Saxon Brown) crafts the exquisite, soulful and immensely pleasurable wines. A symphony of flavors and textures; run, don’t walk to try them.
I have written about Kosta Browne here. There is a lot to admire about this producer and their distinct imprint on California premium Pinot Noir production. They seem to get it right every time, with every vineyard, and every endeavor. The 2013 Pinot Noir is a blend of five vineyards: Gary’s, Pisoni, Rosella’s, Sierra Mar and Soberanes. Aromatically it displays exotic notes of citrus and baking spices intermixed with bright fruit. Deft definition, supple, luscious mouth feel, plenty of dark fruits, and lingering finish seal the deal.
Love me some Loring. Always have, always will. Brian Loring, a high-tech transplant is a prolific producer with a stellar portfolio of diverse, fruit-driven wines. I first tasted his pinots a decade ago and instantly knew that he had a bright wine future ahead. He sources from both Rosella and Gary’s vineyards, and the results are glorious. Bold and delineated, his wines are all about showcasing the glorious fruit, albeit in an understated, classic ways.
Jeff Gaffner has a knack for choosing top-notch vineyards to work with. It’s little wonder that he picked Rosella for his SLH Pinot Noir and Chardonnay programs. “I’m giddy with excitement!” shared Jeff about his upcoming release 2013s. Translation to the reader: “Jump on those immediately, before they are all gone.” I know I am.
I have interviewed Jeff Gaffner here.
SLH wines are about meaning, not marketing. Folks there are farmers at heart. They love their land and are not in the business for the wealth, glamour or recognition. The idea is simple: produce the highest quality product possible. Therein lies the genius.