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California's Santa Lucia Highlands: The Artisan Era

This Central Coast wine region, once home to bulk producers and Bordeaux-variety wines, is betting its future on artisan winemakers, the Burgundian model and the "surprise star," Syrah.


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This Central Coast wine region, once home to bulk producers and Bordeaux-variety wines, is betting its future on artisan winemakers, the Burgundian model AND THE "SURPRISE STAR," SYRAH.

Visiting the Highlands

The first thing to understand about touring the Santa Lucia Highlands wine country is that there's practically no place to stay there, and nothing to do except visit the few wineries that have tasting rooms. There are inexpensive motels in the little farm towns strung along Highway 101, but you'll find sophisticated lodging only in the tourist centers near Monterey Bay, a good hour's drive away.

That said, a carefully planned trip can be an adventure, combining great wines, world-class dining, and the recreation and scenic wonders of the Monterey Peninsula.

Of the wineries located in the Highlands, only the two listed below offer tasting. (Several others maintain facilities in the city of Monterey or Carmel Valley.) More information is available from the wineries, or go to the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association Web site, www.montereywines.org.


Tasting Rooms

Smith & Hook/Hahn Estates, 37700 Foothill Road, Soledad; tel: 831. 678.2132
Paraiso, 38060 Paraiso Springs Road, Soledad; tel: 831.678.0300

Lodging

Monterey Marriott, 350 Calle Principal, Monterey; tel: 831.649.4234. Solid, all-purpose hotel in downtown Monterey, within walking distance to Fisherman's Wharf.
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, 400 Cannery Row, Monterey; tel: 800.334.3999. Elegant resort, located on wildly scenic Monterey Bay at the foot of Cannery Row.
L'Auberge Carmel, Monte Verde at Seventh, Carmel-by-the-Sea; tel: 831.624.8578. Luxurious in the grand European tradition; located in the center of this charming, pedestrian- friendly town full of galleries and boutiques.

Dining

The Sardine Factory, 701 Wave Street, Monterey; tel: 831.373.3775. At Cannery Row, and still at the top after more than 30 years. Elegant, upscale dining (don't miss the lobster bisque) featuring a huge wine list.
Fresh Cream, 100C Heritage Harbor, 99 Pacific Street, Monterey; tel: 831.375.9798. A winemaker favorite overlooking Fisherman's Wharf. French-accented fare, but could have better local wines.
L'Auberge Carmel, at the Inn of the same name, in Carmel. Tiny, 12-table dining room offers prix-fixe multicourse dinner and fantastic wine list, strong in German, Burgundy, California and local wines. Expensive.
Bouchée, Mission Street between Ocean & 7th, Carmel-by-the-Sea; tel: 831.626.7880. Same ownership as L'Auberge Carmel, a few blocks away. Combines upscale dining, tasting bar and wine shop in one.

Recreation

The Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley are synonymous with world-class golf. This is home to Pebble Beach, Spyglass and a dozen other courses too numerous to list. Visit the Monterey County Golf Assocation's web page, www.golfmonterey.org.

From windswept Seaside down past Monterey and Carmel, the Peninsula has beautiful and dramatic beaches, sand dunes and tidal pools. The weather is usually too cold for sunbathing, but bring your camera and enjoy the views.

Monterey's touristy Cannery Row is worth a few hours of people-watching, kitschy shopping and eating. Pacific Grove, a 5-minute drive, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, about 15 minutes away, are a stroller's dream, with Carmel offering an eclectic downtown of art galleries, fancy clothing shops, expensive boutiques and restaurants (and maybe a Clint Eastwood sighting).

A Taste of Monterey, 700 Cannery Row, Monterey; tel: 831.646. 5446. Located in a mall of candy and souvenir shops, the tasting bar offers more than 40 Monterey County wines, including some from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; tel: 831. 648.4800. The top tourist draw in town. One of the world's greatest aquariums, built right into eco-rich Monterey Bay.

The Smith & Hook/Hahn Estates vineyards on the western slopes of the Santa Lucia mountains.

Here are ironies aplenty in the evolving story of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

The American Viticultural Area, which was approved by the federal government in 1991, has 2,300 acres of vineyards. It lies athwart the southeast-facing benchlands and slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, which mark the western rim of "America's salad bowl," the Salinas Valley, in Monterey County.

The vineyards were developed in the 1960s and 1970s by tax shelter-seeking investors, who sold off the heavily cropped grapes cheaply to giant wineries like Gallo and Paul Masson.

Despite such humble beginnings, a handful of visionaries, including Gary Pisoni and Robb Talbott, saw the potential for something more. Against all odds, they succeeded in bringing the Highlands to the forefront of California winemaking.

Another irony is that the AVA's co-founder, Nicolaus Hahn, a Swiss investment banker, believed the Highlands best suited for Bordeaux varieties. Even after the evidence proved him wrong—the AVA's fame rests securely on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—Hahn persisted at his Smith & Hook and Hahn Estates brands. But even he finally changed his mind, and lately has replanted much of his Bordeaux acreage over to Burgundian varieties.

An ironic footnote: After years of struggle, Smith & Hook's Cabernets are now quite good, as evidenced by the 2001 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (89 points, $20). Perhaps the final irony is that some people who made their names with Pinot Noir, including Pisoni and Morgan Winery's Dan Lee, predict that the Highlands will become famous for Syrah. "It's the surprise star," Pisoni says.

Cool coastal winds

If Hahn didn't foresee that the Highlands were too cold for Bordeaux varieties, he wasn't alone. Almost all the earliest efforts were to grapes that require heat. The Highlands are anything but hot. Wide open to the fogs and winds that sweep in during the growing season off the choppy blue-green waters of Monterey Bay, the Highlands barely qualify as a Region I area, the coolest climate designation for grapegrowing under the U.C. Davis scale, although further inland, things warm up. Under the circumstances, the red wines developed a reputation for the "veggies" they're only now shaking off.

Some of the earliest grapes were planted by Rich Smith, since 1987 the owner of Paraiso Winery (and, with Hahn, the appellation's co-founder), but who 30 years ago was a hired vineyard manager. "I came in '73 and planted for a group of San Francisco investors," Smith recalls, describing Highlands viticulture back then as "industrial. People [from outside the area] would buy truckloads of grapes to go into their 'Private Selection' or whatever. The potential of our area was dumbed down."

Smith admits to being late in getting onboard the premium wine bus. That was left to Gary Pisoni and, later, Robb Talbott. Pisoni is a sort of regional godfather who brought the area its first critical distinction. "Gary has been extremely influential [in the Highlands]," says Smith & Hook's winemaker, Adam LaZarre. Adds Smith & Hook's longtime vineyard manager, Andy Mitchell, "When I first started, we were filling contracts to [Robert] Mondavi and Sutter Home...[high] yield was the name of the game. Now, because of guys like Gary Pisoni, the focus is on quality."

A third-generation Salinas Valley farmer, Pisoni is a larger-than-life figure who cultivates his wild man image as carefully as his vines. He loves to descend to his winery cave, make himself and a visitor comfortable before the fireplace, pop the corks on a few good bottles, then go for a late-night ride in his open-top 4-wheel drive vehicle through the hair-raisingly steep, 1,400-foot elevation Pisoni Vineyard. He began planting it in 1982, concentrating—like everyone else at the time—on Bordeaux varieties. But he made some Pinot Noir he liked. This natural-born promoter explains, "I got some of the best producers [in the state], told them I had a blue-ribbon Pinot, and invited them to taste my '94. And I said, 'I'm just an amateur. Imagine what the hell you could do!'" Today, the Pisoni Vineyard is comprised of about 50 planted acres, mostly Pinot Noir. Bordeaux acreage has shrunk to a mere two.

In 1996, Pisoni's longtime friend and third-generation farmer, Gary Franscioni, was inspired by Pisoni to plant his own vineyard, the 50-acre Rosella's Vineyard, to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. A year later, the two Garys planted Garys' Vineyard to the same varieties. Today, these three vineyards—Pisoni, Rosella's and Garys'—are the best-known vineyard-designates in the Santa Lucia Highlands. At any given time, the grapes are sold to about a dozen wineries; there's always a waiting list. The lucky ones have included Testarossa, Siduri, Miner, Tantara, Novy, Morgan, Patz & Hall, Bernardus, Pessagno, Flint, Capiaux, Cinnabar, Coyote Canyon, Savannah-Chanelle, Loring and Lorca. Fruit goes also to Pisoni's two brands, Pisoni (exclusively from that vineyard) and Lucia (from Garys' Vineyard), and to Franscioni's aptly named ROAR wines. So coveted are these grapes that the Garys (and Pisoni's sons, Mark and Jeff, who are involved in the business) can afford to be highly selective about clients. "We tell [buyers] upfront, if you don't do great wine, you're in big trouble," says Franscioni. Pisoni is more blunt: "You want to get thrown off [the list]? Then piss me off. Don't pay. Cheat. Or make bad wine!"

The wines: A few miles can make the difference

Santa Lucia Highlands wines are characterized by high acidity and intense varietal character. Yields in these well-drained soils are naturally low, and the Highlands enjoys one of California's longest growing seasons, with virtually no chance of rain until past harvest.

The northwest is primarily Chardonnay country. Here are Mer Soleil, owned by Napa Valley's Wagner family, and Morgan's Double L. Here, too, is the famous Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, originally planted in 1972, and the source of Chardonnay grapes for Robert Talbott since 1985; he purchased it in 1993. Adjacent to it is Talbott's River Road Ranch vineyard, which he first planted in 1989. Both the Mer Soleil and Sleepy Hollow vineyards are planted to Chardonnay; the latter has some Pinot as well, which is bottled under brands that Talbott has named after his children. Logan, Case and Kali Hart. Morgan's Double L is the source of Morgan's estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Steve Pessagno the former Lockwood winemaker, has also purchased some acreage here.

This is the coldest part of the appellation—but this is California, and "cold" is a relative term. Cool-climate California Chardonnays ooze rich, honeyed, tropical fruit flavors. The wines tend to be liberally oaked in new wood, and are marked by mouthwatering acidity. These are Chardonnays that can age. Tasted in December 2004, the 1995 and 1997 Mer Soleils were vibrant, while Talbott's 1996 and 1997 Sleepy Hollow Chards were fabulous and fresh. The 1993 Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay was one of the best older California white wines I've ever had. In current releases, Morgan's astonishing 2002 Hat Trick Chardonnay, a barrel selection from Double L, is one of the best Chards of the vintage (96 points, $50).

Northerly Pinot Noirs present challenges—it is a little cold for them up here, making ripening difficult. But with what Dan Lee calls "great attention to detail" in the vineyard, it's possible to craft delicately nuanced, immensely complex Pinots, rich in fruit and acidity, from these northern vines, to judge from Morgan's succulent Double L Pinot Noirs from 2001 (92, $42) and 2002 (92, $45).

The Pinot Noirs that made the appellation famous come from the sunnier, warmer central and southerly parts. The wines get darker, fuller, richer and softer the further south you go. Pinots from Rosella's Vineyard, which is a few miles south of Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, are still fairly hard in acidity and tannins on release, but they are exquisitely balanced; a good example is ROAR's 2003 Rosella's Vineyard Pinot Noir (92, $44). Ten miles or so to the south (and far higher in elevation), the Pinot Noirs from Pisoni Vineyard are easily the biggest, ripest and most flamboyant in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Although stylistic interpretation and quality can vary from brand to brand, I've given scores from the low- to mid-90s to almost every Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir I've ever tasted. Renditions from Tantara, Siduri, Patz & Hall, Testarossa and Pisoni himself are dependably at the top. Also in the south, Rich Smith has found his way onto the premium wine map. His Paraiso 2001 West Terrace Pinot Noir (92, $40) shares much in common with, say, Pisoni's 2002 Estate Pinot Noir (92, $60).

Pinots from Garys' Vineyard, which is located between Rosella's and Pisoni, have been less consistent. A good example is the Lucia 2002 Garys' Vineyard Pinot Noir (86, $38). For all its chocolaty ripeness, it's a bit awkward, and overoaked as well. On the other hand, Garys' Vineyard Syrahs can be superb, with Testarossa and Novy the signature producers. Dan Lee, like Gary Pisoni, believes "Syrah could eventually be the best red [Highlands] grape" but adds the qualifier, "in the south." And in fact, some of the most memorable Syrahs I've tasted have hailed from the south-central Santa Lucia Highlands. Among these is Paraiso's 2001 Wedding Hill Syrah, from estate vineyards (95, $45) and Morgan's 2001 Tierra Mar Syrah (93, $45), a blend of Rosella's and Paraiso fruit.

Last November, when Constellation Brands purchased Robert Mondavi Winery, the Fairport, New York-based company became the largest vineyard owner in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Its holdings include the large La Estancia Vineyard, which produces grapes that go into Constellation's Estancia wines, and two smaller vineyards that contribute grapes to Constellation's Blackstone brand. But Constellation now owns the 950 combined acres of the Hillside and Bianchi Bench vineyards, whose Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit went into Robert Mondavi Central Coast bottlings.

The potential of Hillside and Bianchi, it's fair to say, is largely unrealized, but undoubtedly high. Dan Lee used to source Chardonnay from Hillside before Mondavi acquired it, and says it was his favorite among all his fruit sources. A Constellation executive, Jon Moramarco, says it's too early to know what will happen to the Mondavi properties. But indications are that Constellation is committed to the notion of quality in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Estancia recently started bottling a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from their Stonewall Vineyard, near Talbott's, while Blackstone has begun producing Reserve Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, but only in exceptional years, from their holdings in the Highlands.

The transition the Highlands is going through is from the "industrial" period that Smith recalled to what he now terms "artisan wines." As if in celebration of this transition, this past November a new, to-be-named Santa Lucia Highlands producers association began meeting. Dan Lee says excitedly, "The Highlands is really turning into an area of great single vineyards."

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