A Special Sense of Place:
the Santa Lucia Highlands…
The SLH is California’s premier, cool-climate winegrowing district. Its fifty famed mountainside vineyard estates and associated award-winning wine labels set the standard for New World Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
The earliest vinifera plantings, in what was to become the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, took place in the 1790s, with the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries and conquistadors. The modern era, however, began in the early 1970s, with initial plantings by Rich and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow, Phil Johnson at La Estancia, and Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook.
A second wave of vineyard development occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Outside the area growers, such as Caymus’ Wagner family at Mer Soleil, Robb Talbott at Sleepy Hollow, Morgan’s Dan Lee at Double L, and Steve McIntyre recognized the district’s potential. They were joined by generational resident ranching and farming families Pisoni, Franscioni, Manzoni, Boekenoogen, and others who aggressively converted their properties to wine estates. Within twenty years, the planted vineyard acreage had tripled and then tripled again.
It was Nicky Hahn who first suggested the designation Santa Lucia Highlands when proposing the twelve mile- long, raised benchland above the Salinas River for special consideration as a unique winegrowing district. In 1991, the Federal government approved the Santa Lucia Highlands as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA).
Location, Location, Location
Every great winegrowing district has one thing in common: a truly special location or sense of place. For the SLH, that sense of place stems from its elevated, mountainside perch and its close proximity to the cold waters of Monterey Bay.
The vineyards of the Highlands are planted on the terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. Here, fogs and breezes off nearby Monterey Bay funnel southeast, between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan ranges, creating a cool, true Region I climate. The vines elevated sites take full advantage of the morning sunshine before the stiff, afternoon maritime winds slow down photosynthesis, making for long, gentle ripening. The exceptionally long SLH growing season of early bud break, lack of fall rains, and prolonged harvests allow the grapes to develop full, phenolic ripeness and flavors.
Approximately 6,000 acres of vinifera are under cultivation in the SLH, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the predominant varietals. The winegrowers of the Highlands are innovators. Every vineyard is a living laboratory, with new clones, trellising systems, and farming regimens constantly being explored. “Growing Green” is more than a catch phrase here; conscientious viticultural standards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable, have long been the norm.
Representing the appellation, the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans is an association of the AVA’s vineyards and vintners that grow grapes here or use this unique region’s fruit to craft their vintages.