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Exploring the Santa Lucia Highlands and Carmel-by-the-Sea

A Hidden Gem Wine Region

By Amanda McCrossin, Sommelier & Wine Personality

June 2024

From multiple Michelin-starred restaurants to some of California’s best-kept secret wines, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Carmel-by-the-Sea is an absolute gold mine for food and wine lovers - especially when it comes to Pinot Noir.

Only about a 45-minute drive from one of the most beautiful and charming towns in the world - Carmel-by-the-Sea - the Santa Lucia Highlands is home to some of the best Pinot Noir in the country. The proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay has a significant effect on the region which cools it down at night and delivers intense cooling winds to provide natural air conditioning during the warm, sunny days.

And while this means you’ll have to dress in layers, this is fantastic news for Pinot Noir which you’ll find has the perfect and rare combo of racing acidity from the cool nighttime temperatures, intense concentration courtesy of the wind, and perfectly sun-kissed flavors thanks to that beautiful California sunshine.

And while you won’t find many hotels or restaurants out in the grape-growing parts of the Santa Lucia Highlands, it’s the perfect excuse to make it a multi-faceted trip filled with wine tasting, golf, beach walks, and world-class shopping in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Here’s an itinerary and what you need to know:

Check-In at Le Petit Pali (Ocean Ave): Check-in at the charming Le Petit Pali in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea which has the cutest amenities like freshly delivered cookies every night and champagne breakfast each morning. Perfectly located in town, you can easily walk to restaurants and tasting rooms and still easily escape by car into the vineyards during the day.

Caraccioli Tasting Room: Take a stroll and pop into the Caraccioli tasting room for a glass of bubbles. In addition to the world-class still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they are making some of the best sparkling wine in the country right now from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all grown on their estate Escolle vineyard.

Dinner at La Bicyclette: Grab dinner nearby at locals' favorite, La Bicyclette for wood-oven fired Neapolitan style pizza and wine. They only take reservations by phone or in-person (and they do book up FAST) but they do keep space available for walk-ins.

Explore the Santa Lucia Highlands: Wake up and get ready to head out into the Santa Lucia Highlands. An easy 45-minute drive from Carmel where you’ll see more than just grapevines, it’s a fascinating dichotomy of terroirs in these parts where you can have wildly different landscapes (and crops) almost neighboring each other. While the grapevines in the Santa Lucia Highlands are planted on the west side of the valley on an alluvial mountain terrace that’s more suited for high-quality grape growing, you’ll also see crops like lettuce and artichokes in what’s known as the country’s “salad bowl” thanks to the highly fertile soil on the Salinas Valley floor as you drive around. And while the two entities are in close proximity to each other, it’s worth noting that they never share the same land.

Morgan Tasting Room & Double L Vineyard: While Morgan’s tasting room is in Carmel, you can drive by their Double L Vineyard to get a sense of why twin sisters Jackie & Annie Lee have joined the family business. It’s a special place where their father, founder Dan Morgan Lee, has planted everything from Pinot Noir to Riesling. They’ve been farming organically since 2002 and the wines are well worth seeking out when you get back into town or at home.

Pisoni Vineyards: You can’t talk about the SLH without talking about Pisoni Vineyards. Another family affair, their legendary wines are all grown on their own estate and express its unique terroir. While you can't visit them, look for their Lucia by Pisoni and Pisoni Estate wines while in the region, and at home.

Wrath Winery: Wrap up your day at Wrath Winery along River Road in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where lush single-vineyard Pinots await, along with gorgeous views.

Talbott Tasting: Return to Carmel by the Sea for a tasting at Talbott. They've been making high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot since the early '80s. The Fidelity remains a perennial favorite.

Explore Carmel-by-the-Sea: Lean into those perfectly Northern California coastal town vibes by taking a stroll on the gorgeous beach, shopping at the endless array of boutiques, and taking in the exquisite architecture that makes this town so charming. Make sure you grab a bite or drink at one of the many incredible restaurants in town like Stationaery for brunch, Bud’s at La Playa for sunset drinks on the terrace, and Michelin-starred Chez Noir or Aubergine for dinner. And be sure to pop into Folktale Winery which is a short drive if you have a moment on your way out.

Now that you have your itinerary, it's time to indulge in the hidden gem wine region of Santa Lucia Highlands and immerse yourself in the charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Book your trip now and experience a weekend getaway like no other for Pinot Noir lovers!

Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans

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