Secret Source: NorCal Winemakers Love the Santa Lucia Highlands
Fran Endicott Miller
Kerith Overstreet’s Bruliam Winery is located in Windsor, in the far north reaches of Sonoma County, where some of the world’s best grapes are sourced. And yet, each year, she ventures four hours from her grape-centric NorCal home down to the Central Coast, in search of fruit for one of her many Pinot Noir bottlings.
“I buy fruit from the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) because these grapes showcase a specific personality and a tremendous sense of place, totally unique to the region—and different from Sonoma County,” says Overstreet, a former medical doctor who found her true calling when she switched to winemaking. “SLH terroir is informed by cool weather, morning coastal fog, and intense afternoon winds that mitigate rot pressure, keep the grapes cool, maintain the acidity, thicken skins, and lengthen ‘hang time.’ The resulting wines have smooth, silky tannins and are always sexy on the palate.”
Overstreet is not the only NorCal winemaker to fall in love with SLH fruit, known for dark, brambly, and savory qualities that create layered and complex wines. Megan Gunderson, winemaker at NorCal’s Walt Wines also loves SLH grapes, as does Bibiana Gonzalez Rave of Cattleya Wines, based in Santa Rosa; the Columbian-born winemaker sources Syrah grapes from two of SLH’s most popular vineyards: Pisoni and Soberanes, the latter being the site for her Cattleya ‘The Initiation’ label. “This AVA and this vineyard in particular were the sites of my initiation,” says Rave, who as a young girl dreamed of making wine. She also makes a Russian River Valley Chardonnay and a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. “SLH is just a very unique place, especially for Syrah. I have a soft spot for SLH.”
Though SLH produces Syrah, Riesling, and Pinot Gris, the AVA is most celebrated for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet the area remains somewhat under-the-radar. A sub AVA of the Monterey AVA in Monterey County, SLH is 18 miles in length and 22,000 acres, much of it unplantable mountainside. 6,500 acres are planted within its 50 vineyards, some of which reach up to 1,650 feet. Its location on the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, adjacent to the Salinas Valley, allows for one of California’s longest growing seasons. Cool Monterey Bay fog lowers temperatures, as do the strong daily winds that thicken grape skins. Low precipitation during harvest extends the growing season, yielding consistent, high quality fruit from vintage to vintage.
Aside from the stellar fruit, many of the AVA’s biggest winemaking fans will assert that the real secret to SLH is those who steward the land, many of whom follow in generational footsteps. “I can talk about the terroir all day, but the real secret of SLH is the people, my growers,” says Overstreet. “I’ve played with fruit from Soberanes Vineyard for ten years now, and I get to work with Mark Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, two of the most dedicated, generous, warm, and knowledgeable growers in the valley. Most ranches, like Soberanes, are family owned, and SLH fosters an authentic sense of community. [It’s] a partnership, and their careful cultivation of my vineyard rows shines in every vintage.”
Adam Lee, proprietor and winemaker at Clarice Wine Company, yet another northern Sonoma based winery that makes a SLH-sourced Pinot, agrees. “SLH is special because the growers there are truly farmers.” he says. “Many of them grew up with their parents farming vegetables or lemons. Many of them still do that. That is very different than much of Napa and Sonoma where people came and bought land specifically to be in the wine business. Of course, that only has meaning if the wines turn out to be good. And the SLH wines are pretty fantastic. SLH is, quite simply, my favorite area to get Pinot Noir anywhere.”
Adds Overstreet, “Mark Pisoni and I have a special harvest tradition. After he picks my block, as the refrigerated is rambling up the 101 to Sonoma County, he calls me and says, ‘Now Kerith, take good care of this fruit.’ I promise him I will.”
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