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Sip & Swirl: The Santa Lucia Highlands

The Bakersfield Californian
Lyle Norton

The Santa Lucia Highlands region has gained recognition as one of California's premier cool-climate wine regions, and its wines have received critical acclaim. Still, other than wine enthusiasts, few know about it or where it is located. The Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is situated in the elevated benchlands of the Santa Lucia Mountains that extend between Soledad and Salinas. I remember camping near there with my family in the 1950s, before it became vineyards.

The vines are planted on the western side of the Salinas Valley, benefiting from the cool maritime influences from Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The cool climate and suitable terroir make it ideal for growing pinot noir and chardonnay. It extends the growing season to allow the grapes to ripen gradually and develop complex flavors while retaining good acidity. The result is wine with intense fruit on the palate, balanced acidity and a distinct sense of place.

Wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands often exhibit bright fruit flavors, floral aromas and a graceful balance. Pinot noir wines may express red fruit notes, earthy undertones and a silky texture, while chardonnay wines often display crisp acidity and flavors of citrus and stone fruits.

The appellation is home to several well-known vineyards and wineries, each contributing to its reputation for producing premium wines. Among them are Rosella’s Vineyard, Pisoni Vineyard, Sierra Mar Vineyard and the iconic Garys’ Vineyard, a pioneering partnership that put the appellation on the map.

Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni are not only key figures in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, but in the wine industry as a whole. Friends since childhood, they grew up in the region, both from cattle-ranching families. Over time, in college, they became interested in viticulture and winemaking.

In 1982, Pisoni planted the first vines on his family's ranch, marking the beginning of Pisoni Vineyards. Around the same time, Franscioni began planting vines on his family's property nearby. In 1997, Pisoni and Franscioni decided to collaborate on a new vineyard project, which they aptly named Garys' Vineyard. It quickly gained acclaim for its exceptional terroir and the quality of the fruit it produced. Garys’ grapes are in demand and sourced to several producers in the region and throughout the state, including Kosta Browne, Walt Wines and nearby ROAR.

There are nearly 60 wineries producing wines in the Santa Lucia Highlands region. The quality of their vintages are equal to other premier California appellations like the Russian River Valley, the Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills. Many compare Santa Lucia Highlands to Burgundy, France, and a few new releases that I recently tasted stood out.

Months ago, the Pisoni Family Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Lucia Soberanes Vineyard 2021 (93-pt/$65) was named to Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 Wines of 2023. It is an elegant wine with complex aromas and rich rounded flavors, leading to a soft minerality through the finish.

Morgan Winery has made quality pinot noir, chardonnay and a few other varietals for more than four decades. It produces a series of local vineyard-designated releases including its estate Double L Chardonnay ($48), known for being a great food wine.

Every wine from ROAR that I’ve ever tasted has been a treat. Its wines consistently receive ratings in the mid- to high 90s, including the luscious 2021 ROAR “Garys’ Vineyard” Pinot Noir, which exudes complex, highly concentrated flavors with each sip.

Mer Soleil Vineyards has produced a readily available reserve chardonnay for three decades. To that end, it has released the 2022 30th Anniversary Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay ($24) that, like previous vintages, is a good value.

A convenient and enjoyable way to explore wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands is to attend the Sun, Wind and Wine Festival on May 18 at the Mer Soleil Vineyards in Salinas. Over 40 wineries and 20 chefs and food purveyors will be on hand. Short of that, take a drive, enjoy the outdoors and visit a top-tier wine region where good farming is at the forefront of their success. If you’re interested, there are some unique on-site lodging options at a few of the wineries.

Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans

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