If you’ve ever driven up the 101 between King City and Soledad, you’ve passed right through it. And if you’ve ever stopped to gas up along that stretch of highway, you know that it’s often chilly, windy and foggy.
SLH, as the region is known, benefits from that quirk of climate. Strung along the west bank of the Salinas River Valley, its 50 or so vineyards are fully exposed to the cool ocean air that regularly blows down from Monterey Bay. For that reason, it’s one of California’s outstanding cool-climate wine-growing districts.
Spanish missionaries and settlers began populating the Salinas River Valley in the late 18th century, and the earliest vineyards in the area date from the 1790s, following the practices of the time and employing the hardy Mission grape. But historically, the Santa Lucia Highlands were not a major source of wine grapes.
The modern wine-making era began here in the early ’70s when Paraiso, Sleepy Hollow, La Estancia and Smith & Hook vineyards were established. Some ranching and farming families in the area became wine growers as well, and their names are well known in the business: Pisoni, Franscioni, Manzoni, Boekenoogen.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that serious wine making became associated with Santa Lucia Highlands, when some illustrious names moved here, including the Wagner family at Mer Soleil and Robb Talbott at Sleepy Hollow. The number of vineyards exploded by almost tenfold, and in 1991, it was designated an American Viticultural Area.
SLH may be cool, but it’s still in California. Its 6,100 acres of grape vines get some serious morning sun, especially at higher elevations. Then things cool down in the afternoons, when Monterey Bay’s air moves down the valley. That makes for long growing seasons and full ripening on the vine. The result is wines of consistently high quality with their own distinctive style: strong and luscious fruit, good structure and bracing minerality.
At a recent tasting I tried some memorable SLH Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Bernardus offered three beautifully crafted 2011 vintage Chardonnays, all priced at $40: silky Rosella’s Vineyard; Sierra Mar Vineyard, featuring more prominent fruit; and Soberanes Vineyard, the star of the line-up: big, intense and lemon-y, with a touch of toast and caramel. There isn’t much to go around – only about 300 cases of each Chardonnay were produced.
Testarossa poured some distinctive wines. A complex, well structured 2013 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($35) blends fruit primarily from Lone Oak and Fogstone vineyards; its amazing taste profile included butterscotch, caramel and even a touch of honeyed fig. A 2012 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir showed excellent fruit but seemed a bit rough-edged and unrealized for the $66 price tag and the fame of its source; perhaps it could have benefited from some aeration.
Look for these names when buying wine from SLH: Belle Glos, Bernardus, Hahn Family Wines, Mer Soleil, Morgan, Pisoni, Roar, Testarossa and Wrath. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.
Close by, you’ll find other wine regions; all of them, like SLH, are sub-appellations of the larger Monterey AVA. To the south are Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe, San Lucas and Hames Valley. Three additional sub-AVAs lie outside the Salinas Valley: Carmel Valley, Chalone and San Antonio Valley. Some, such as tiny Carmel Valley, are notably warmer. All are worth exploring.