On May 16 we made our way to Salinas. Mainly known for being “America’s salad bowl” and the home of John Steinbeck, this little town has recently become the gateway to the Santa Lucia Highlands. We had returned to Salinas for the ninth annual Santa Lucia Highlands Gala.
The Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) AVA is justifiably famous for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Naturally we were there for the pinots. And we found quite a few good ones. Several wineries were new to us. But the biggest surprise was a few that we have known about for years. These old friends have changed their ways and are now producing pinot that we like.
The Mer Soleil Vineyard once again hosted the event. Mer Soleil is not open to the public. This was a rare chance to visit them.
These folks are all making very good pinot noirs. We’ll discuss them in the order in which we tasted.
Hope & Grace
First on our list was Hope & Grace. Their Doctor’s Vineyard 2012 pinot noir ($48) opens with black cherries and strawberry aromas. On the palate we discovered spice and slight tannin. This wine is not a bargain but is fairly priced. The Doctor’s Vineyard was new to us. Here’s what the winery website has to say:
The Doctor’s Vineyard is planted on the terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. Here, the fog and breezes off nearby Monterey Bay funnel southeast, between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan ranges, creating a cool, true Region 1 climate. The vines elevated site takes full advantage of the morning sunshine before the brisk afternoon maritime winds slow down photosynthesis, making for long and gentle ripening.
Owner Charles Hendricks, started Hope & Grace in 2001. Hope and Grace are his daughters. The 2012 is his first SLH vintage. The tasting “salon” is in Napa, squarely in the middle of Yountville. Annual production is about 3,500 cases. Charles has been making wine in the Napa Valley for 33 years. We’re very happy he has decided to go it alone.
Miner Family Winery
Our next stop was Miner Family Winery, located on the Silverado Trail north of Oakville on the east side of the Napa Valley. They were pouring four pinots, all 2012.
If you like French-style pinots, these are the wines for you. The first two were from Rosella’s Vineyard.
[pullquote]The “777” Dijon clone is a specific variety within the Pinot Noir family originally from Burgundy’s Morey St. Denis region in France.[/pullquote]
The Rosella’s “777” ($75) is unusual. Made entirely from clone 777, this wine is intense and appealing with rose petal and spice aromas followed by dark berry flavors. This note from the winery website →
Miner also offered a Rosella’s ($60) that was a blend of clones (presumably). This pinot showed more fruit than the 777. Aromas of cherries are followed by more cherries and cedar on the palate.
The Garys’ Vineyard ($60) opens with faint aromas of rose petals. This wine is fairly austere, with flavors of black cherries and a hint of oak. The finish features spice and tannins. The spec sheet for this wine makes a point that took us about a week to figure out last summer:
This 50 acre vineyard was planted in 1995 by friends and growers Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni along the terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley.
Finally, Miner’s Sierra Mar Vineyard ($75) is the biggest of the four. Our guess is that a year or two of aging will improve this, although it may not have enough backbone to support it. Today the wine features intense, black raspberry and violet aromas with a smooth, toasted oak finish.
[pullquote]The McIntyre Estate Vineyard lies in the “sweet spot” of this rolling, benchland region. It produces incredibly intense and complex Pinot Noirs and well-structured, concentrated Chardonnays.[/pullquote]
McIntyre Vineyards is Steve McIntyre’s pet project. Steve farms 11,000 acres of winegrapes in Monterey County as the owner/operator of Monterey Pacific. From the wine spec sheet →
McIntyre’s 2013 Santa Lucia Highland Estate pinot noir ($34) is a major bargain. This was the first pinot that we found interesting. While the aroma a bit musty, suggesting wet earth, the flavors develop into cranberry, red raspberry and a hint of cherries. A long spice finish with silky tannins round out a wonderful experience.
[pullquote]Tim is a reclusive and eccentric scientist, engineer, and inventor, who worked over the years in Silicon Valley at a variety of small startups, in a little known field called micromachining. A relatively prolific inventor, Tim is named on over 25 patents in his chosen field and has worked on projects as widely varied as micro-satellite thermal controllers, artificial retinas for vision restoration in the blind, and large-scale optical networking equipment.[/pullquote]
Sarah’s Vineyard is in the Hecker Pass winegrowing area west of Gilroy. If you’re trying to find the website don’t use a search engine. There’s a “winery” in Ohio that has apparently bought up all the Google adwords.
Tim Slater bought Sarah’s in 2001. Before that he worked in tech. From the winery website →
We spent some time chatting with Tim. He may be eccentric, but he has gotten over any reclusiveness that he might have once had.
There were two Santa Lucia Highlands pinots from Sarah’s, a mini-vertical tasting. The 2012 ($32) is the more intense of the two. Aromas of bing cherries and red raspberries followed by more cherries and raspberries on the palate. The 2013 ($32) is a little lighter. Slightly less intense aromas of bing cherry and raspberry lead to more bing cherries, black cherries, and raspberry palate. Both rate as bargains.
Prim Family Vineyard
Prim Family Vineyard is a new boutique winery in the Napa Valley. It’s a project started by Wayne and Victoria Prim in 2009. They have been selling wine since 2014, making them all of one year old as a commercial enterprise.
Current production is 600 cases per year, but they expect it to nearly double to 1,100 cases next year. Their 2012 Napa pinot noir won a gold medal at the San Diego competition.
Now they have sourced fruit from the Apex Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Apex is at the top of the Highlands — what did you expect? — an altitude of 1200 feet. Their 2013 Apex Vineyard ($38) is on the licorice – tobacco style. Not to our taste, but still very good.
And Some Old Friends
We always like to check in with wineries we know just to keep them honest. J Seriously, it’s always fun to catch up with folks we’ve talked to before, find out what’s new, and taste their latest products.
We discovered Mansfield-Dunne at the 2014 SLH gala and loved their pinot. We dropped by their table to see how they are progressing. We were greeted by John Peterson who was offering two pinots.
The 2012 Santa Lucia Highland ($36) is a bargain. Intense aromas of herbs, smoke and tea lead to blackberry and raspberry flavors. Smooth tannins balanced with nice acidity make for a long, delightful finish.
The 2012 Peterson Ranch ($48) is the winery’s estate wine. If you’re going to drink this wine now, we would recommend decanting it to open the aromas a bit. As it is, there are hints of blackberries, cedar and oak aromas. A palate of ripe plums and wild strawberries draw your attention to the balanced acidity and oak.
We also discovered these wineries at the 2014 event. And we were impressed. Their Lucia 2013 Garys’ Vineyard ($65) is little too smooth with some subtle complexity. Look for black cherries, a slight hint of caramel, with spice and tannins on the finish.
We first encountered Paraiso at a long-forgotten Palo Alto wine bar quite a few years ago. We thought it was good, but the wine had some unfortunate pharmacological side effects (upset stomachs, noticeable hangover). We decided to take a chance after noting their newly-designed main label and the new second label (Alexander Smith).
Paraiso’s 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir ($45) opens with raspberries and raisins on the nose. That combination works in practice much better than it sounds in print. Flavors of cherry, oak, and red licorice lead to a long finish. Pretty darn good.
Unfortunately they had run out of their Alexander Smith wines.
I was reluctant to try Morgan, but I followed Norma to their table. And we’re both very happy that we did. Morgan appears to have changed their ways, stopped producing monsters that need ten years aging, and are now making wines we like.
Their 2013 Garys’ Vineyard ($58) is pretty good, but overpriced. Aromas of baking spices, dark chocolate, and rose petals are melded with plum, black licorice, and sage on the palate.
The ninth SLH Gala was even better than the eighth. With any luck we’ll be back next year.