Santa Lucia Highlands: Beyond Pinot Noir

Winemakers in the Central California region add to their varietal mix.

Santa Lucia Highlands is diversifying beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Morgan Winery’s Double L vineyard (pictured) includes Riesling and Syrah.
Santa Lucia Highlands is diversifying beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Morgan Winery’s Double L vineyard (pictured) includes Riesling and Syrah.

Central California’s Santa Lucia Highlands has roots firmly planted in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the appellation is becoming known for more than its traditional varietals. Producers are adding Pinot Gris, Riesling and other grapes that respond to the region’s cool climate.

According to the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans trade group, about 6,500 acres are currently planted, with 3,500 acres of Pinot Noir and 2,200 acres of Chardonnay. Riesling captures most of the remaining acreage, along with small lots planted to Pinot Gris, Syrah and Viognier. The 2015 harvest was down between 30 percent and 50 percent, though the hit was softened by two preceding years of high yields.

Morgan Winery owner Dan Lee produces his signature Twelve Clones Pinot Noir ($34 a 750-ml. bottle) and Highland Chardonnay ($28), along with Riesling and Syrah, from his 50-acre Double L Vineyard. He contracts with local growers for another 70 acres of fruit. Lee makes Double L Vineyard Riesling ($22) in the Kabinett style using German Riesling clones, while Double L Vineyard Syrah ($42) is sourced from a 1-acre planting. He notes that the Santa Lucia Highlands’ cool climate can be tricky for Syrah, which needs warmer areas.

Third-generation vintner Mark Manzoni of Manzoni Estate Vineyard is producing Pinot Gris and Syrah, whose popularity he describes as “worse than Merlot after ‘Sideways.’” Santa Lucia Highlands producers like Manzoni are seeing positive market response to their alternative white varietals, but finding Syrah harder to sell in a California Cabernet Sauvignon market. He began producing Pinot Gris after winemaker David Coventry told him consumers were seeking alternatives to Chardonnay. Manzoni produced the 2013 Pinot Gris ($23 a 750-ml. bottle) in an Alsace style, using stainless steel and new oak.

Manzoni produced about 300 cases of the 2012 Home Vineyard Syrah ($32 a 750-ml. bottle), which he markets directly to consumers. “It’s a tough sell to restaurants, even though mine is a cool-climate Syrah done in a more Old World style that’s not sweet or jammy,” he explains.

Franscioni, Hahn and Paraiso are key growers with plantings in Pinot Gris, Riesling, Syrah and Grenache. For seven years, Paraiso sold Roussanne and Viognier to veteran winemaker Chris Weidemann, owner of Pelerin Wines, to produce a notable Rhône-style blend. Due to supply issues, Weidemann decided to scale back in 2012 and focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Santa Luca Highlands vintners are aiming for the ultra-premium wine segment, but there’s some trepidation about becoming too luxury-driven. “They’re positioning themselves as the Stags Leap of Monterey County and still rising in reputation,” says Damon Franzia, general sales manager at Bronco Wine Co. and its distribution arm, Classic Wines of California. “The market will ultimately dictate whether they’re successful.” Franzia thinks Manzoni is on the right track. “He offers tremendous value at the price and over-delivers for the appellation,” he says. In Classic Wines’ portfolio, Manzoni’s wines start at $29.99 a 750-ml. bottle and rise to $59.99 for a reserve Pinot Noir. The brand has strong sales in high-end restaurants, fine wine shops and supermarkets in Monterey and the Central Coast.

Bernabe De Luna, wine director at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey, says Santa Lucia Highlands wines are pricey and becoming more like Napa Valley. But he’s firmly committed to Monterey appellations and rotates several local offerings in his by-the-glass program. His 300-label wine list ($30 to $1,800 a 750-ml. bottle) features several pages devoted to local Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, including selections from Pisoni Estate, Lucia, Roar and Bernardus. Popular by-the-glass pours include the 2014 La Marea Kristy Monterey Albariño ($12), the 2012 Chalone Heritage Vines Monterey Pinot Noir ($13) and the 2009 De Tierra Monterey Merlot ($14). Most customers spend between $80 and $100 a bottle.

Pinot Noir remains a catalyst for the region’s prominence. “More people are beginning to understand that Santa Lucia Highlands is a major player in the Pinot Noir game,” Manzoni says.