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Courtesy of Morgan's Vineyards The view from Morgan Winery's Double L Vineyards in California's Santa Lucia Highlands.
Discovering the wines of California’s Santa Lucia Highlands

Santa Lucia Highlands » Lesser-known California region yields fruit with intense flavor and depth — and is home to wineries with ‘mom-and-pop’ ambiance.

By Kathy Stephenson

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Mar 18 2014 09:42 am • Last Updated Mar 19 2014 01:32 pm

No one sitting around the table had ever traveled to the Santa Lucia Highlands. And, truthfully, most of us had never heard of this tiny wine-growing region in California’s Monterey County before registering for this wine class.

"You’d have to be a real wine geek to seek out the rustic place," admitted our teacher, Salt Lake City wine educator Sheral Schowe.

At a glance

Wines from Santa Lucia Highlands

Utah carries several wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands area of California.

Paraiso Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2009 » Earthy and rich, this wine was the favorite pinot noir, for the price, in a recent Santa Lucia Highlands wine class. $18.99

Hahn Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands » A “soft, silky, huggable little wine,” says Utah wine educator, Sheral Schowe. In German, “Hahn” means “rooster,” so look for the red barnyard bird that embellishes each label. $19.99.

Morgan Vineyards Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2010 » Deep, dark and fruity, this wine also was a class favorite. Pair with cow’s milk cheddar, pork or salmon in teriyaki sauce. $19.99

Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Charonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2012 » This wine is not only easy to spot thanks to its silver, ceramic bottle, its higher acidity makes it a memorable wine to serve with salads and grilled seafood. $19.99

Belle Glos Pinot Noir, Las Alturas Vinyard, Santa Lucia, 2011 » This single-vineyard wine is rich with ripe plum, currant and black cherry flavors. $39.99

Morgon Pinot Noir Gary’s Vineyard » This estate has gained a reputation for producing some of California’s most sought-after pinot noirs. $46.99.

Travel to Santa Lucia

The Santa Lucia Highlands 8th annual tasting gala features samples from more then 30 area vintners. For many of these artisans, this is the only public tasting of the year. It will be held at Mer Soleil vineyard, a venue not normally open to the public and owned by the Wagner family, which also owns the Caymus, Belle Glos and Conundrum brands. Pre-gala events include vineyard tours and discussions at Hahn Estate, Puma Road’s Apex property, and Morgan’s Double L Vineyard. Also available is a terroir seminar and library tasting at Mer Soleil.

When » Saturday, May 17, 1 to 4 p.m.

Where » Mer Soleil Winery, 1290 River Road, Salinas, Calif.

Tickets » $85 per person at santaluciahighlands.com

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But wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH), she said, should be on everyone’s radar simply for their food friendly taste and affordable prices.

The vineyards are located on the terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley, a region that offers one of the most varied climates in California.

The high elevation provides sunshine, while the fog and breezes off Monterey Bay lend cool air that slows the ripening of grapes. The semi-arid climate also produces little rain during sensitive growing periods. All these factors combine for a longer growing season — harvest is usually mid-September to early October — and fruit with intense flavor and depth.

More than 6,000 acres of grapes are cultivated in the Highlands, the majority are pinot noir and chardonnay. There’s also is a healthy amount of syrah and reisling and a mix of more than a dozen other grapes. But the region is best known for, what the San Francisco Chronicle describes as "big, fleshy and mouthfilling" pinot noirs.

For many years, wine industry superstars have relied on the SLH grapes for their top vintages, said David Muret, executive director of the Santa Lucia Highland Wine Artisans, a trade group that represents the appellation.

But "we have been playing under the radar for quite awhile" with everyday wine consumers, he said during a recent telephone interview.

The rural location, about 40 minutes inland from Monterey, is part of the reason.

"We’re not a wine Disneyland like Napa or Sonoma," he said. "We’re primarily a wine-growing district."

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Muret said about half of the 46 vineyards have their own wine labels, the rest grow fruit and sell it to other winemakers. Of those who make wine, only eight have tasting rooms at the vineyard for visitors. Five more have tasting rooms in Carmel Valley or Monterey where there are more tourists.

The small "mom-and-pop" nature of the vineyard is one of the reasons Schowe, owner of Wasatch Academy of Wine, likes to educate Utahns about the region.

"I like the fact that the people who run the winery are the same people who own it," she said. "It’s hard to find the owner/winemaker association in Napa."

Utah wine stores carry a variety of SLH wines, including Hahn, Mer Soleil, Morgan and Paraiso labels, said Schowe. Several cost under $20 a bottle. (See accompanying list.)

Wines from lesser-known regions, such as SLH, tend to have similar quality but more affordable prices, than those from more well-known regions, Schowe explained.

"There’s more value to be found in these rustic, out-of-the-way areas," she said.

It was winemaker Nicky Hahn who first suggested that the 12 mile-long stretch above the Salina River be designated as a unique wine-growing district. In 1991, the federal government approved the Santa Lucia Highlands as a American Viticultural Area (AVA).

While it’s a relatively new AVA, the region is steeped in grape-growing culture. The earliest grapes were planted in the 1790s by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors.

The modern wine-making era began in the early 1970s, with a second wave of vineyards developed in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the SLH Wine Artisans website.

"Within 20 years, the planted vineyard acreage had tripled and then tripled again," it said.

Not only is the country "beautiful and raw," winemakers in the area also have a focus on "growing green," said Utah wine broker Francis Fecteau, owner of Libations, Inc.

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