“I need to go to the bathroom!” one of the small kids shouted at Mom and Dad as the family drove from Sonoma to Santa Lucia Highlands in California. But this was not a typical family trip as the mother, Kerith Overstreet, had left a stable career in the medical field to be a winemaker and so she was traveling with her family to try to buy some Pinot Noir wine grapes from one of the most outstanding domestic Pinot Noir vineyards she had ever tasted: Garys’ Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands.
Kerith fell in love with Garys’ Vineyard before becoming a winemaker. She had read an article about Santa Lucia Highlands in The Wall Street Journal written by Dorothy J. Gaiter (Dottie) and John Brecher, who both called a wine made from Garys’ Vineyard “delicious!”. So after Kerith started her winery in 2008, one day she decided to call the producer who made the wine, “Hey, I have been making wine for two years, and I read this article in The Wall Street Journal about this vineyard called Garys’. Do you think you have any fruit?” And instead of laughing her off the phone, the man on the other end graciously invited her and her family to come to visit as she lived only a few hours away in Sonoma.
The minute Kerith’s family arrived at the winery, the child, who felt an overwhelming urge to go, jumped out of the car and headed towards the bathroom immediately. But her child wasn’t used to septic tanks out in the country that had a limited capacity of what could be flushed so after what seemed to be an eternity, waiting outside getting hammered by the Santa Lucia Highlands’ “actively unpleasant wind,” Kerith’s child came out and yelled, “Mom, I pooped so big that it won’t flush .” At that moment, Kerith just wanted to die and she thought to herself, “I am never going to get fruit.”
Well, not only did she get some of the Pinot Noir from Garys’ Vineyard that day for her Bruliam Wines winery but it started a relationship that has her working with Santa Lucia Vineyard’s top-quality Pinot Noir fruit as well as her estate fruit in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma since that time.
Single Vineyard Estates in Santa Lucia Highlands
Garys’ Vineyard was planted by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni in 1997 and they are among the grape growers who have helped put Santa Lucia Highlands on the map. Kerith spoke to Gary Pisoni’s son Mark on that fateful day, who is the vineyard manager at his family winery and estate, Pisoni Vineyards. The Pisoni family not only makes wine under the guidance of Gary’s other son Jeff, but they also sell their Pisoni Estate fruit to top producers and so it is one of the most famous single vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands.
Anyone serious about Santa Lucia Highlands wines is probably very familiar with the Pisoni Estate vineyard, located in the southern section of the Santa Lucia Highlands wine appellation. The Pisoni family has been farming for around 100 years, mainly dairy and other crops that they still farm. Jeff Pisoni spoke about his family estate’s wide assortment of soils due to the fault lines that “at one point lifted up” the Sierra de Salinas mountain range, and so they have a “variety of different soil types”.
The Pisoni Estate is highlighted on the newly released Santa Lucia Highlands AVA map released by wine publication Vinous, founded by famous wine critic Antonio Galloni. This is the 14th map that Antonio has done for California, as there are seven for Napa Valley and six for Sonoma, and Antonio and his team’s goal is to create, “state-of-the-art cartography maps for American wines” that will become a reference point for the region. “The Vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA” map breaks down all the single vineyards within the 18-mile long Santa Lucia Mountain range in Monterey County, California. Antonio has enlisted the help of revered Italian cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti who has done an excellent job of expressing the sense of place for highly regarded wine regions such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti Classico.
The Vinous maps plan to achieve the same goals as the Masnaghetti maps of great Italian wine regions by expressing vivid topographical detail that influences the vineyards within that region. Still, they go a step further by adding smaller 3D maps that focus on key elements of the region as well as giving individual information for many vineyards on the back of the map to explore the nuanced differences – hence why Antonio likes to call them “narrative maps”. In each Vinous wine map, one of the most famous vineyards is dissected and therefore the Pisoni Vineyard is broken down to illustrate how the estate can be divided into “four ridge tops, each on a different alluvial fan and each with its own soil types.”
The map also breaks up the Santa Lucia Highlands into the North Bench and the South Bench. As mentioned before, Pisoni is located in the southern area of the appellation, but Garys’ Vineyard, another outstanding single vineyard estate, is located in the northern area, a.k.a. North Bench. Each vineyard has its own individual qualities and in the case of Pisoni it has varying differences among different plots within the same vineyard. Still, there are some general differences between the North versus the South sections of Santa Lucia Highlands as a whole region: the South has more pronounced elevations, poorer soils, water is scarcer and there is less moisture retention in the soil. Antonio Galloni noted that due to these differences, the South Bench would have wines that are generally deeper, darker and more structured as opposed to the more aromatic presence and red or purplish-leaning fruit found in the North Bench in regards to their Pinot Noir wines.
Adam Lee, who initially became known as the winemaker for Siduri Wines, has his own winery today called Clarice Wine Company, named after his grandmother, and still consulting with other wineries, spoke about his personal experience of using the fruit from Garys’ Vineyard. “The great thing about Garys’ Vineyard is that it is fantastic fruit and I don’t need to do anything,” noted Adam. He further discussed how his Clarice Garys’ Vineyard employs low-intervention winemaking due to the grapes’ stellar quality. According to him, the stellar quality is not only due to the place but also to the exceptional management of each block by the Franscioni and Pisoni families.
Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
Another well-known figure in the area is Dan Morgan Lee, no relation to Adam Lee. He has been a winemaker in Monterey County for over 40 years and started to focus on Santa Lucia Highlands around 20 years ago with his winery, Morgan Winery. Although the Pinot Noir wines from Santa Lucia Highlands have gotten a lot of attention, Dan said that Chardonnay initially put them on the map such as the ones made by Talbott Vineyards and his winery. But it makes sense since great Pinot Noir and outstanding Chardonnay go hand in hand in finding the ideal grape growing region.
Yet Dan is not only proud of their fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but that they continue to safeguard the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA name by making sure that only vineyards that fit particular criteria are included in the official appellation. A few years back, Dan initiated the need to have the wine region evaluated by a professional geographer and viticulturist who examined the geological formations. The areas that were truly highlands were added, or if already existing within the AVA were allowed to stay in it, compared to the flatter land removed from the appellation, so some land was added while a lot more land was taken out. It is undoubtedly an atypical course of action to have less total acreage after a new AVA assessment is done.
Passion Versus Obligation
But even though all the vineyard land fits the definition of highlands today doesn’t mean it has been easy to grow grapes there. Jeff Pisoni tells the story of when his father, a dairy and vegetable farmer, was driven by pure passion for growing wine grapes and making wine in the early ’80s; it would seem that Mother Nature was not too kind when it came to his wine aspiration. As mentioned before, their Pisoni Estate is located in the South Bench where water is scarce and the soils do not retain moisture well and so finding a water source was critical for growing quality grapes. His father needed a well driller to drill through seven feet of gravel and then 380 feet of solid granite – yes, that is 380 feet! Well, six well drillers later, he finally tapped into a water source.
This is a great example of why Antonio Galloni loves California wines as, unlike European wines, which he is also a big fan of, many times the wine producer has done it out of passion against all odds compared to a European wine producer, as in many cases, the current owner may have felt an obligation to go into their multi-generational wine business. One area of the world is not better or worse and Antonio is the first to say that many European winemakers make great wines even if it is part of one’s duty to his family. Yet he is drawn to U.S. wines, and in this case, the wines of California, because people dream the impossible dream, and that is one of the reasons he is on a mission to create comprehensive wine maps for America that are on par with the most cherished maps of top European wine regions.
And the story of the passion that leads someone like Kerith to leave a secure life in the medical field to become a winemaker is certainly part of that American spirit. At first, she followed her obligation to her father, who wanted her to at least finish medical school, which she did, and after a residency and two fellowships, she took that leap of passion to make that impossible dream a reality.
Sparkling from North Bench:
2015 Caraccioli Cellars, Brut Cuvée, Escolle Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: One of the distinguishing features of Escolle Vineyard is the production of grapes for sparkling wine and the Caraccioli family does a great job. Blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from this single vineyard. Hints of hazelnuts and stony minerality on the nose with a creamy texture from fine bubbles and zingy acidity.
Chardonnay from North Bench:
2019 Hahn Estate, ‘Lucienne Chardonnay’ Lone Oak Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Nicolaus (Nicky) Hahn was one of the early settlers in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the family owns four different sites: the Lone Oak Vineyard in the North Bench and three in the South Bench. Rich nuttiness on the nose with a mixture of tropical and stone fruit on the palate with marked acidity.
Pinot Noir from the North Bench:
2019 Morgan Winery, Pinot Noir, Double L Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: “The Double L Vineyard is a dramatic site. A thin strip of vineyards, Double L starts at River Road and runs all the way up the hillside, its narrow shape emphasizing the distinctive contours of the land and the exposed character of this part of the Santa Lucia Highlands.” Floral nose with hints of wet river stones and fresh raspberry on the palate with a light, nimble body.
2018 McIntyre Vineyards, Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Steven McIntyre is also an early pioneer and the McIntyre estate vineyard has some of the oldest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines going back to 1973. Dark cherry nose with a rich body and good mid-palate weight with hints of earthy notes on the finish.
2018 Bernardus, Pinot Noir, Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Rosella’s Vineyard is one of the Franscioni family vineyards which is one of the historic families in the region since their roots go back to the early 1900s and not only does the family themselves make a single vineyard wine with their Rosella’s site under their ROAR label, they also sell the fruit to high-quality producers such as Bernardus. “The slope starts at 250 feet and works its way up to about 450 feet in elevation at a five to seven percent incline.” Bright red fruit such as cherries and strawberries with an undertone of minerality with fleshy fruit on the body and broad tannins.
2018 Siduri, Pinot Noir, Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: The same vineyard as above, the Rosella’s Vineyard, yet a more delicate wine with pretty floral notes and tart cherry flavor and lots of lift to this wine and overall finesse with fine tannins and a stony finish. Both wines share a great purity to the fruit quality.
2019 Clarice Wine Company, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: As noted in the article, this vineyard was planted in 1997 by two pioneers of Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. “Garys’ is unique for the North Bench in that its location, nestled between two creeks, is marked by a high presence of rock content that has been deposited over the millennia.” Complex nose of boysenberry, black tea, violets and tree bark with good flesh on the mid-palate with a good amount of tannic structure and marked acidity to make this wine very age-worthy.
2018 Bruliam, Soberanes Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Soberanes is right next door to Garys’ Vineyard, and owner/winemaker of Bruliam Wines Kerith Overstreet has been working with their fruit since 2010 – the first vintage for this vineyard. The Soberanes Vineyard is another joint partnership between Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. “The vineyard is located just south of Garys’ in a section of the Santa Lucia Highlands that is marked by open, expansive vistas and southeast facing slopes that receive plenty of the sun and wind that are such signatures of the appellation.” Extremely enchanting wine with a mixture of red fruit (red currants, raspberries and cranberries) and a lovely perfume that makes one dream of a field of wild flowers with hints of forest floor all tied together with silky tannins and mouthwatering acidity.
Pinot Noir from the South Bench:
2018 ROAR, Sierra Mar Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: “Sierra Mar is one of the most dramatic vineyard sites in all of California. This land has been in the Franscioni family since 1930. The vineyards start at 650 feet in elevation and reach 1,000 feet, where the terrain features the decomposed granite soils typical of these hillsides.” Savory nose with rosemary and tobacco leaf intermixed with pretty notes of orange blossom and fresh blueberries that has big, bold tannins.
2019 Pisoni Estate, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Pisoni is undoubtedly one of the great “Grand Cru” vineyards of California, and the Pisoni family is an historic family in the region that goes back almost 100 years. “Pisoni can be divided into four ridge tops, each on a different alluvial fan and each with its own soil types, plus two transitional areas between those that result in a total of six variations.” A richly textural wine with juicy blackberry and blueberry fruit with smoldering earth, underbrush and dried violets with an extremely long, expressive finish.
Syrah from North Bench:
2019 Cattleya “The Initiation” Syrah, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Antonio Galloni said that despite Syrah not being the most popular variety in Santa Lucia Highlands, he thinks it is the “most exciting” because it is “very distinctive”. A lush wine with blackcurrant jam with plenty of structure to help lift such richness yet the tannins are round and approachable with a complex finish of granite, bacon bits and dusty earth.