The Santa Lucia Highlands Top 10 Tasting Report

"Tell me what you drink, and I'll tell you who you are," he said, paraphrasing Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the famed French gastronome.

Just when you think you know about all the Pinot Noir hotspots, it's easy for some regions to get lost in the shuffle. So it's with that in mind, let's circle back to a post from 2011 where I encountered dozens on wines, at a pour, sniff, sip and spit media event I was invited to attend more than a few years ago. When I use to live in San Diego, getting invites to tastings like this was common, but with my new residence in Southern Oregon, the invites for pop-up events like this one are far and few between, but I do have a tasting (invitation only, la de dah) lined up in San Francisco, so stay tuned.

As always I was thrilled to have an opportunity to sample the wines from this region, and meet with the producers in person and rub shoulders (attempting to reach the popular tasting tables) with other like-minded professionals. Even though other wines were offered at the event, today I am going to focus in on the Pinot Noir and give you my top-ten list of favorites I uncovered. So without any further ado, here is my latest Top Ten Pinot Report from the Santa Lucia Highlands Appellation.

This place is called the Santa Lucia Highlands, a place you should be already very familiar with, and if you're not then, you should put it on your list of great wine destinations to discover. It is situated nearly smack-dab in the middle of the state of California, on the shelf (Highlands) of the Santa Lucia Range, just south of Monterey and just to the east of Big Sur, and Highway 101 runs along its Eastern border and benefits from the cooling effects of the winds blowing from the Monterey Bay. To learn more, please click here. It's an easy 30-minute drive out from Monterey to reach the SLH wine trail.

1. Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008:  All you would expect and more from an NW PN, which is a single-vineyard wine, that made say wow. Folks, this was out of this world good juice. A Pinot Noir of great depth of flavor and structure. Tremendously complex, offering a potpourri of lush flavors and aromas just waiting to be discovered after it's released from its waxy covered cork closure. Raspberries, dusty baking spices, and bacon-fat round out the flavor profiles. A lush mouth-feel and long plush finish that will have you coming back for more, time and again.

Back before this label was sold to Constellation, (IMO) these were honest, handcrafted wines, but that has changed since the acquisition. Still, the interest in the brand persists. This wine has an SRP of $40, but have seen it selling for $34. I scored this wine 94 points and give this wine my "run don't walk" buy recommendation. If you blink you just may miss the opportunity to get your hands on this wine. Since the Constellation buyout, the prices have seen significant increases.

Hahn Family Wines: They were pouring two PN at the event, and I liked them both. However, I really preferred the least expensive one much better. If you find yourself in the Monterey Peninsula or just passing through Highway 101, their tasting room offers a beautiful view of the Salinas Valley and the surrounding mountains in the heart of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

2. Hahn SLH Estate Pinot Noir 2009: Deep rhubarb color filling out the core, abundant aromas of baking spices and strawberries spread over near-burnt toast. An excellent foodie type wine [decant first] with a long finish. The SRP is $35 and is sold directly to the consumer through their website; however, it appears that only 2007 is available at the moment. I scored this wine a solid 90 points. Well made, great flavor for a reasonable price, that will most like sell somewhere just south of the SRP.

3. 2007 Lucienne Lone Oak Pinot: Is a big boy, with a big-boy price tag to go along with it. You will find this wine pure, soft but oh so appealing. It's rich, displaying a raspberry puree and smoking sandalwood. Mingling together with the finely ground tannins, balanced on a beam of bright acidity. This wine has an SRP of $45 and is available through their website. I scored this wine 90 points. It is well made, and no discernible technical flaws were present. A great wine to drink now and would buy a few to store away in the cellar.

4. The 2007 "Doctors" Vineyard Pinot Noir: I thought it was still a bit young, but it really showed quite a bit of promise. You will find a vibrant, plump wine that is medium bodied, expressing black plum, bacon and some silky Indian spices, splashed with sandalwood flavors and aromas. A silky finish, this wine that will pair nicely with many foods types. It has an SRP of $45, and I gave it a score of 92 points. Not my everyday quaff, but one to bust out for special occasions.

5. Paraiso Vineyards: Does it again and makes me say wow, with their 2007 Pinot Noir, West Terrace, Santa Lucia Highlands. Knocked it out of the ball-park again with terrific all-around PN flavors and nuances. This wine is dressed to impress, bright acidity, upfront raspberry notes zing along the mid and back palate. Just enough earthiness to balance out the fruit forward attack. This wine has a retail price of $45 and is sold through the tasting room or online via their e-commerce page. I gave this wine a score of 91 points. I've said it before, but it bears repeating, that in opinion; this winery is firing on all cylinders at the moment, so again if you're not familiar with these fine folks you are missing the boat.

6. Pey-Lucia Vineyards: Wow, [see made me say wow] this wine is really impressive, and I was so glad I stopped by this table. The 2007 Pey-Lucia "Frisquet" Pinot Noir comes from their ideally situated site in the higher elevations of the Santa Lucia Highlands. With only 260 cases produced this wine has my "run don't walk" buy recommendation.  I found this wine tremendously complex, offering a full array of flavors. Cherries and raspberries lead the way over dusty spices, sweet vanilla and a splash of bacon fat, resting on the plush, silky finish. I scored this wine 94 points, and it has a list price of $32 a BEST-BUY.

Other Voices: The Pinot Report had this to say; "silky texture; good structure and balance; long finish. Intense and nuanced at the same time, this Pinot just gets better and better in the glass" and scored this same wine 94 points.

7. Ray Franscioni Wines: They were, of course, pouring other SLH wines, but their 2007 Black Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir really caught my eye. I tasted this beauty among a bevy of different Pinot Noir's last week, it was a shining star in a sea of sameness. This wine offered refreshing acidity, a complex flavor of strawberry jams on well-done toast and cherries in a lovely coat of sandalwood floating on the highly polished tannins, leading to a long deep finish. The price weighs in with $36 SRP and can be found directly from the wineries website. I gave this a score of 92 points.

Roar Wines: I was hoping this would be the first table to stop-by, but my partner in crime that day Wine Harlots thought it would be better if we just started in order and hit every table. But I prefer to cherry-pick and then move onto the unknowns. But I digress, so these are the folks with two lions on the label high-fiving each other, Garys Vineyard is co-owned by both Gary's (Gary Franscioni or Roar and Gary Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards).

8. 2009 ROAR Garys' Pinot Noir: Too bad the lighting over the table was so bad, I was not able to discern the color of the wine at all. The nose was very expressive and enticing, with distinctive aromas of raspberries, ripe cherries, sweet baking spices, and violets. The dominant flavor profile is earthy [typical Burgundian style], a silky palate of restrained fruit flavors integrated with toasty oak, finishing with hints of leather and earth. This wine sells for an SRP $50 and is available on a first come, first serve basis, so ya better hurry. I scored this wine 90 points.

9. 2009 ROAR SLH Pinot Noir: The nose is immediately appealing and seductive, baking spices, dried strawberries, and rhubarb pie. Unfortunately, those beautiful aromas were fleeting. The aromas gave way to more provencal herbs, blueberry and pomegranate flavors, that are revealed subtly. Still, the wine is rich and expressive of its terroir [more Burgundian like], coating the palate with dark fruit, spice, and fine tannins. This wine sells for an SRP of $40 and can be purchased online. I scored this wine 90 points.

Tondre Grapefields: Rounding out my top-ten is a placed called Tondre Grapefields, which was planted in 1997 on six and a half acres in the heart of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation and are no longer just selling their grapes to other great labels, they are building their own brand. Pinot Noir from this vineyard and this producer is one to keep your eyes on in days, months and years to come. This was the last taste of the day but was one of the best, and they made me say wow!

10. “Tondre Grapefield” Pinot Noir 2008:  Wonderful varietal funk coming at me like a freight train, really loved the nose. This wine is quite good, brimming with natural acidity which keeps the wine honest, without the Syrah hat-trick. An unusual note of freshly crushed black pepper and waves of complex flavors, like strawberries, cherries mixed in with some sauteed mushrooms and a pinch of earthiness. This wine represents old world funk and new world freshness, well done. The finish is long and sumptuous. I scored this wine 93 points, and it sells for an SRP of $40, which is available from a variety of places online, savvy shoppers will score the good deals.

Bonus: Hope and Grace: Hope and Grace is a boutique winery producing just over 2200 cases, with a portfolio consisting of 5 wines. They were pouring their delightful SLH PN at this event. It was one of the wines to catch my attention, from an excellent group of folks who still offers the wandering wino a complimentary [nearly unheard of] tasting of their new releases in their cozy tasting salon, that can be found in the town of Yountville.

I tasted a lot of wine (over 60 different labels) this day, and apparently, not everyone made the cut. That said, this was just my top 10 Pinot Noirs, I found some very tasty Syrahs and Chard's as well, stay tuned. I would have mentioned Loring Wine Company in my top ten, but their wines would have crowded the field, as I couldn't find one Pinot Noir from Loring that I didn't like. They're producing some most excellent Pinot Noir, and you should definitely grab some when you have the opportunity.

There were many PN that I encountered, in which I thought the winemaker was trying way too hard, they seemed too focused, in my opinion, on restraint and rusticity as the signature profile. There was far more than proverbial, "tipping of the cap" to the classic Burgundian style in many of the wines I tasted that day, many were utterly devoid of any notion of new world flavors and just teased with a heady nose. Overall, the wines which made the 'list' above are in my opinion, flat-out fantastic and some represent greater values than others, so shop wisely. The wines I've reviewed above, represent the highlight of that day, not all that long ago in Costa Mesa and will rock your palate too. Until next time, remember life is short, compromise is for relationships, not wine, sip long and prosper cheers!


BrainWines said…
Very nice summary. I'll be sure to come with you next year!
Jainomo said…
That's my homeland! I'm a Monterey girl and Santa Lucia Highlands is our best friend :).
I absolutely ADORE Belle Glos, they've never ceased to amaze me. I also worked with Paraiso reps on a few occasions, and their Pinot Noirs are among their best grapes.
In fact, I've done tasting events with most of those wineries over the years. Wish I could've gone to the event, it would've been like a family reunion!
Will Eyer said…
Hey Brain, you definitely have to come with us next year...a great tasting, not to be missed.
Will Eyer said…
Jainomo, I have to agree with you, Belle Glos is the real deal! I'm so in luv with that juice, it could make my other wines jealous. The folks at Paraiso are bringing the house in terms of quality and price. So much wine for such a little price...funny no one has taken me up on my offer to reveal the location of very inexpensive 93 point...Paraiso Pinot Noir I found right here in San Diego..curious?

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