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Navigating the Santa Lucia Highlands

California's mountainous Central Coast region is known for its distinctive Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 2, 2011 10:02am ET

There's a lot of hot air in the wine industry about California Pinot Noir and which style is right and which is wrong, which is all a load of nonsense. Excuse me if I don't goose-step in your direction, but I'm capable of liking a variety of Pinot Noirs, from elegant red Burgundies built for the cellar to California's biggest fruit bombs.

Somewhere along the middle of that stylistic sliding scale are the Pinots of Santa Lucia Highlands. Many of the top players in Pinot—as well as Chardonnay and Syrah—make a wine from there: Kosta-Browne, A.P. Vin, Peter Michael, Vision Cellars, Carlisle and Patz & Hall to name a few.

Stylistically, Santa Lucia wines tend to be big and full of bold fruit and typically have a supple, fleshy character, all balanced by high acidity and a distinctive loamy herb note. Two prime examples are the Loring Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2009 (93 points, $29) and Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2009 (92, $29).

Two of the most widely available wines from the region are Chardonnays. Talbott Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Sleepy Hollow Vineyard 2009 (91, $40) has a long and impressive track record. Always a fine value is the Mer Soleil Chardonnay Silver Unoaked 2008 (88, $22).

Located just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, the region takes its name from the Santa Lucia Mountains, a range that stretches more than 100 miles from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. Spanish missionaries planted the first grape vines there in the 1790s but it wasn't until the early 1970s that the modern era began with the planting of Sleepy Hollow, Paraiso and other vineyards.

Approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1991, the region spans some 22,000 acres but only about 6,000 are planted to grapes. Nearly half of that is planted to Pinot, with the rest mostly Chardonnay plus a little Riesling, Syrah and more.

The vineyards run along the southeastern slopes of the highlands, overlooking Salinas Valley, and are planted as high as 1,200 feet. The soil is mostly gravelly, sandy loam. Vineyards along the northern slopes are particularly influenced by the cool, foggy weather from Monterey Bay. Pacific breezes are a natural refrigerator for the grapes, allowing for a long growing season without the severe heat. While Salinas Valley can be toasty warm, temperatures in the highlands rarely break 90° F.

Another factor that distinguishes Santa Lucia Highlands, specifically when it comes to Pinot Noir, is the Pisoni clone, which is widely planted in the area. Gary Pisoni's family has been farming vegetables in the valley since 1946 and, as the story goes, Gary took a trip to Burgundy and had the chutzpah to pick up cuttings left on the ground at the famed La Tâche vineyard and smuggle the buds home in his underwear. It wasn't exactly legal and Gary's response is always "no comment."

I'm not sure Burgundy aficionados would recognize their beloved DNA when they drink a Pisoni-clone Pinot from Santa Lucia Highlands, but it certainly adds to the lore of the region.

Have you tasted wines from Santa Lucia Highlands? Do you have a favorite or a new discovery? WineSpectator.com members can find all our latest reviews of Santa Lucia wines in our Wine Ratings Search.

Ivan S Robles
Jacksonville, FL —  November 2, 2011 2:49pm ET

The first Pinot that I tried from Santa Lucia was the Paraiso 2007 and I felt in love with the wine. My brother-in-law and I bought all the bottles left in the wine store (Village Bottle Shoppe) in West Lafayette, IN. Since then, I moved to Jacksonville, FL and was lucky enough that one my favorites local wine store sell the wine. I have tried the 2008 & 2009 and agree with your collegue James Laube, the 2008 is better than the 2009 but the 2007 was amazing. This wine is a great bang for your buck.

Thanks for writting about the Santa Lucia Highlands region.

Chris Thomas
Denver CO —  November 2, 2011 3:39pm ET
While on a business trip to the Monterey area in 2005 I found a lovely little French restaurant in Carmel and wanted to try a local wine with my rack of lamb and ordered a Roar Pinot,Gary's Vineyard. I did not know of the Highlands or of Roar and seldom ordered Pinots at that time. I was completely and totally blown away by the quality and depth of the Roar.I had been collecting for twenty years by then, mostly in Bordeaux's and California Bordeaux blends and never understood the attraction to Pinots having only tried more reasonably priced Pinots, all of which I found wanting in some respect. That night I finally understood. The Highlands wines, and Roar in particular simply must be tried to fully understand and appreciate, and while slightly more expensive than the wines I tried previously with poor results, they are very reasonably priced for the consistently outstanding quality. Chris
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  November 2, 2011 4:03pm ET
The Santa Lucia Highlands, like Paso Robles, like Sta. Rita Hills, like the Santa Ynez Valley and so many other small AVAs in California, Oregon and Washington State, typify what is so exciting and interesting about American viticulture these days: passionate winemakers are working with dedicated growers to produce utterly unique and tasty wines at reasonable prices. Limited in their production, distribution is similarly limited, forcing consumers to seek out wines in ways we didn't imagine just a decade ago: trolling the internet, calling small producers, befriending proprietors of specialty wine shops, all in search of that bottle of Roar, Loring, Siduri or Paraiso. But, the hunt is worth the reward. It's a great time to be a wine lover.
Rich Meier
Reno,NV. Washoe —  November 2, 2011 4:09pm ET
We visit on average twice a year, early spring and late fall for the best weather. Go about 5 miles up Carmel Valley road and there will be almost a dozen small tasting rooms. Booekenogen, Talbot, and Bernardus are among our favorites. Beautiful chards and delightful pinots are the reward. In this area you can park the car walk to the tasting rooms and several cafes. Many producers will feature pinots from famous vineyards. Love to taste several, but my steady date is Rosella
Scott Mcintyre
Sacramento, CA —  November 2, 2011 5:24pm ET
Unless I'm mistaken, Carlisle doesn't make pinot and may not make any wine from SLH. Perhaps you meant Siduri!
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 2, 2011 5:42pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. There is no shortage of good wines and good stories from the Highlands. Scott, sorry if my wording was imprecise but Carlisle makes Syrah from SLH.
Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  November 2, 2011 6:45pm ET
Distinctive wines for sure, but wouldn't it be nice if more people pronounced it correctly -
it's Santa Lu-SEE-ya. Spanish. Not Santa Lu-CHEE-ya. That would be the Italian pronunciation.
Thad Cox
Knoxville, TN. —  November 3, 2011 1:07pm ET
I sat down with Adam Lee of Siduri about a month ago and tasted through most of his 2010's. While the Santa Lucia Highlands was excellent, the 2010 Sierra Mar Vyd. Pinot Noir was outstanding.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  November 3, 2011 4:15pm ET
My first experience with a Garys Vineyard Pinot was both revelatory in that it really turned me on to the potential of coastal california pinots and interesting -- it was made in Truckee, California and tasted on a snowy Feb day post skiing! Truckee River Winery is actually a great place to check out when in Tahoe -- the winemaker does a very nice job with the Garys fruit and you get to taste wine fermented and aged at high altitude and low temperatures ( a fascinating experiment in organic chemistry at the minimum)
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  November 3, 2011 9:36pm ET
Arcadian Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay...year in-year out, two of the best examples of those varieties from the Central Coast. The Syrah ain't half bad either.
Gavin Mchugh
Nor Cal —  November 3, 2011 11:27pm ET
We just enjoyed the 2009 LWC Santa Lucia PN. Just as you described, it was an elegant and flavorful wine. Interesting to learn of others experiences with wines from this region.
George Bato
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 4, 2011 5:01pm ET

SLH PInots has certainly seen the rise of some incredible Pinots over the last 20 years. One of my favorite labels is the Pisoni Family's sister label called Lucia. The wines are top quality showing Jeff Pisoni's talents as a winemaker, with his brother Mark working the farming side of the family business. Their Syrahs are big, brash, and very tasty as well. Unfortunately they seem to sell out every year.
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  November 4, 2011 5:14pm ET
The best story I've heard in a long time is a Oregon winery buying Gary's Vyd fruit to make some Pinot? Yes thats correct Oregon winery!
Giancarlo Ortega
Washington DC —  November 5, 2011 9:01am ET
I love Santa Lucia Highlands pinot and i am a big fan of Loring and AP Vin. The appeal for me is exactly that midpoint of style between Burgundy and Cali fruit bombs. I am enjoying them drinking at about five to six years of age.
Ivan S Robles
Jacksonville, FL —  November 6, 2011 10:03am ET
Mr. Bato,

There is a wine store (Wine on the way) in Orlando, FL that have the Lucia Pinots. The name of the owner is Adam and they may ship the wine to you.

Erik Farrell
cali dreamin —  November 15, 2011 3:17am ET
Have to second what Rick had to say about Carmel Valley. Boekenoogten, Talbot and Bernardus all are top notch. I specially like the Boekenoogen Pinots after 2-3 yrs of cellar time.

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