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Santa Lucia Highlands: Strong Winds, Stressed Vines and Vibrant Wines

Santa Lucia Highlands: Strong Winds, Stressed Vines and Vibrant Wines

Photo Credit: Santa Lucia Highlands

Located in Monterey County, California, wedged between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Salinas Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands offers a rare combination of cold temperatures, strong winds, low rainfall, and rugged, mountainous terrain. These conditions force grapes to work extremely hard, resulting in elegant wines with high levels of acidity and concentration. 

The history of wine in the region goes back to the 1790s, when the Spanish missionaries and conquistadors cultivated grapes at Mission Soledad. It took until the early 1970s, however, for modern commercial vineyards to be established by pioneers like Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook and the McFarlands of Sleepy Hollow. It was somewhat of a revolutionary idea—planting grapes on the steep hillside required considerable effort, and prior to this, the land had only been used to raise cattle and farm row crops like potatoes and sugar beets.

Over the years, the historic region has seen its share of change, expanding to 6,400 acres of vineyards. While the focus has been on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, other grape varietals have started making an appearance, including Syrah and Grenache. Still, the Santa Lucia Highlands remains a grower-focused region, with a tight-knit community dedicated to the cultivation of extraordinary grapes. Read on to meet some of the producers and families who have stepped up to make this region world-class.  

Luli Wines

Photo Credit: Luli Wines

In 2007, brothers Mark and Jeff Pisoni teamed up with sommelier Sara Floyd to create Luli Wines. By taking a larger snapshot of the Santa Lucia Highlands and souring high-quality fruit from their grower friends, the trio has helped share the region’s distinctive wines with a larger audience. 

Mark focuses on the vineyard management side of the house while Jeff is primarily responsible for the winemaking. There are overlapping responsibilities, but this siloed way of working allows the brothers to focus on their dedicated roles while collaborating strategically. 

Luli’s focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as these Burgundian style wines are a perfect match for the Santa Lucia Highlands. But the brand also makes a cool-climate Syrah—the slow ripening creates a Syrah that is exceptionally deep and concentrated yet elusive, with hints of floral and spice.  

For Mark, the region’s decomposed granite soils make Syrah production a “no-brainer,” he says. However, the variety is not without challenges. “Because of the cold weather, Syrah is very late to ripen,” he noted. “We usually see rainfall and challenging weather before it’s time to harvest.”

Manzoni Vineyards

Photo Credit: Manzoni Vineyards

The story of the Manzoni Home Vineyard dates back to 1921, when Joseph Manzoni settled in the Salinas Valley, an area so fertile it produces the majority of the nation’s lettuce (hence its moniker, The Salad Bowl of the World). What started off as a dairy business evolved into cash crop farming—as a kid, Manzoni remembers his parents growing everything from alfalfa to Christmas trees. The Manzonis started growing grapes in the 1990s, when they converted six acres to vine rootstock. Within four years, they had planted five acres of Pinot Noir and one acre of Syrah.

The Manzoni Home Vineyard is located in the center of the Santa Lucia Highlands, an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir. Heavily influenced by the winds off nearby Monterey Bay, the vines are frequently stressed, producing low, concentrated yields.  In the vineyard, Manzoni is careful not to overplant or overwater. “When it comes to harvest, I’m a hands-on kind of guy,” he says. “I keep an eye on the sugars, but I also taste the grapes and look at the seeds. I don’t want green seeds.”

Manzoni’s Vigna Monte Nero vineyard is located in the northernmost part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Moderately warm and breezy days are followed by cool evenings and foggy mornings—conditions that produce Chardonnays with exotic flavors and intensity. 

Odonata Wines

Photo Credit: Odonata Wines

Sacramento native Denis Hoey grew up in a family that appreciated wine. As such, he was exposed to a wide variety of bottles from a young age and developed a refined palate. After graduating from college, he worked for Jeff Emery, the owner and winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. He eventually became the winery’s production manager before breaking off on his own in 2005 to found Odonata Wines.  

His winemaking style is focused on texture, spice and flavor, with special attention paid to acidity and balance—never higher or lower alcohol levels. Hoey might use a bit of oak to support the structure of the wine, but his approachalways comes back to balance.

The Future of the Santa Lucia Highlands 

Photo Credit: Santa Lucia Highlands

Mark and Jeff Pisoniremember their father, Gary, planting Pinot Noir in 1982 prior to the establishment of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. At that time, many people questioned the viability of growing grapes in the region due to obstacles around climate and topography. Since then, the region has grown tremendously. Consumers are now realizing the challenges are in fact advantages that allow for bright, complex and vibrant wines with great aging potential.

While the Santa Lucia Highlands doesn’t have the foot traffic of prominent wine regions like Napa or Sonoma, the region continues to grow its presence nationally. Hoey is optimistic; he envisions more tasting rooms will arrive in the next 3 to 5 years, elevating tourism within the area. Manzoni wishes Monterey County would do more to promote the inland part of the county, not just the Monterey Bay Area. “We need lodging and restaurants to go along with our wineries,” he says. “There are more than enough tourists to go around. They don’t realize it would benefit us all in the long run.”

Wine Recommendations

Manzoni Vineyards 2018 Syrah

Bright dark cherry red in color with flavors of blueberry, lavender and just a touch of toasted oak. Followed up by a nice long finish, this wine has great balance between the acidity and the fruit.

Odonata Wines 2019 Syrah

Topped off with 5% Viognier, this wine has dense flavors of raspberry and strawberry dominating the palate with just a touch of black pepper, chewy tannins and a generous mouthfeel.

Luli Wines 2019 Pinot Noir

Gorgeous cherry aromatics on the nose with flavors of strawberry and raspberry. The wine displays nice acidity, depth and complexity.

Odonata Wines 2018 Pinot Noir

Sourced from Escolle Vineyard, one of the highest elevations in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This wine has flavors of strawberry, blackberry and cherry while maintaining great texture and minerality characteristics.

Manzoni Vineyards 2019 “North Highlands Cuvee” Chardonnay

Sourced from multiple vineyards, this wine has flavors of tropical fruit and crisp acidity.

Luli WInes 2018 Chardonnay

Flavors of pear, apple and lemon with a nice balance and earthy characteristics.