On the way down to the Wine Bloggers Conference in July, the 7th annual one of these, we decided to stop in the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) and do some wine tasting. In the past, every time we drove down the 101 highway we would drive by this area and say “Some day we need to visit this area.” We’ve tasted wines from this region at various events, or from wineries outside the region that buy grapes from the SLH region, but had never visited any of the wineries. Instead of “Shame on us,” it was now “Finally we stopped.”
SLH is in Monterey County, but inland, on the hillsides of the Santa Lucia mountain range overlooking the Salinas Valley. This valley runs essentially east-west, similar to the Santa Rita Hills (SRH) area in Santa Barbara County, and similar to the SRH AVA gets ocean breezes to keep the temperature down during the day. This area benefits from a long growing season, with early bud break and late harvests. Maybe a closer comparison would be to the Corralitos area at the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which has very similar characteristics, and specializes in the same grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The first winery we visited was Pessagno Winery. In the photo above you see one of the reasons we’ll be returning: the turntable and the vinyl albums. Gerre (pronounced like “Jerry”), who was behind the tasting bar for us, is a huge Eric Clapton fan, and a Clapton greatest hits album was on. (Which brought up the question of the Derek and the Dominoes version of “Layla” versus the Clapton Unplugged version, but we hadn’t had enough wine yet to really get into that discussion.) We started tasting through the lineup of Pessagno wines, including Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, which is what the SLH region is known for. At the end, there were a couple of Zinfandels, made from grapes purchased in the adjacent San Benito County. We really enjoyed the 2011 Zinfandel from Idyll Times Vineyard, and bought a couple of bottles.
The second winery we visited was Hahn Estates. This is a much bigger winery – around 300,000 cases per year versus 5,000 for Pessagno – with a few different labels that they make and distribute wine under. The tasting room is very nice, and they have a lot of the wines available for tasting. You can choose which ones to taste, 6 to a flight, with the fee waived upon purchase. With wines available starting at $14 each, it’s not hard to choose a bottle and waive the fee. Just like at Pessagno, the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were not our favorites. Instead, we left with a bottle of the 2012 Hahn Winery Chef’s Cuvée from Paso Robles, a blend of the white Rhone varietals Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier. While we really liked this wine, the best reason to visit Hahn is the view, which is spectacular. With a great deck and tables outside, think about bringing your lunch, grabbing a bottle and enjoying the day.
If you’re not bringing your lunch to Hahn or another winery, try El Camarón in Soledad for lunch. This Mexican restaurant specializes in seafood (camarón is shrimp in Spanish), and makes a few different versions of ceviche. I got a shrimp ceviche, Lori got a chicken tostada, and we both went away feeling very happy (and full).