The Santa Lucia Highlands Gala, held the third Saturday of May, is one I never want to miss. Besides seeing all the wonderful growers and winemakers who have become dear friends over the years, it’s the wines that are a cast of characters in a play that is as endearingly different as is harvest each year. The Chardonnays sing like a halo’d choir and the Pinots reverberate with a carillon of melodic flavors.
The crowd was noticeably larger this year, and the addition of a tent helped spread things out just enough to accommodate all the restaurants who showed up for the first time to offer tastes of their wares. It was a delight seeing Chef Dyon Foster of Hahn, Chef Cal Stamenov of Bernardus Lodge, Chef Brad Briske of La Balena (winner of the best stuffed pork ever award), Chef Todd Fisher of Tarpy’s Roadhouse and Chef Tim Wood of Carmel Valley Ranch dish out their delectable goods, and the cheeses by Garden Variety, Schoch Family Farmstead and Michael Burke and Victor Kong of Star Market were sincerely appreciated.
The hearty sausages from Butch Francis of Cowboy Sausage were a perfect complement to Pinot and Syrah, and Marich Chocolates provided a sweet finish. It was also great having the little loaves of French bread from La Plaza Bakery is you walked in the door to the Mer Soleil barrel room. Still, we did miss the most bountiful spread of delectable food that was a bastion of previous years, generously put forth by Paradise Catering of Carmel Valley.
The wine, however, suffered no such compromise, especially if you know which tables to simply avoid, and there were more than a few no hitters. The single vineyard designates keep growing in number: last year, we made a point of tasting everything we could find from the Sierra Mar and Soberanes vineyards, both managed by Gary Franscioni and Mark Pisoni.
Well-known pillars of the AVA can always be counted on for excellent, consistently well-made wines, among them August West, Bernardus, Hahn, La Rochelle, Morgan, Pelerin, Pisoni/Lucia, Roar, Scheid and Wrath.
As was the case at last year’s Gala, the single most impressive Pinot Noir of the day for me and my fellow tasters was once again made by Ed Kurtzman, this time the 2012 Mansfield-Dunne “Peterson Vineyard”, $48, one of the most Burgundian of all those we tasted. Aromatically intoxicating with its medley of ripe strawberries and raspberries, roasting chestnuts, fern and baking spice, this mouthfilling silken beauty amazes with its plush red fruited flavor rush, abundant acidity, statuesque structure and its perfectly poised, lip smacking finish.
10 More Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Highlights
2013 August West Chardonnay, Sierra Mar Vineyard, $38: A deliciously layered buttery cobbler with satiny juicy ripe stonefruit that leaves you wanting more. Intense yet elegant.
2013 August West Pinot Noir, Peterson Vineyard, $45: Bountifully Burgundian flavors flow effortlessly from this magnificent rendition of a well-farmed vineyard that holds its secrets close to its chest, revealing them sip after sip.
2013 August West Pinot Noir, Sierra Mar Vineyard, $45: There’s no getting away from it: this vineyard has something special in its genes. A bastion of grippy cherry and cranberry, this wine flows with the promise of Thanksgiving. I kept thinking how amazing this would be with dark meat turkey and cran-orange-chile chutney.
2013 Hahn Lucienne Chardonnay, $40: Creamy dreamy and endearingly well-anchored in aromas and flavors of ripe pears and brown sugar baked apples with golden raisins and walnuts, this silken wine would make even the worst Monday seem like a finally Friday afternoon.
2012 J. Lohr Highlands Bench Chardonnay, $25: Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of so much oak, but if you enjoy a rich banana pudding, this wine is a creamy smooth and dense as the best of them. Their 2012 Highlands Bench Pinot is a dead ringer for ripe cherry pie topped with rum cherry ice cream.
2011 La Rochelle Pinot Noir, Soberanes Vineyard, $80: This wine literally stopped us in our tracks. There are few things more sobering than a tautly wound Gordion knot of intensity on every level. This wine is redolent of wet earth, roasted beets and a persistent drizzle on a brick walkway lined by heritage roses. You don’t want your nose to leave the glass, but yet it must, to enjoy the flood of savory flavors that unwinds slowly to a finish of raspberry almond tart and coffee. One to lay down.
2013 McFarland “Full Tilt” Chardonnay, $15: Seriously, if you haven’t tried this wine yet, you’re in for a tasty treat. This is full on unoaked Chardonnay that beats the pants off anything in the category: forget all those fancy silver bottles and plunk down your Andrew Jackson for this one, and you’ll still have change leftover. Nobody makes a stainless SLH Chardonnay for this price that tastes anywhere near this good. Cheers to Stephanie McFarland for creating this wine and to her stepson Kelly and grandson Travis, for growing it.
2013 J. McFarland Pinot Noir, Tribute, $30: This one wins the price-performance war hands down, no contest. At 12.5%, it is prudently welded of fabulously crunchy red cherry, tangy cranberry, abundant cinnamon and ginger, with a lengthy, exuberant finish. Another multifaceted gem from winemaker-genius, Jeff Emery.
2012 Pelerin “SLH” Pinot Noir, $36: It’s rare when the appellate blend gets my vote over a single vineyard execution, but clearly, this wine stands as an example not only of the great fruit sources Chris Weideman has at his command (Sierra Mar, Rosella’s), but of his skill in blending. This wine fires on all cylinders and would be an ample crowd pleaser for any special occasion. Also highly recommended is the 2010 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot ($48), a raven-haired beauty that needs time to reveal its skillful balance of deep dark intensity and ballerina-precise acidity.
2013 ROAR Pinot Noir, Soberanes Vineyard, $65: Another showstopper, this wine was way too good to spit: I was surprised we preferred it hands down to the Pisoni Vineyard Pinot of the same vintage, but it had such depth, breadth and elasticity that I was hooked from the first sip. This wine goes into the Spellbinding chapter of my Book of Pinot, with another entry in the “Unobtainable” chapter, as is the case with most ROAR wines, alas.
The “pepper power” award goes to Wrath’s 2012 KW Ranch Syrah, a ball of savory explosiveness, from the white pepper and flint in the nose, to its blend of lavender, rosemary and coriander woven seamlessly with roasted plums and fennel. Once again, Sabrine Rodems shows how well she knows her way around that intriguing predator of a grape, Syrah.
And a special thanks to Stefani Chaney of Scheid Vineyards, winner of the First Annual Josh Lee Award, presented in his honor to the Santa Lucia Highlands’ Volunteer of the Year. Congratulations, and thanks for all you do to promote the SLH!
BY: LAURA NESS, WINE JUDGE & WINE WRITER
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at myvinespace.com.