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Jun 29, 200912:00 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

Stripe-changing

Salinas Valley

Correcting a Zig, when it should have been a Zag, is a lot tougher than it sounds. As any broken-field-runner football player can attest, moving in one direction with momentum, then deciding a change is needed, is not the easiest athletic move to make.

And so it is in business. And so it is with wine.

One of the true Gardens of Eden on this Earth is the lush Salinas Valley in central California. This absolutely beautiful place serves as this nation’s supplier for iceberg and romaine lettuce, strawberries, asparagus, tomatoes, and table grapes.

The Salinas Valley, served by the Salinas River, extends along Highway 101 more than 90 miles in California’s central coast, about an hour south of another valley, this one called Silicon, in San Jose. The Salinas Valley runs from just below Monterey to King City, and is situated mostly on a north-south plane, but a bit further west at the northern end, and a bit further east at the southern tip.

Along the eastern edge of the Valley is the Gabilan Range, home to the infamous San Andreas Fault. On some maps the range is identified as the Gavilan Range. It is thought that gabilan is an American misprint of the Spanish word for hawk, gavilan.

Across the valley, 20 miles to the west are the Santa Lucia Highlands, which provide a bit of a barrier for the Valley from what is just west, the Big Sur and the Pacific. Still there are Pacific meteorological influences aplenty in the Salinas Valley.

Early farmers here were entranced with the soils on the valley floor, and with the amount of sunshine enjoyed in the area. Row-crops were the obvious choice of what to plant.

Row-crops are good, and we all appreciate a fresh, crisp salad, but they aren’t really sexy. They do make money, yet it’s not like any consumer is going to brag, “I had a 2009 Smith Lettuce Salad today for lunch and it was outstanding. Not as good as the 2007, but certainly well within the acceptable range.”

So back in the early 1970s, some of these farmers determined to plant wine grapes and they treated the wine grapes just like lettuce. They planted the cabernet sauvignon vines very close together, on the Valley floor. The vines flourished. So much so that mechanical harvesters were brought in to deal with all the fruit.

Planting Cabernet Sauvignon was a no-brainer. Up the 101, about 300 miles, another valley named Napa was making quite a name for itself with this grape. So why not here in Salinas?

Just a few minor problems arose. Main one was that the wine was not very good. It was green, stemmy, no good fruit expression. Some of the wines tasted a bit like the asparagus that was planted in the very next plot.

The Monterey area was off to a rocky start with its wine career. In fact, in the wine community, these wines became somewhat of a joke, with the punch-line being that if you are seeking a wine that you can pair with a salad, Monterey was the place for you.

But in America, we are not bound by laws and codes that prohibit us from changing and evolving. Short traditions are easily changed. 

The next generation of winemakers came to Salinas, looked around, and saw beautiful bench-land up on the sides of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Not particularly fertile soils for veggies, but grapevines don’t really like that kind of thing anyway. They like to work hard, be stressed, not overwatered, and they like limestone.

The Santa Lucia Highlands provided that environment. But not for cabernet sauvignon. The cool air brought on by the Pacific was perfect for more elegant expressions of wine grapes, and pinot noir along with chardonnay were the chosen stock.

Then along came the unforeseen. It’s better to be lucky than almost anything else. The movie “Sideways” made pinot noir a Hollywood star, and a marketing phenomenon. And here were these struggling Santa Lucia Highland winemakers trying to make a name for themselves, looking for a “big break.” Oddly, it happened at the theatre box office, not the wine store.

The pinot noirs and the chardonnays of the Santa Lucia Highlands, however, do not have to take a back-balcony seat to anyone. The wines are very, very good. They have a deep fruit look, with excellent acids, and bright, luscious flavors.

The pinot noirs are absolutely among America’s best, ranking up there with Russian River in Sonoma and Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara, as well as the pinots from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

As for the chardonnays, they are stunning. If you have denied yourself chardonnays lately because they are flabby and boring, wake up to Santa Lucia Highlands. Here chardonnay tastes like chardonnay, not oak, not bubble-gum, not sugar. Chardonnay.

If you like wine tourism, the area is a bit rustic. It’s a beautiful place, but it is just getting these matters sorted out. Not much tourism is associated with row-crops, but wine lovers like to see the home of what they are drinking. You will not be disappointed with the vast beauty of the Salinas Valley, and you can probably do the whole area in three or four days. The charming town of Monterey is very close, and there are a couple of decent restaurants along the 101.

Across the valley is The Pinnacles National Monument, with a top-notch resort property, The Inn at the Pinnacles. Right next door to that is Chalone winery. So you won’t be far from a four-hand massage or good pinot noir, or both.

Just because something began in one direction, does not mean other opportunities are closed.

After all, Salinas is not a tiger, and stripes can be changed.


Recommended wines from Santa Lucia Highlands:

Paraiso Vineyards – Pinot Noirs from around the bench land, each exhibiting depth.

Hahn – a new line of SLH (Santa Lucia Highlands) wines is now on shelves. Reasonably priced. Good value.

Pessagno – the Pinot Noir is good. The Syrah and Zinfandel are really good.

De Tierra – Chardonnays so delicious, you may swear off red wine entirely. But don’t. The Pinot Noir from a small estate, Silacci, will astound you.

Testarossa Vineyards – Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir. Go get some right now.

Hope and Grace Vineyards – also from Sleepy Hollow, and would make a nice side-by-side tasting with the Testarossa.

Kosta-Brown – yes, they are primarily from further up north in Sonoma, but they also make a Santa Lucia Highland Pinot Noir. And no, you probably won’t be able to find any, but it’s worth the mention.


Some of these wines may not be available in the local retail market. Ask your wine merchant for assistance in obtaining them. They are worth the extra effort.

 

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Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

about

In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.

 

Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and weekly columnist, Happy Hour, for www.MyNewOrleans.com; the Executive Editor and monthly features writer for Gulf Coast Wine + Dine Online; creator and editor of his own website, www.winetalknola.com; all in addition to his daily hosting duties on the radio program, The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every weekday, 3- 5 p.m, and streamed live on www.wgso.com.

 

Over the years, Tim has proved to be an informed interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.

 

Tim’s love of wine actually came about many years ago from his then wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.

 

They were instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major national and international well-regarded festival of its type. They both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now over twenty years old.

 

Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, Florida Wine Festival Competition, the State of Michigan Wine Competition, the U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.

 

Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

 

Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.

 

It’s a good gig. 

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