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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