A Glorious Gala in the Santa Lucia Highlands

With nearly a one-to-one ratio of wineries to restaurants and food purveyors this year, the 12th annual Santa Lucia Highlands Sun, Wind and Wine Gala, held on a sunny, wind-whipped day at the beautiful Mer Soleil estate on Salinas’ River Road, was one delicious sip and magnificent morsel after another.

Plenty of sun, wine and wind made for a bright and breezy event this past Saturday, not to mention energetic live music that started the party early and kept it going all afternoon. Everyone was in a good mood.

There was Soerke Peters of Village Corner California Bistro in Carmel, grinning from ear to ear as he handed out his famous sausages, grilled apples and mustard on skewers, followed by scrumptious Korean barbecue pork tacos from Aquaterra Culinary, perfectly applewood-smoked salmon with smoked morels and English peas with sorrel from Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen, Hawaiian Kanpachi tacos with housemade kimchi, and ginger sesame aioli from Chef Matt Bolton of The “C” Restaurant at the Intercontinental Monterey.

Colectivo Felix served up fish crudo on chicharron with huancaina sauce (spicy Peruvian cheese sauce), while the adorable staff of Carmel Valley Ranch carved up tender spice-grilled beef over cheesy polenta, which made a fetching pairing with the 2016 ROAR Soberanes Pinot Noir ($54).

A highlight was the Folktale pairing of an excellent 2016 SLH Pinot Noir from Escolle Vineyard and Mission Ranch ($58) alongside a roasted carrot taco with chayote squash and salsa roja.

Chef Dyon Foster showed off his new line of rubs, Chef’s Palette Spice Rubs, with a beautifully presented and perfectly encrusted rock cod, while the folks from Schoch Family Creamery provided the perfect palate cleanser of cheeses between tastes of Pisoni and Odonata wines. The 2016 Odonata preview of the SLH Pinot was quite pretty, with seamless summer fruit flavors and a lithe texture, while the 2015 Syrah ($32) complemented the earthiness of the duck-bacon rillettes with morels and walnut vinaigrette on crostini served up by Chef Cal Stamenov of Lucia at Bernardus.

Adam Lee of Siduri debuted his new Clarice brand, named for his grandmother, pouring 2017 barrel samples of three wines, including the SLH blend, Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyard Pinots. He’s experimenting with lots of whole cluster for the first time, adding decisive mid-palate structure and length. Incredible power for such youth.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Dan and Donna Lee were pouring a 1989 Double L Pinot out of magnum that was a pure time capsule of raspberry tea, cinnamon and rose petals. Simply splendid. The 2016 Riesling ($22) is a thing of beauty that all lovers of the grape should pounce on before it’s gone with the wind.

Overall, the wines poured by the 42+ wineries were soundly impressive. There were many, many examples of Tondre Grapefields wines to be found, most exhibiting the earthy and distinctive depth of this much-heralded vineyard. Two that stood out were the 2016 Joyce Tondre ($40), and the 2016 Sarah’s Vineyard Tondre ($45), both of which captured the dark intensity of the site but exhibited enough restraint in the winemaking process to convey a sinewy but engaging energy.

Dazzling Dozen: Top 12 from the 12th Annual

With such a plethora of great wines, choosing is hard. The ones that come back to haunt you are the ones you need in your cellar. Here are the “Dazzling Dozen” I’d go out of my way for:

2012 La Rochelle Blanc de Noir “La Vie” Sparkling Wine, $65 — Masterfully made by Tom Stutz, this sparkler exhibits fine mousse, pleasing pastry and raspberry coulis flavors rimmed with citrus. Excellent depth in the mouth and a clean finish make this worth seeking out.

2015 Boekenoogen Chardonnay, $40 — Dripping with ripe orchard fruit, and possessed of a texture close to whipping cream, this is voluptuous Chardonnay supported by, but not weighed down by, judicious oak. It tastes like a warm summer day in the Highlands.

2012 August West Peterson Vineyard Pinot Noir, $48 — Made by Ed Kurtzman, this wine is showing the depth and earth of this vineyard, complimented by abundant fruit-intense flavors that skew towards pomegranate and plum, finishing with dark licorice. It’s like massive castle doors that open to a mahogany-walled dining room, gleaming with copper and candlelight.

2016 Folktale Escolle Vineyard Pinot, $80— In this remarkably deft wine crafted by winemaker David Baird, the 2A clone sings an aria of strawberry fruit with a hint of stewed rhubarb and cherry, soaring with well-framed acid, and as focused as a lightning strike. Powerfully pure and unforgettable.

2015 Mooney Family Chardonnay, $44 — Lithe, seductive, agile and energetic, this wine is like the afternoon sea breeze, whisking flavors of lemon rind, nectarine and firm peach with brisk palate-cleansing acidity.

2016 Mansfield-Dunne Cortada Alta Vineyard Pinot Noir, $60 — From a new vineyard planting by winegrower John Peterson, this is the highest vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and is named for the notch in the range clearly visible on the ever-present SLH map. The wine is raring to go like a cheetah on speed, with savory basil and thyme, searing pomegranate and cranberry and an unmistakable streak of wild mushrooms. A notch above in every way.

2016 Roar Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir, $54— There is something deep and darkly satisfying about this Pinot, with a savory edge that reminds you of walking on the perimeter of a field bordered by Queen Anne’s lace and sage.

2010 Caraccioli Cellars Brut Cuvée, $52 — When the occasion calls for a sophisticated dry yet decadent domestic sparkling, this should be your go-to choice. The textural integrity from the Chard-Pinot combination is just about perfection.

2016 Joyce Tondré Grapefields Pinot Noir, $40— This consistently earthy and wonderfully vegetal iteration of Pinot comes up aces in this rendition, flaunting bright cranberry and red plum, as it seduces your palate with a splash of basil.

2016 Lucienne Lone Oak Chardonnay, $40 — With its exotic notes of passion fruit, vanilla, melon and toasted graham cracker, this wine made by Hahn winemaker, Paul Clifton, speaks of the cool wind that desiccates the vines daily in the northern reaches of the SLH, shutting them down in the late afternoon.

2016 McFarland Prismatic White Blend, $15 — This may well be the bargain wine of the summer, with trippy bright flavors that bring out the sunny Highlands Chardonnay and sweeter notes of Riesling. Easy to drink when the heat is on.

2014 Talbott Sarah Case Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay, $52 — Winemaker David Coventry was proudly pouring this and the bookend 2014 Sarah Case Pinot, both of which showcase the finesse and horsepower of this legendary vineyard. It’s hard to pick between the two: get both.

An Honor for Paraiso

In related news, Paraiso Vineyards, located on the Smith Family Wines home estate, has been named Vineyard of the Year for 2018 by the California State Fair. This honor is awarded annually to a vineyard that has produced superior quality grapes over several growing seasons and whose harvests have contributed to the making of wines that have performed well commercially and been well received by wine connoisseurs.

“Since the early 1970s, our family has been passionate about growing exceptional grapes, producing distinctive wines, and sharing the fruits of our labor with family, friends, and guests,” said Jason Smith, president and CEO of Smith Family Wines. “We’re truly honored to have Paraiso Vineyards named the Vineyard of the Year by the California State Fair. It’s very gratifying to see our family-focused, sustainable approach to vineyard stewardship and winemaking recognized in this way.”

 

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