The earliest vinifera plantings, in what was to become the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, took place in the 1790s, with the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries and conquistadors. The modern era, however, could be said to begin in the early 1970s, the initial plantings by Rich and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow, Phil Johnson at La Estancia, and Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook. Approved in 1991 as a unique AVA, the vineyards here are planted high up on the southeast facing terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. The vines’ elevated locations take full advantage of the morning sunshine before the afternoon maritime breezes cool the vineyards. The true Region I type climate, comparable to Burgundy, results in an especially long growing season, which allows the grapes to fully develop and attain maximum varietal potential. As you would expect, the cool weather-loving Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir flourish here; Rhone grape types such as Syrah emulate their French northern districts brethren, thriving in the SLH’s slightly warmer, more wind-protected canyons and slopes.
Today, over 4,700 wine grape acres are currently under cultivation in the Highlands, with Pinot Noir being the district’s go-to poster wine. The winegrowers of the Santa Lucia Highlands are innovators – almost every single vineyard is a living laboratory, with new clones, trellising systems, and farming regimens being continuously explored.
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