A weekend getaway in the up and coming Californian vineyards

Take an exclusive tour of the Santa Lucia AVA (American Viticultural Area) vineyards, get up close and personal with the winemakers and experience their tasting rooms!

Enjoying a glass of Puma Road Chardonnay while the sun is setting on the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH), the temperature cools down fast. The bonfire warms us up while the night sets in in this early spring. This is this very specific climate that makes the Salinas Valley an agricultural heaven, a vast grape growing region, and one of California’s premier wine region. The chill morning fog and breeze from nearby Monterey Bay are followed by warm afternoons where farmlands are bathed by the sun. Before the temperature gets too hot, the warm air goes up and sucks in the fog from the ocean bringing more humidity and strong winds. The cool foggy nights are ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that the local terroir make top quality. In this 70-mile long valley, the gentle slopes of the mountains are planted with vineyards while the flat valley bathed by the Salinas River is farmed. From the sky, fields of beets, beans, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, fennel, nopales, cauliflower or hay patchwork the landscape scattered by a few heads of cattle for the dairy industry.

Spanish missions moving up along the coast from Mexico into California recognized this high agricultural potential and planted grapes in the fertile Salinas Valley as early as in the 1790s. However it is only in the early 1970s that the wine industry developed. The area was recognized as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1992. Currently there are about two dozen wineries in the valley including half a dozen with tasting rooms, and the demand for the excellent fruits of the Santa Lucia Highlands is high elsewhere. The cool temperatures, low rainfall, and strong winds make the Highlands pest-free, and ideal for organic and sustainable growing.

Cruising the Salinas River Wine Trail is a great way to try some of the best wines of the SLH AVA, with splendid vistas on the rich farmlands below by the winding Salinas River. Dena Franscioni takes us around during one of her “Behind the Scenes Wine Tours”. She makes us discover the vineyards of her family from up close, have us meet the family of grape growers, and then meet the winemaker in one of the barrel rooms. It certainly is a behind the scenes.

The Pinot Noir’s of the Pessagno winery owned by Ray Franscioni are delicately crafted by Olivier, a French winemaker: “here we do small quantities and top quality”, he describes proudly. The industry recognizes their distinct character and elegance. Walking the barrel room where the wine is ripening in French oak barrels, he stops in front of the Four Boys Vineyard Pinot Noir. Taking a sample straight from the barrel – it will be bottled next month after aging for 18 months – he pours it into a Pessagno wine glass. The dark ruby color is beautiful. The texture in the mouth is round and full, with soft tannins and perfectly balanced acidity. This wine grown on the Apex plot of land – the highest in the AVA at 1,400 feet (360 meters) – is simply terrific.

The Intrinity Chardonnay is golden yellow and offers fruity aromas, excellent acidity, perfect balance, and lingering flavors making it one of the very best SLH Chardonnays.

To conclude a spectacular dinner with perfectly grilled ribeye steaks by Bobby Franscioni – a passionate cook and excellent grape grower in the Santa Luchia Highlands, and Ray’s cousin: wine in this valley is a family business – accompanied by asparagus growing just a few miles away, I look at my dessert and then at Olivier: “How do you pair chocolate cake?” I ask. It seems that he was waiting for this question. He jumps from his chair and disappears for a few minutes. He comes back with a Hames Valley Port. Aged 15 years in barrel, this beautiful dessert wine pairs perfectly with dark chocolate and is a treat in itself.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is getting more and more popular thanks to the hard work of grape growers and winemakers. “The grape is 90% of the wine” the winemaker Olivier reminds us. “If you give me good grapes, I can still mess it up, but if I have bad grapes, there is no way I can craft a decent wine”. And clearly, Olivier and his colleagues in the Santa Lucia Highlands have fantastic grapes, grown by the passionate Franscionis, to work with!

Marcella & Claire


Travel tips:

  • Other wine areas are worth visiting in California. Our preference goes to the up and coming, the Santa Lucia Highlands: in a stunning landscape and with some of the best Californian wines, the area is quieter than the Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley wine regions as they are a bit further away from the city. This makes it the perfect weekend getaway!
  • Do you want to explore the Salina Vineyards, visit exquisite boutique wineries, get the opportunity to meet wine makers and owners, or celebrate a special occasion and meet the local families and taste these delicious wines straight from their oak barrels or the bottles? Make sure to reach out to Dena Franscioni from Behind the Scenes Wine Tours as she will be the best person around to make this an unforgetable experience. On top of that you will be supporting a fully family owned an operated business.
  • For the perfect weekend getaway, we warmly recommend you to stay at the Two Girls Ranch. Janet and her daughter Amy will make this stay your best. You will spend your night in a yurt overlooking the peaceful vineyards at the foot of the green hills. Put your feet up by the bonfire, enjoy a local wine while watching the sun bathe the vineyards and orchard. Wake up on this ranch to pick your fruits, enjoy their locally grown products and forget about all the stress elsewhere.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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