The Vineyard Series, Number Three: Exploring the Santa Lucia Highlands + Miner Family Pinot Noir

The Vineyard Series, Number Three: Exploring the Santa Lucia Highlands + Miner Family Pinot Noir

At the Sun, Wind & Wine Festival, outside the farm town of Salinas in Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans got together to put on a show. It was a warm Saturday afternoon this past May, and over fifty wineries gathered under a single roof, their pinot noirs, chardonnays, and other wines on display for several hundred attendees.

For those who made their way to the Miner Family Winery table that day, the event wasn’t just a wine tasting. It was a study in contrasts.

Since the late 1990s, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA has been the focus of Miner Family’s Pinot Noir program. To Dave Miner, it’s a consistency driven by intention. “In my mind, Santa Lucia Highlands is the ideal pinot location in California,” he told us recently. “The combination of special terroir—the soil type, microclimate, and other factors—and passionate growers makes for the perfect location for elegant and expressive pinot noir.”

Expressiveness was certainly a theme at the May festival, with dozens of wineries showing off some delicious versions of SLH pinot noir. Several poured wines made from the same trio of vineyards—Garys’, Sierra Mar, and Rosella’s—that Miner Family has been accessing for many years. Where we really saw the contrast was at our own table: we lost count of the number of tasters who commented on how “light-bodied,” “restrained,” and just plain “different” our pinots were compared to many other wineries’.

In keeping with Dave’s description, “elegant” was another word we heard time and again. For that, it’s important to highlight this narrow band of a grapegrowing region, situated thirty miles inland from the Monterey Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean, and set against an enormous backdrop of Monterey County farmland not devoted to viticulture.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA sits above the Salinas Valley—or what the veteran grower Gary Franscioni calls “the salad bowl of the world.”

To better understand where their vineyards and AVA fit into Monterey’s larger viticultural map, we recently got on the phone with Gary and his son, Adam. For the winery’s entire history of bottling pinot noir, the Miner and Franscioni families have collaborated to produce single-vineyard versions from Santa Lucia. Dave’s reverence for SLH fruit makes even more sense when you talk grapegrowing with this father-and-son team.

“For eight months of the year, roughly 90% of the nation’s vegetables come out of Salinas Valley,” Gary told us on the call. He noted that, on top of Monterey County’s 200,000 acres of farmland, there are another 40,000 acres of grapevines. “But then, if you just take the SLH, there are only 5,500 acres of grapevines. So that kind of puts it all in perspective.”

It was a perspective that Dave started to appreciate years ago. In 1996, through a close, mutual friend named Duffy McGinn, he got connected to the Santa Lucia Highlands grower Gary Pisoni and made the very first Miner Family Pinot Noir. His partner in the effort was yet another Gary: longtime winemaker Gary Brookman.

Sharing Swiss-Italian heritage, the two “Santa Lucia Garys”—Franscioni and Pisoni—came from multi-crop farming backgrounds before getting into wine grapes. Together, in 1997, they planted Garys’ Vineyard outside the town of Gonzales. Over the phone, Adam Franscioni described the 50-acre parcel at the time as “just barren, virgin ground.”

What a difference a quarter century and the two families’ efforts have made. Today Garys’ is perhaps the most acclaimed viticultural site in Monterey County. During the Sun, Wind & Wine Festival, it was the go-to wine requested by visitors at our table.

“Garys’ Vineyard is co-owned between 50% Franscioni family and 50% percent Pisoni family,” Adam explained. “My dad and Gary Pisoni started that in ’97. It’s sort of a story unto itself.”

A decade later, the Franscioni side of that story carried over, six and a half miles south “as the crow flies,” Adam recounted, to Sierra Mar Vineyard. This property has been in his family since the 1950s but was only planted to grapevines in 2007. Miner’s first vintage from the high-elevation site was 2010.

A mile and a half up River Road from Garys’, you find the third Franscioni family property—the one to which they have the closest connection: Rosella’s Vineyard. It’s the home ranch where Gary lives and the most northern SLH property in the Franscioni family. Named for Adam’s mother, he shared his own ties to the place: “I grew up on Rosella’s Vineyard and spent summers doing tasks, anything from general hand-labor to some basic tractor driving.” For the last five years, he added, “I’ve pretty much been farming with my dad full-time.”

If Rosella’s, Sierra Mar, and Garys’ Vineyards are bound together by ownership within a single AVA, they’re differentiated by soil types, elevations, and even other SLH growers’ viticultural practices. “In the north, we’re predominantly Chualar loam,” Adam noted, “while in the south at Sierra Mar, it’s mostly decomposed granite. So it’s a little bit harder ground. The soils are more marginal at Sierra Mar .”

“As far as farming practices, we are pretty similar all the way around,” he pointed out. “We do everything by hand, and we’re very old-school that way. We feel it’s the best way to be.”

He emphasized that the grapegrowing can vary around the Santa Lucia Highlands—another study in contrasts. “If you drive down the whole of River Road, you’ll see some vineyards that are cropped to be seven or eight tons. Our goal is to really be three tons per acre.”

“Each vine gets touched every twelve days,” Adam said, “whether it’s canopy management and making sure that the canopies are nice and tidy so that we don’t have too much vigor, or overgrowth and shading.”

Such hands-on attention to detail makes a big difference in the quality of the grapes delivered during harvest. After several vintages, Michelle is highly attuned to the unique characteristics of each vineyard site. And, she says, she loves how they express themselves differently. “Looking at the map, you’ll see the Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyards are further northwest, closer to Monterey Bay, while Sierra Mar is further south, but also at a much higher elevation, like a thousand feet above sea level. So I think that’s probably, for me, where a lot of the differences come from.”

She explained that, for the past few vintages, Miner has been getting grapes from all three vineyards grown on Pisoni Clone vines—the clone of pinot noir named for Gary Pisoni and long rumored to have come to California in his suitcase via the great Burgundy village of Vosne-Romanée (Miner’s fourth and smallest pinot noir bottling, Rosella’s 777, is named for yet another clone). “So it’s the same clone but with different soil types. And with those unique locations, I feel like the Pisoni clone is expressed differently from each site.”

“Sierra Mar is definitely the more fruit-forward out of the three vineyards. With Garys’, I’d say it’s more plummy, with a richness and a dark fruit character, versus Rosella’s, which is the most floral out of the three sites.”

“These are all small nuances between the wines,” Michelle summed up. “But what’s lovely about pinot noir is that, even with one clone, it expresses differently from place to place.”

With vineyard practices in mind, we asked assistant winemaker (and Napa Valley native) Rebecca Brookman to comment on the differences between Monterey County pinot noir and Napa cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties. “Pinot noir is definitely more delicate and, if you will, ‘sensitive,’” she believes. “Obviously the grapes that grow around here in Napa Valley in this hot-hot heat are just tougher and less likely to get sunburned. So for pinot, we prefer Santa Lucia Highlands. We think it’s the best site for it.”

Over the twenty harvests that the “other” two Garys—Rebecca’s dad and Gary Franscioni—collaborated, it was, according to the latter, a close working relationship. “I give credit to Dave Miner for pursuing pinot noir and finding us,” he said. But he also pointed out that Miner’s former head winemaker laid extensive groundwork for a quality-driven pinot noir program, now continued by Michelle Shafrir.

For her part, Michelle insists that it really goes back to the farming.

“They know their vineyards so, so well. I talk to Adam to check in on him, to make sure that I know where things are at in the vineyards, and he’ll tell me what they’re expecting. However, with those guys, they’re such amazing farmers. I couldn’t even presume to give them suggestions on what to do in terms of farming. It’s second nature to them. So I just trust them to grow the most amazing and best fruit that you can get from those spots.”

At the end of our call with Adam and Gary, the younger Franscioni shared some final thoughts.

“We consider a lot of the wineries that buy from us ‘partners.’ So to have the partnership that Miner and my dad and I—and now Michelle, having been brought into the fold—have had for this long is just a testament to the commitment on each side to make fine wine,” Adam summed up. “It seems to be happening less and less as you see more consolidation in the industry. I think it’s something to be celebrated because people out there still need good, quality wine.”

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