Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the live oak. The Double L Vineyard stretched up the gentle slope to the foot of the Santa Lucia Range and ran down to the edge of River Road. We looked across the patchwork fields of broccoli, strawberries, and lettuce in the famous Salinas Valley, “America’s Salad Bowl,” as a breeze from the northwest tugged at our picnic napkins.
Jason, our guide from the Morgan Winery, explained the importance of the site for making their award winning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Double L vineyard, planted by Dan Morgan Lee in 1996, (named for the double luck of twin daughters) was a gamble on the benchland of the Santa Lucia Highlands. At that time, their 60 acres was one of the pioneering vineyards in the newly recognized wine region. It was a good bet.
From his bulky satchel, Jason pulled out eight bottles of the Morgan lineup, all available in Connecticut: A Sauvignon Blanc, three Chardonnays, two Pinot Noirs, and two Grenache/Syrah blends – an impressive array of high quality everyday wines plus some of the best special occasion examples from the Highlands.
It’s the breeze from the nearby Monterey Bay that makes the site so special. You wouldn’t think that this benchland overlooking the hot, dry Salinas Valley would be any good for wine. But as the afternoon sun warms the valley, the rising heat draws in ocean air across the Highlands, cooling the vines and extending the growing months. The long, cool season yields very ripe fruit with intense flavor and brisk acidity. The wines are just delicious.
Neither Chardonnay nor Pinot Noir like it too hot – cool climate wines, they’re called. They don’t like it cold either – no hard frost in wine country.
They’re often found side by side around the world – in Chablis/Burgundy, Coastal Sonoma, the Pacific Northwest, and Australia’s Margaret River Valley, as well as the Santa Lucia Highlands. I’ve always thought I’d thrive within sight of a row of happy Chardonnay vines!
Dan Morgan Lee fine tunes his wines by using 25 different grape clones, each bringing their own proven personality. Cloning selects specific, desirable traits like color, flavor, or aroma and reproduces them with genetically consistent vine cuttings. Morgan even has clones from the legendary Burgundy vineyards of La Tache and Romanée Conti.
Morgan’s wines cover a range of styles. Metallico ($22) is the Chardonnay that got me hooked. It spends its life in stainless steel tanks – no barrel aging. The resulting wine is pure, ripe, chardonnay flavor with clean fruit, mouth filling body, and brisk acidity – perfect for sipping or at the table.
Highland Chardonnay ($28), 100% Santa Lucia Highlands grapes (63% Double L vineyard), moves toward a more bold California style. Barrel fermentation adds oak notes contrasting with some creamy character and Chardonnay fruit. It’s all done with a deft hand.
Double L is the designation for Morgan’s top of the line wines. The limited production Double L Chardonnay ($42) showcases the best of the vineyard site in a big, balanced, California style. More new barrel and malolactic fermentation show up in a creamy, nutty, vanilla character balanced with tropical fruit and bright acidity – lush and opulent to pair with full-flavored food.
Pinot Noir, tricky to grow anywhere, thrives in the Santa Lucia Highlands. In Twelve Clones ($34), the fruit aroma jumps out of the glass and the wine finishes with a food-friendly acidity.
Double L Pinot Noir ($64) is made with 100% organic fruit. Careful sorting and whole berry fermentation yield a generous wine, soft and supple. With a little more structure and darker fruit flavors, it would be great at any special occasion.
Kevin Leary of Leary’s Liquor Cabinet in Darien loves the wines, carries as many as he can stock, and does a brisk case business with the Metalico. You might also find Morgan wines at Stewart’s Spirits in New Canaan or Total Wine in Norwalk.
In addition to being organically farmed, the Double L vineyard is certified for “Sustainability in Practice” (SIP) by a committee of grape-growing peers. Owl nesting boxes to control pests in the vineyards are just one example of SIP at work.
Morgan was among the first to plant in the Santa Lucia Highlands along with Mer Soleil, Talbott, and River Road. Vineyards have since been planted more than 20 miles south along the bench to include well-known vineyard names like Gary’s, Rosella’s, Hahn, Manzoni, and Pisoni.
There are no visitor facilities at the Morgan vineyard, although plans are afoot for a new winery and tasting room on site. In the meantime, you can visit the Morgan tasting room in the Carmel Valley on the other side of the Coast Range in the Crossroad Shopping Center in Carmel, CA.
They’ve had a break in the drought in California. Right now the rolling, folded hills are lush with grass and wildflowers. Along the vineyard the clover was almost knee high in the wet, muddy ground. Bud break was just starting at the top of the vineyard where the lush tree-dotted hills get too steep to cultivate. Down hill in the table-flat valley some fields were greening up with new crops while others were a freshly-plowed dark, rich, earthen brown.
As we finished our shady tasting the breeze was picking up and cooling down – first-hand evidence of how the ocean air influences the vineyard and produces these remarkable wines.