Santa Lucia Highland Pinot with Age

I’m curious how Santa Lucia Pinots tend to develop with bottle age - Testarossa, Talbott, Pisoni, for example. I think a lot of people get powerful red fruits, from crunchy to lush, with these kinds of wines, and I would imagine they have relative staying power. I’m more curious about what kind of tertiary characteristics these wines would develop and how they might be different from comparable quality Burgundies.

Part of the appeal of Santa Lucia for me is the really fresh herbs and minerals that I tend to pick up. I would guess they’re muted with time. What kinds of characteristics might replace them?

Hard to generalize here, so thanks in advance for any opinions.


It is a great question - and one that I have a personal (and financial) interest in so forgive me if I stray into some areas that could be viewed as more promotional.

I’ve been fortunate enough to age a number of SLH PInot Noir wines and, when trying them with 7 plus years of aga, I often find that they are doing well - the fruit is holding on nicely. Perhaps less forward than earlier in their lives - but they are still holding on. That, however, is a far cry from seeing them improve and develop tertiary characteristics. There could be a few reasons for that - including younger vine age (obviously that is changing), the high acid that SLH has in the grapes which leads to riper picking, and simply the learning curves that we all go through as winemakers.

I’ve recently been working under a somewhat different premise with the wines I am making from the SLH - utilizing a large amount of whole clusters and picking earlier (there’s a good bit more to it than that - as I work with thinning and other viticultural practices to extend the hang time) with the potassium in the stems help with the very low pHs you can get by picking early. Will be interesting to see if this works or is a fool’s errand…but I do think it is an option now with older vines that couldn’t have worked nearly as well a decade or more ago.


Adam Lee
ITB (obviously)


Thanks so much for the fantastic info! I’ll continue to crack open recent releases with friends! As the vine age increases and viticulture adjusts I’ll start to lay down.

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If you want to explore aged SLH pinots see if you can track down some Arcadian’s.


Those really improve with age, for probably 2-3 decades. But, if I remember correctly, Joe harvested them like a month before most other producers do, so they’re a pretty different animal. I asked him about it once, and he said those sites, when harvested earlier, retain more balance and ageworthiness, while still showing the trademark extract and power of those vineyards.

I’d be interested to see how @Adam_Lee 's wines turn out with whole cluster and earlier picking. Which of your labels will this be, and starting with what vintage? Thanks.


My wines are under the Clarice Wine Company label - and that’s how I’ve made them since the first (2017) vintage.

Joe’s Arcadian Pinots, if I recall correctly, came from Pisoni and Sleep Hollow - both somewhat older plantings than much of the rest of the SLH.

Adam Lee

Gary’s, too, plus Francesca’s and a SLH appellation blend, but I don’t know the vineyard sources of those two.

Yes, I think he did Garys’ for 3 years perhaps. Francesca’s was, I am pretty sure, a barrel selection and also often included SRH. Not sure where the SLH appellation came from - but think it was when he was done with Garys’ - but not Pisoni (and not Sleepy Hollow).

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Some of those vineyards are quite big and have many clones and aspects. One of Joe’s things was managing all his vines in the various vineyards he sourced. But, him choosing which blocks/clones and tending them it’s not quite apples to apples comparing to what other winemakers did from the same vineyards in the same vintages. I heard that as part of explanation why I liked Joe’s Garys’ when I generally don’t like that vineyard. Different clones.

I gather bold clones is why I don’t like Pisoni and Peterson so much, also. But, there’s also quite a range of vineyard expression. I’ve had Rosella’s from many producers and I just love that site. Fewer from Kirk Williams and Tondre, but have had excellent from those, too. Then, from the first harvest, Cortada Alta have been impressive. Of course, that’s preference. We’ve had forum polls over the years for Your Favorite California Pinot Noir Vineyard, and both Garys’ and Pisoni get a lot of votes. My meandering mind reminds me I get the same sort of vineyard character in Rosella’s Chards and Syrahs as the Pinots. With a lot of these I’ve gotten side-by-side comparisons, as in same producer and vintage making Pinot from two or more vineyards there (or Roar making both Rosella’s and Garys’ Syrah).

The overall quality coming out of SLH has just gotten better and better. Some have been doing a great job for a long time, and Adam is being modest, but a lot has been learned.

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Actually there historically has only been one “clone” at Garys’ (it is actually a Selection). In the last 4-5 years they planted a second clone down be the entrance.

Adam Lee

Earlier this year I lucked into a vertical tasting of SLH Pinots that went back to 1998. My favorites were in the 2003-2005 range; after the 2003 vintage, the flavors faded really quickly to the point where I had a hard time pulling out anything distinctive.

I very much regret not taking detailed notes, but my impression of the ones I liked was that the “rounded” sort of flavor (maybe from higher acid levels?) I sometimes get from recent vintages was less present and there was instead more of a kind of integrated flavor profile that had bit more in the way of earthy characteristics mixed in with the typical red fruits.

I think you’ve got to factor a producer’s style into the equation as well. Adam touches on practices he uses to make aging-friendly wines, and of course Arcadian’s Pinots are incredible with age. But some producers make wines in a riper/more lush style that makes them better to consume up-front. My primary example is AP Vin (a label I believe no longer exists). I enjoyed these with up to about 5 years of bottle age, but the older ones I’d had really seemed to fall apart.

Arcadian SLH pinots were a real lightbulb moment for me, personally. We always talk about the site, climate, terroir etc. and how those shape the style of the wine, and of course, that’s true.

But I had tried many SLH pinots before Arcadian, and they were all big, dark, lush, higher alcohol pinots, so I figured that’s the terroir. Joe making a very different type of wine from those vineyards, mostly I think by just picking a lot earlier (I guess there might also be sometimes clonal or tending differences per the discussion above?), it was a real curve ball to me.

I don’t think that you can always just pick early or late in a California vineyard and end up wherever you want on the stylistic spectrum, by any means, but I learned there can be very big differences based on the winemaker’s picking decisions, and I shouldn’t assume that wines made from a given site will always show similar styles.

This statement is so important - especially now. 10 winemakers can work with the same blocks/clones from a single site but come up with 10 very different wines based on a number of factors. And I believe that this is becoming more and more evident each year as sites sell fruit to more wineries.

It’d be a blast to taste older wines from there - the oldest I have I believe, is a handful of 06s from Pisoni - more than happy to share these at some time if anyone is interested.

And thanks for the insights Adam - really helps us all understand more.


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In the case of the Pisoni and Franscioni vineyards, I believe they are selling to fewer wineries than they did when they first stated the vineyards. Gary Pisoni is famous for saying (many things), “For us to work with a winery they need to 1) Make great wine, 2) Pay us on time and 3) Be My friend.”

Adam Lee

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I like SLH Pinot that is about 5-6 years old but they can certainly hold on past that. If you are going to drink something older than that & up to 10-12 years old I would probably suggest something from Pisoni/Lucia or Roar. This is from my personal taste that I still want there to be some fruit/liveliness & not all tertiary. While I mentioned the two above that is not to say you won’t find a good bottle of 10 year old Morgan, Bernardus, McIntyre, Siduri & others. I think the fruit & the farming in the SLH can yield decade+ cellar Pinot - I am interested to see what some of the newer blood does. Denis at Odonata going forward is aiming to work with more SLH fruit for both still & sparkling, plus you have his assistant winemaker Junior who did a few recent vintages under Sling & Stone, not to mention Sam L Smith, who is the assistant at Morgan, doing his own label as well.

If you want to put SLH wine away for a decade buy some Syrah.

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The problem, as related to me, is unusually low pH. The simple solution so many employed was extending the hang time to raise the pH to a manageable level. My perspective from about 15 years ago was most Pinots from there were not very good. Like, pretty bad job from those just buying fruit, and a lot of wines not to my preference from growers and others closer in. With the exception of Rosella’s, which everyone seemed to do a good job with, it was a region that held little interest to me. These days my impression is quality. That they’ve learned a lot in the vineyard and cellar in dealing well with the region’s challenges. The Pisoni quote makes a lot of sense. You don’t market your vineyard or region well by selling fruit to mediocre winemakers.

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I also think that there are going to be some really exciting wines coming from the SLH from new producers (and even a couple of us old folks are trying some new things). Farming is going to be the key - making sure that the mentality is farming for high-quality wine rather than just good farming (often times row crops) - and dealing with the ever changing climate.

Adam Lee

I have been enjoying SLH pinots for a decade now, and have quite a few in the cellar. I find most of them are best within 6-7 years of the vintage. The vibrancy of the fruit tends to fall off after that. The younger SLH pinots have a wonderful, joyous, vibrant quality to them, and the quality of the fruit is lovely. The exceptions are Pisoni, Lucia, Morgan, and Roar. All amazing wineries. The winemaking style seems to allow for longer aging.

Others like Wrath, Testarossa, Hahn, McIntyre, Siduri, and Joyce seem to be shorter lived. Not to say they are not enjoyable after 10 years. But, the fruit falls off and it is a different style.

In general this is a very exciting area for Pinot, and some of the wines are outstanding. So many wineries seem to be sourcing pinot juice from Pisoni, Soberane’s, Rosella’s, Gary’s, and Tondre. Amazing stuff.

What does he know? :popcorn:

  • 2004 Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands (2/10/2010)
    These were only the second mailorder wines I ever purchased. The start on the road to hell. But it was a good start that is still holding up after a few years in the cellar. I really like the result here. The cola component that is so common in CA pinot is gradually fading to the background and now just adds complexity rather than smacking you in the mouth. It has been replaced by more cherry fruit, a nice mouth feel and some spiciness. The finish seems to be longer that it was in the past. I have no idea what this wine will be like with another 5 years of age, and maybe the naysayers will be right that the CA pinots will all fall apart, but right now it is moving along fine. It certainly disappeared fast enough from the dinner table. Although not a powerhouse, it was able to stand up nicely to a pork loin seared and then roasted with a rub of yellow curry powder and fresh ground garam masala. (90 points)

Posted from CellarTracker

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