To some, the Central Coast of California is a wine lover’s best kept secret, especially since California wine only means Napa and Sonoma to most people. Yet, the wines from the Central Coast are equally as outstanding as those from their northern counterparts. The Central Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands wineries now play an important role in the production of wine.
One of the largest family-run wineries is Hahn Family Wines. You might even call its owner the “Robert Mondavi of the Central Coast.” Like its northern competitor, who went into winemaking against the odds in 1966 and ultimately brought acclaim to the Napa region, Hahn Family Wines under the stewardship of Nicky Hahn was one of the early pioneers to establish a winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands in the late 1970s. Hahn and his wife, Gaby, have also played a pivotal role in the creation of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and have been instrumental in educating the public about this Monterey County region.
The diversity of climates throughout Monterey County enables the various AVAs in the area to produce a wide variety of styles and varietals. The Santa Lucia Highlands is surrounded by what is known as the Blue Grand Canyon. Its proximity to the coastline influences everything in Monterey County, bringing marine fog and wind to the grape-growing regions. Essentially, Monterey Bay acts like an air-conditioning unit for the vineyards.
The Santa Lucia Highlands is 18 miles long and 2-2.5 miles wide. The appellation was established in 1991 and is known for its cool climate for wine-growing of predominantly chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The terraced vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Range, which overlooks the Salinas Valley, and the terroir consists of ancient alluvial soils.
Directly across from the Santa Lucia Highlands is the Gabilian Range. This is important because the morning fog, cool breezes and afternoon maritime winds that come in from Monterey Bay are funneled through the valley between these ranges, creating an ideal diurnal climate for growing grapes.
In 1979, Nicky Hahn purchased the Smith and Hook Vineyards, and his first vintage was released in 1980. Ten years later, he acquired the land that is now Doctor’s Vineyard, named in honor of his daughter, Carolyn, who is a veterinarian. Several years later, he bought the Lone Oak Vineyard, which gets its name from the lone oak tree that stands in the middle of the land. Today, Nicky’s son, Philip, runs the 650 acres. In addition to the four vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, the family owns two vineyards in the nearby Arroyo Seco AVA.
Hahn Family Wines is a sustainable winery that is SIP-certified. The green practices were initiated by Andy Mitchell, Director of Viticulture, and include the use of falconry to rid the vineyard of pests.
Falconry is becoming a popular practice as more wineries embrace sustainability. This method of predator abatement is certified green. The falcon works off a lure and is enticed and rewarded with bait to watch over various sections of the vineyard, protecting the vines from rodents and birds such as the pesky starlings. Owls also play an important part in the falconry program to protect the vines against mice and rats.
Hahn’s winemaker is Greg Freeman, who holds a bachelor of science degree in microbiology and chemistry. His background in chemistry made him an ideal candidate to join Hahn as a lab technician. Once he started with Hahn, he quickly worked his way up to winemaker.
Greg’s eclectic life has included working at a nuclear chemistry lab, bartending and traveling with an African band. His musical bent also plays a role in the winemaking process. Often, he can be found in the barrel room or the vineyards playing an unexpected instrument – the bagpipes. Perhaps the grapes like his musical serenade. Might it even assist in the grape-growing and aging process? After tasting Hahn’s wines, you know it doesn’t hurt.
Hahn Family Wines is made up of three labels. The Hahn label represents wines from across the Hahn vineyards, both in Santa Lucia Highlands and the Arroyo Seco. The label is adorned with a rooster, which is what “Hahn” means in German. You might consider this the family crest. The varietals under the Hahn label are pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and there is a GSM blend.
Wines under the second label, Hahn S.L.H., are deemed worthy of paying tribute to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. The Lucienne label represents the highest quality, vineyard designated pinot noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. This label got its name from Nicky Hahn’s middle name, Lucien, and is decorated with a crown with lit candles, representing the crown worn by Santa Lucia, patron saint of light.
The expression of each vineyard in Hahn’s wine is defined by the amount of fog and wind that venture through the vineyard. The Lone Oak Vineyard is the furthest north and retains the fog layer longer. There is less wind, the vineyard itself is at a lower elevation, and the skins of the grapes are thinner. Doctor’s Vineyard lies on a similar elevation as Lone Oak but is further south, so the fog leaves early in the morning, making this vineyard warmer. It also has the most intense winds of all Hahn’s vineyards. The Smith Vineyard has the highest elevation, making it warmer and less windy. The Hook Vineyard is quite similar in its climate to Smith, but due to its lower elevation, the vineyards are also ideal for growing Rhone varietals like grenache and syrah, as well as malbec.
Our tour of the winery started with an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) ride. It was fun to traverse the backroads of the vineyard in this mode of transportation. You will hit some bumps along the way, however, or lose your cap if you don’t hang onto it. The winery is set against a hill above the bench that divides the agricultural farmlands from the vineyards. The views of the Salinas Valley floor were exquisite from our highest vantage point.
From the vista overlooking the valley with the Pinnacles Monument in the distance, we enjoyed a sampling of the Lucienne wines from the 2013 vintage. The wine was paired with yummy tapas prepared by Hahn’s executive chef, Dyer Foster. After tasting the pinot noir from four different vineyards – Lone Oak, Smith, Hook and Doctor’s Vineyards – a favorite was the Lone Oak because at this point in time, it’s the softest and mellowest of the four. It is medium-bodied with silky textures and bright cola and cherry flavors. The Smith Pinot Noir expressed more peppers with the cherries, while the Hook was mellower. Doctor’s is probably the biggest and richest wine of the four.
Following the Lucienne tasting, we ventured to the tasting room, which also has magnificent views of the valley. Sitting on the deck overlooking the winery is a real treat. It definitely enhances your wine tasting experience, giving you the true flavor of the Santa Lucia Highlands.
There is a consistency and balance to the wines, and you must not miss Hahn’s Pinot Gris, as it is quite refreshing and the perfect wine for savoring the gorgeous views.
Visiting Hahn Family Estate is a unique experience, as the winery offers several options for touring. Even just visiting as the sun begins to set over the valley can make for the perfect end to a day and an ideal way to discover the beauty and wines of the Santa Lucia Highlands.