By Ryan Snyder on June 1, 2005

Category: Winery of the Month

In the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of Monterey County, California, Dan Morgan Lee found the perfect location for his beloved Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fog and steady winds blow off Monterey Bay and funnel into the valley, keeping the vineyards cool with summer high temperatures in the mid-70s.

Every vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands faces the same weather, but Lee has made his Double L Vineyard (short for Double Luck, for his identical twin daughters) vastly different from his neighbors. When Lee, an enology graduate from UC Davis, purchased the vineyard he found that chemical use and crop production had depleted most of the important nutrients from the soil. It was nitrogen deficient. Calcium deficient. Zinc deficient. Even boron deficient. He tilled the soil and started from scratch, making the bold decision to be the first in the area with an organic vineyard.

He started by adding calcium sulfate and potassium bicarbonate to enrich the soil with basic minerals and balance the pH. Unlike most of his neighbors, Lee planted his vines north to south for maximum sun exposure. He also recognized the need to add nitrogen to the soil without the use of chemical fertilizers and turned to a compost drip. Essentially, by soaking a large tea bag filled with compost materials in a vat of water, he was able to run the nutrient-infused water through lines that dripped on the soil beneath each row of vines.

Today, vines at the Double L flourish, but Lee will continue working with the soil until he's satisfied. Lee plants ketch, oats, peas, and poppies between the vineyard rows, then turns over every other row in mid-April and the remaining rows in late May, which allows nutrients and microbes from the plants to be absorbed by the soil. He monitors the soil four times a year to evaluate the soil’s nutrients, minerals and pH balance. "We’re still trying to attain the proper nitrogen level in the soil," Lee reflected. "Until then, we’ll keep infusing the soil with our compost drip and see where we stand once we reach that level."

While running an organic vineyard has its own obstacles to overcome, every vineyard in the cool and moist Santa Lucia Highlands faces the same problem –- mildew. Combating the problem can be difficult, especially using organic techniques, but Lee discovered that spraying fungus-eating bacteria atop the leaves and grapes is perhaps the best remedy. Afterwards, these bacteria perish when their fungus food source is consumed.

Lee’s meticulous approach to running his organic vineyard may seem a bit toilsome, but when you taste his wines you’ll appreciate the fruits of his labor. Morgan Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can compete with any in America, and can give many Burgundian wines a run for their money.

One factor on Lee's side is the wind that unceasingly whips through the Santa Lucia Highlands. You wouldn't think that would be a good thing, but the wind’s constant battering causes the Pinot Noir grapes to respond to their environment with their exteriors hardening into thick skins. “We’ve tested placing walls in front of the vines, but the grapes quickly rot because their skins are so thin," said Lee. “I believe the stronger flavors are contained within the grape skins, and these thick skins are what make our Pinots so good.”

Another factor that Lee remains adamant about is aging Morgan Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in French barrels. Placing his hand on a barrel, Lee stated, “French oak adds the subtle smoke highlights that you’ll find in my Pinot Noir.” I asked if he ever used American oak barrels for his Pinot Noir and he emphatically replied, “No!” He then crossed his arms with an illustrative X and said, “Pinot Noir in American oak is death.”

“What I look for in a good Pinot Noir is cherry, rose, smoke and spice,” said Lee, pointing out each quality you’ll find in every Morgan Pinot. The Twelve Clones Pinot Noir is made from twelve different clones of vines and is a great way to become acquainted with Morgan. It’s powerful, yet elegant, with notes of cherries, berries and fresh truffles. From vineyards just down the road, the Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir is silky and will remind you of Christmas, while the Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is deep, dark and mysterious. Meanwhile, the Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir is Lee’s model wine – it’s everything he looks for in a Pinot and more.

Morgan Chardonnay provides a vastly different experience than the typical over-oaked California Chardonnay. Aged in French oak, the Monterey Chardonnay shows papaya and caramelized banana flavors with great balance. The Double L Chardonnay displays profound minerality that showcases its fruit, while the balanced Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay is filled with tropical fruits and honeyed oak. But Morgan’s most intriguing Chardonnay is the Metallico, which is cold fermented in stainless steel tanks, aged in neutral French oak and does not go through malolactic fermentation. It’s crisp with vibrant fruit and a great minerality, and may be the truest expression of the grape that you’ll find on this side of the Atlantic.

But rarely do we hear about Morgan's lineup of Syrah. The Côtes du Crow's, a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache, is a fruity wine that’s ideal for a barbecue. The Monterey Syrah is a nice glassful of stewed fruits with a peppery finish. But perhaps the most breathtaking of all Morgan’s wines is the Tierra Mar Syrah, which is made from Morgan’s 8 best barrels of Syrah. It’s thick, meaty, spicy, and is guaranteed to knock you back in your seat.

While each of Morgan’s Syrahs are worth writing home about, Lee makes sure to remind us that his Pinot Noir is where it’s at. Lee stated, “Syrah is quickly becoming the best grape to grow in Monterey, but here in the Highlands, Pinot’s always going to be the king.”