In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck immortalised California’s Salinas Valley as a paradise, with ‘the smell of azaleas and the sleepy smell of sun working with chlorophyll’ in the air. Salinas has long been one of California’s most important agricultural regions. It still grows immense quantities of lettuce and strawberries, but it now hosts one of California’s most interesting small wine regions.
Its broad floodplain carved by the Salinas River as it proceeds north-west towards Monterey Bay, the valley was likely formed 100 million years ago closer to the location of modern-day Los Angeles. But, like large portions of the California coast, the valley and its river were pushed north by tectonic forces, resulting in its current location and its rare (for California) phenomenon of a north-flowing river.
Boasting rich, flat, easily tilled soils, the Salinas River Valley is bounded on the west by the escarpment of the Santa Lucia Mountains and on the east by the Gabilan Mountains. With a northern opening to Monterey Bay (and its frigid depths), but with a southern origin in the much hotter mountains of inland San Luis Obispo, the temperature differential produces a mistral-like wind that dramatically cools what would ordinarily be a much warmer mesoclimate.
In 1973 the first wine vines were planted on the east-facing foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains. Such efforts remained small-scale until Gary Pisoni, whose family had been farming vegetables and ranching in the region since before World War II, decided to begin planting Pinot Noir in 1982.
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Featured image by Wildly Simple Productions courtesy of the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans.