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Hahn's Got Monterey on the Wine Map

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Hahn Family Wines has something to crow about, and not just because "Hahn" means rooster in German. The sneakily large outfit (producing about 400,000 cases annually) that builds its top wines from small lots is one of the stars in the blossoming Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) Appellation. That's a still-under-the-radar spot you might have viewed while flying up the 101 from Gonzales on your way to San Francisco.

Turns out it's a primo spot for pinot noir and chardonnay, not that people knew that at first. When Nicolaus (Nicky) Hahn, a Swiss businessman, decided to build something lasting for his family, he bought property in 1979 that was growing cabernet sauvignon. There's only one problem with that in SLH -- it's too darn cold for cab. As current director of winemaking Paul Clifton, who has been with Hahn since 2003, puts it, "For years I tried making good wine out of those grapes, but it was like trying to put lipstick on a pig."

Luckily Nicky's deep pockets and deeper sense to trust in his wine team led to a huge change. Out went the cabernet, and pinot and chardonnay was planted in its place. Where there was a mere 25 acres, there are now 400 of it in four different vineyards, the most under one ownership in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Such a change isn't easy. Winemaker Greg Freeman explains, "It's like saying, 'We're going to plant a forest and then harvest the acorns.' It's a long process." But it worked. And then Sideways woke America up to pinot, and growers like Gary Pisoni helped point the pinot-thirsty to Monterey County.

The Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans group makes what's special about the region clear visually, if archaically, on its map. A wonderful drawing of the Old Man of the Winds blows out from the chilly Monterey Bay down the Salinas Valley, which the Santa Lucia Highlands rises above. That means cooling winds and "fog so thick some mornings you feel like you can walk across it to the Pinnacles [National Park]," Hahn's director of viticulture Andy Mitchell says, "so we have a long growing season perfect for pinot."

Hahn keeps upping the ante, too. Some of that has been marketing -- what was a relatively rustic and realistic rooster logo has become a sleek, almost Asian influenced brush of comb and feathers. But that update reflects what's going on with the wines, too. While there's the introductory Hahn line, a big focus has been on the SLH wines that tout the area almost ahead of Hahn itself. (Nicky was one of the prime movers in getting the area AVA status back in 1991.) Clifton and Freeman and their team are meticulous about tracking their wine and keeping it separate until bottling, so different locations in the vineyards, different clones. They really like clone diversity -- they've planted at least 21 different pinot noir clones alone. Different picking dates all sit in separate barrels aging, awaiting judgment. Then the best go to make SLH.

That's a pinot that's fruit forward -- all the good berry and plum you want -- with intriguing herb notes. It's as if you can taste the hillside sage. (Hahn is SIP Certified and deeply proud of its sustainable commitment.) There's a good dose of oak, but that adds structure and depth. The same is true for the elegant chardonnay that brings white stone fruit and good acid. These are wines with food on their mind.

When Clifton tells his story, he says, "I wanted to keep that boutique feel." He somehow pulls it off with a sense of care such a large operation rarely exhibits. Given the area is still so rural and their operation at the vineyards so small, they actually bottle every day, shipping in clean glass in the morning, shipping out full bottles in the evening.

And, it turns out, there actually are a few rows of cabernet sauvignon plants left on one of the Hahn vineyards. Mitchell says, "These days what's left makes dynamite jelly."

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