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Morgan Makes the Most of Monterey

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It's a chilly morning, even in early September, but that's just the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) showing off, modestly in a cloak of fog. People grow grapes here for the great swings of temperature, and the surge of marine layer that barrels down the Salinas Valley from Monterey Bay. That cool-in-the-morning-warm-into-the-day pattern leads to a long growing season. That's a lot of hang time for fruit, and the flavor just builds.

So while it might not seem very glamorous, there's something thrilling about watching Dan Lee, owner and general manager of Morgan Winery, pour juice out of a Ziploc bag holding somewhat mashed chardonnay grapes into glasses for a group of us to sample. This is ur-wine, the juice prior to yeast and fermentation and oak and age. Brown and sludgy, it's not pretty. But it is pretty delicious, hinting at a depth you certainly don't find in the Thompsons you buy at the store.

Of course, Dan Lee is in his 34th harvest making Morgan Wines. He's owned his Santa Lucia Highlands property since 1996, when he and his wife Donna bought what's known as the Double L, named for double luck -- they have twin daughters. But in that time he's developed some of California's prime wines made to move The odds are good that if you had a Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir it was one of Morgan's 12 Clones (he's self-admittedly really crazy about clones), a deal at $30. The Wine Enthusiast even promises you can smell the "morning dew on wild fennel" along with the cherry and eucalyptus.

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It's not just experience that makes Lee's wines. "We decided to go organic early on," he said. "People said we were crazy. We figured if it works, fine, if it doesn't, we gave it a shot."

It worked fine indeed, as the Double L was certified organic in 2002, staying healthy with compost tea and cover crops. "We choose to do what's best for the property, and organic really set up apart," Lee said, and points out that even now there's just one other organic vineyard in SLH.

Beyond the farming, Lee follows a strict barrel program. "American oak and pinot noir are a bad marriage," he said, "but we're blessed with a relationship with French coopers that goes way back."

Lee claims he's one of the few wineries in California to use barrels from Francois Frere, located in Burgundy. That's got to do something for pinot, no?

And while Morgan has its feet rooted at Double L, and its heart with Burgundian varietals, Lee still buys grapes from many Monterey growers to make wines ranging from a strong petrol-y (and that's a good thing) Riesling mostly for wine club members to Rhone blends like the cleverly named Cotes du Crow's or the G17 (the county designation for the Santa Lucia Highlands main road).

"Consumers never really picked up on syrah, despite all the buzz," he admits, but that hasn't stopped him from being on the board of the Rhone Rangers, the group working to promote such varietals. Those Morgan blends, however, might do the most work converting people to the joys and tasty value of syrah and grenache.

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