It was the 1992 Bernardus Bien Nacido Pinot Noir that made Paul Clifton want to become a winemaker. His girlfriend at the time brought home a bottle and after a few sips, he was spurred to action. “Before that I was a beer drinker,” Clifton says. “But it was one of those magical moments. We were sitting, drinking the wine by the Carmel River and I started thinking about how many variables there were in growing grapes and making wine. There would always be something to learn.”
At the time, Clifton had been working for the U.S. Forest Service in Truckee, California before enrolling in Fire Academy at Butte College near Chico, California. But during the winter of 1996, looking for extra work, he saw a job listing for a cellar worker at Bernardus Winery in California’s Carmel Valley. Winemaking had run in Clifton’s family—his grandfather enjoyed making his own bottles—so he decided to apply. Paul spent five years working at Bernardus under Don Blackburn, a veteran of the wine business, before deciding to pursue his own degree in vitiology.
Clifton’s professional travels led him to New Zealand and then back to California, where he joined Hahn Family Vineyards. The Hahn Family’s estates fun the length of the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is a crucial element to the success of their 2013 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir found a boost in popularity after it was featured prominently in the 2005 film, Sideways—including one memorable monologue by actor Paul Giamatti. Most of the well-known Pinot Noirs in the United States come from the Willamette Valley in Oregon or the Russian River Valley in California. However, the Santa Lucia Highlands are producing some of the best American Pinot Noirs on the market. “It’s one of those things,” Clifton says, “ where the professionals in the business know about it, but the general consumer maybe doesn’t.”
What makes the 2013 Hahn SLH Pinot Noirs special? According to Clifton, it is the blend of the wines from the northern and southern parts of the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Highlands run from the coast in the north, to more inland in the south. There is more of a mixture of fog, sun and wind in the north, which gives the grapes a thinner skin—the resulting wine more elegant. The grapes in the south, grown more inland, help give the wine a bolder color. “People that aren’t familiar with the area are blown away,” Clifton says. “They are surprised at how much is going on in the 2013 SLH. There’s a rounder flavor, more structure—its almost like berries popping in your mouth. Pinots from other regions may not have that same quality.”
Clifton is right. The 2013 SLH Pinot Noir is extraordinarily refreshing. Each sip reveals a different flavor—the first perhaps something smooth like black cherry, the second maybe spices and the third could very well reveal a big berry taste. This is a wine that goes well with lamb, pork and salmon. “But around here,” Clifton says, “we like to drink it with duck confit tacos.”
As far as the word getting out about the wine in the Santa Lucia Highlands, it’s just a matter of time. “All the growers in Santa Lucia are about pushing and promoting the quality of our wines,” Clifton says. “But there are not vineyards every mile or so. It’s still pretty much country out here.”
Wine in its natural state—that sounds pretty good to us.