Uncorked: Santa Lucia Highlands lend magic to wines

Community service led James Ewart to an early wake-up call.

The Diora winemaker had a board meeting at a local hospital. There are limited medical services where Ewart makes wine in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Salinas Valley is an agricultural oasis for Americans’ salad bowl, but in the last 10 to 15 years, wine grapes have thrived, particularly pinot noir and chardonnay, in the predictably cool, sunny climate where foggy mornings and windy afternoons allow grapes to reach full maturity and develop deep, distinct flavors.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, Ewart’s service is more important than ever.

“I’m on a hospital board and this is my fourth year of doing the community service,” Ewart said. “We live 60 minutes from another major hospital, so this is important for the community. It’s tough right now. We’ve had our fair share of cases and people are afraid.”

But he soldiers on professionally as Diora’s winemaker. A native of Australia, Ewart came to America as an intern 20 years ago and has been constantly tinkering and discovering new sites since.

“The Santa Lucia Highlands are a pretty unique place,” Ewart said. “I love Australia, they make great wines, but it’s pretty flat for the most part. You have to go a long way to see diversity in climate. Within California, the diversity with the strong marine influence and geography is remarkable. Within a five- or 10-mile radius, you can have very different climates. Coupled with various soil types, you’ve got a very special place to make wine.”

Experimentation is encouraged for Ewart, part of the Delicato Family, Transcendent Wines portfolio. Ewart has worked various sites with different clones in search of the right mix.

“I have the flexibility, freedom and support from ownership, they tell me to go push boundaries,” Ewart said. “There’s something that might lead to us having a program in five to 10 years – I get told [to] just go play with it and see what happens.”

The results are flavorful wines that hit a price-range sweet spot. The Diora La Grande Majesté  Pinot Noir 2018 ($40) has spice and tea leaves on the nose; there was strawberry, cherry, cranberry blood orange and a metal-like minerality on the finish.

At just $25, the Diora La Petite Grace 2017 is a good introduction into the SLH appellation and the ripe fruit flavors it can produce. A more hedonistic pinot with blackberry, cherry, baking spices. Each sip is a mouth-filling experience for pleasure-seeking pinot lovers in search of instant gratification.

“For pinot, that’s a really special site on a hill that faces east,” said Ewart about San Bernabe. “We get some nice morning sun and are a little protected from the west and the late afternoon sun. But we get exposed to late afternoon wind. Those vines are really working hard and are well-balanced. I’ll pick some early and pick the bulk later to get nice ripe notes.”

Ewart said the Santa Lucia Highlands, specifically the San Bernabe Vineyard, is a magical place for chardonnay. There’s a big swing in temperature between the daytime highs and nighttime lows, which allows the fruit to retain acidity. Yet the long hang time allows for tropical notes to develop, and it shows in the wines’ concentration. Because the fruit flavors wouldn’t be overwhelmed, Ewart was able to use 40% new oak barrels in the cellar.

The Diora La Grande Lumière Chardonnay 2018 ($40) has baking spice, warm, fleshy golden apple and toasty almond flavors. Its round mouthfeel is offset by a crisp finish. The Diora La Splendeur Du Soleil 2018 ($19.99) taps into more tropical fruit flavors and creme brulee.

From various soil types to the east at the foothills of the Santa Lucia Highlands mountain range, there are sandy, alluvial soils brought to the property via the winds that race through the Salinas Valley.

To the west, it’s a rock shale loam that is a heavier type of soil. Combined, they help create an impressive palate of flavors for Ewart in the cellar. As he moves up the mountain to sites with higher elevation, he’s noticed more mineral notes emerge.

Which is the lure of the Santa Lucia Highlands – the endless possibilities and near perfect weather lead to vintage after vintage loaded with potential.

“We do have a similar climate where each year is a lot alike, but it’s really not,” Ewart said. “Sometimes there are more grapes. Sometimes there are [fewer]. That’s the magic of winemaking, sometimes flavors come on early, sometimes they don’t.”

The flavors came with the Diora wines and did so at prices that beg for an introduction.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.