Last month's tasting of Morgan Winery wines at Cuistot brought back memories of Doug Arango's restaurant on El Paseo. The wine list at Dougie's, as regulars nicknamed the spot, always featured a special wine or winery whose story was captured in detailed tasting notes. Ho-hum, perhaps to today's dining crowd, yet these specials helped set the eatery apart, particularly for diners who sought a more citified wine experience in those years. Besides exciting wines, the menu was eclectic and the vibe was a grounded kind of cool, paced by a small group of young, spirited partners. In all, Doug Arango's had the right stuff to become a sentinel 1990s hangout during Palm Desert's early foodification.
Carin and Dan Morgan Lee pour at Cuistot
It was at Dougie's that I tasted my first Morgan wines. Like the restaurant, those Central Coast wines had an exotic, individualist beat of their own. Twenty years later, I still reach for Morgan to reconnect with the magic of Santa Lucia Highlands winemaking.
Unlike warm and sunny Napa to the north, the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation contends with chilly Monterey Bay. As afternoon temperatures climb in the southern part of the Salinas River Valley, rising hot air draws cooling winds off the Bay. Nighttime brings a blanketing layer of fog to the vineyards, a form of natural air conditioning that helps lengthen the ripening season. The extended hang time allows grapes to reach a trifecta of acid retention, sugar development and phenolic maturation of complex flavor and texture compounds. In the glass, this translates into food-friendly, terroir-driven wines with rich textures, elegant flavors and savory fruit in balance with depth and structure.
The affable Dan Lee poured wines from his organically farmed Double L vineyard, so-named for Dan and wife Donna's double-luck blessing of twin daughters. Luscious and toasty, the 2010 Double L Chardonnay is big sister to the breezier, citrus-inflected 2010 Highland Chardonnay. Together, these wines could easily bookend a meal that begins with pasta, seafood or a white meat dish (Highland) followed by a richer seafood, poultry or meat course (Double L). If you've never had Chardonnay with steak, the Double L is up to the task.
Morgan's reds led with Cote du Crow's, a perennial favorite. Grapes for the 2010 blend of 55% Syrah and 45% Grenache are grown in warmer parts of Monterey County, producing a medium-bodied wine enlivened by spiced dark berry flavors scented by violets.
Judging from reactions of tasters crowding the Cuistot patio, the two Morgan Pinot Noir bottlings registered as hits. The 2011 Twelve Clones, named for the range of original plantings at Morgan's Double L vineyard, showed power and finesse, all dark cherry and blackberry flavors laced by an earthy, mineral streak. Fruit from the heralded Double L vineyard comprise 45% of the vintage blend.
Last came the steak Pinot. If your inner carnivore couldn't abide the Double L Chardonnay working with steak, the 2011 Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir is poised to challenge your thinking about food pairings for Pinot. Hefty yet balanced, this wine shows how brawny SLH Pinot can be, with layers of truffled black cherry fruit, smoke and spice. Give this one some time to tame those tannins and then let it show its grace and muscle alongside a robust dish.
Find Morgan wines at Los Angeles Wine Company in Palm Desert and occasionally at Cost Plus World Market in La Quinta. Prices start around $15 for the Cotes du Crow's and can head north of $40 for the Double L Pinot Noir. All are sure-fire winners that will add an element of class to your next meal or get-together. And, perhaps, stir up your own Morgan memories.
With thanks to Dan, and Dougie's.