One of the best things about being a Master Sommelier — or being in the wine business in general — are the incredible friendships your form throughout the span of your career. Sara Floyd is an example of one of those enduring friendships. We met over twenty years ago during our first attempt at the Advanced Sommelier exam in San Francisco. I was working at a wine shop in Carmel and she was the sommelier for Vertigo Restaurant at the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco. Sara had worked for legendary Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon and had garnered praise as a rising wine phenom — in other words, she was kind of a big deal. I would eventually move to Chicago to run the wine program at Everest and Sara started her company own company, Swirl Wine Brokers. In 2003, we would have our fates forever sealed as friends when we passed our Master Sommelier exams at the exact same moment. I distinctly remembered coming out of the examination room just as Sara came out of hers. We locked eyes and smiled, we both knew we had passed. The journey that we had started together would end together. In looking back, I can’t imagine it being any other way. It was perfect.
A few years ago, after her growing frustration with the lack of affordable yet good quality, hand-crafted wines in the market, Sara took matters into her own hands and joined forces with the Pisoni Family to create Luli Wines. Their mission statement was to create wine for the people! The Pisoni Family is world-renowned for their luscious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Luli sources fruit from the Santa Lucia Highlands to showcase the region’s lush and aromatic expression of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Jeff Pisoni brings the same exacting winemaking standards that he uses for his family’s legendary wines to the entire range of Luli offerings. His brother Mark handles the viticultural decisions and Sara is in charge of marketing and sales. So basically you’re getting top-caliber precision made wines but at a fraction of the price of what you usually see coming out of the Santa Lucia Highlands or just about anywhere.
The Santa Lucia Highlands are located in Monterey County on the eastern side of the coastal Santa Lucia Range of mountains. The area is often called ‘Steinbeck Country,’ named after the celebrated 20th-century writer, John Steinbeck. The valley runs southeast from Monterey Bay, allowing a substantial influx of cool air and fog. Located about 15 miles from the ocean, conditions here are ideal for cool climate varietals such as Pinot Noir, with morning fog followed by warm days, tempered by afternoon breezes and cool nights.
Sara was in town this week to showcase the latest vintage from Luli. We met for lunch with a few other members of the Chicago wine community at Blackbird. In between chatting about her two adorable twin boys, the unrivaled Indian food scene in London and bogus restaurant reviews, we went through the entire range of Luli wines as well as a few offerings from Lucia and a bottle of Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir.
Here are my tasting notes (if prices are not provided, it’s because I wasn’t sure)
2018 Luli Rose en Magnum, Central Coast (750ml bottles priced at $18) - Sara and I have a mutual friend and colleague, Master Sommelier William Sherer who has a saying, “Magnums show you care'“. An indeed we all knew we were in for a fun lunch as soon as we arrived and saw three magnums of rose sitting on our tables. Sara and I were both talking about the ubiquitous nature of rose these days — it’s everywhere — sort of like shishito peppers and cauliflower on a restaurant menu. Everyone loves and expects it but how do you make it so it stands out from the rest of the pack? You do it by using 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Grenache, an unprecedented blend I had never seen before. I asked Sara how she came up with it and she said she loves what both grapes contribute to rose so why not have the best of both worlds. Sourced from two vineyards in Monterey County. The Pinot Noir was fermented in older barrels for texture and Grenache in stainless steel to preserve the freshness. Pale pink blush in color, aromas of white peaches, watermelons and crushed red flowers, fresh acidity on the palate, drinks like a white wine, clean and vibrant.
2017 Luli Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands $20 - In an interesting move, Sara wanted us to taste the Chardonnay before the Sauvignon Blanc. The Luli Chardonnay is fresher in style versus being an oaky butter bomb so I understand why she did this. Sara loves lemons and acid in her wines and you can see this preference reflected in the Luli Chardonnay but it’s still a Chardonnay in texture and overall flavor. Sara said people want their Chards to taste like Chards and not some anomaly and so they made sure the Luli delivered on that promise. The wine is aged in older oak barrels with some reductive winemaking techniques to add a richness on the palate. Flavors of lemon curd, lemon zest, golden delicious apples, mid-palate texture, fresh and clean on the finish. No presence of any overt oak flavors.
2017 Lucia Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands - Some of the Chardonnay sourced for this wine is from the Pisoni Estate vineyard, a tiny unicorn amount of Pisoni Estate Chardonnay is bottled but is rarely seen. The other portion comes from the Soberanes vineyard. Interesting contrast to the Luli Chardonnay - much more tropical in the nose with aromas of ripe bosc pears, lemons, toasted bread, caramel, nutmeg but still fresh and lively.
2016 Luli Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands $20 - I didn’t write down my notes for this wine. I must have been distracted by my conversation with Sara about the state of the world.
2018 Luli Sauvignon Blanc, Arroyo Seco $18 - Sourced from the Griva vineyard in Arroyo Seco, the soils are gravelly and reminds Sara of Graves in Bordeaux. 100% fermented in neutral oak barrels for texture. Aromas of figs, musk melon, guava, fresh cut grass and green apples. The aromatic pungency reminds me of the Musque clone of Sauvignon Blanc. Delicious.
2017 Luli Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands $24 - sourced from three vineyards neighboring the Pisoni estate. The first thing you notice about this wine is the deep plum color, a result of the fierce Santa Lucia Highland winds. The wind (sometimes enough to blow off your car door) concentrate the grapes giving deeper colored wines. Smells like a bowl of fresh cherries, leather, tobacco, smoked meat, savory herbs, tart bing cherries, firm tannins, well-structured. It’s a very meaty and complex Pinot Noir for the price point.
2016 Luli Pinot Noir, Highlands Ranch, Santa Lucia Highlands - One of two single vineyard Luli Pinot Noirs that we tried. Lighter in color versus the Monte Linda, savory herbs, that good kind of Burgundian funkiness, meat, leather, smoked meat, strawberry, rasbperries, dried red flowers.
2016 Luli Pinot Noir, Monte Linda Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands - dark plum color, warm earth, thyme, cherry liqueur, framboise, smoked meat, leather, firm texture but elegant on the palate.
2017 Lucia Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands - dark plum color, savory umami flavors, mushrooms, balsamic, sauvage quality, game, meat, clove spice.
2017 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands - In 1982, Gary Pisoni realized that the area was a perfect home for Pinot Noir and he planted five acres on mountainous terrain at 1,300 feet, overlooking the Salinas Valley floor that extends from Monterey Bay to Paso Robles. It didn’t take long for Pinot Noir grapes from the Pisoni Vineyard to be among California’s most sought-after wines in the world. Our friend and colleague Belinda Chang was the former wine director at Charlie Trotter’s and she recalled how they waited all year to get their allocation of 3 bottles of Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir and the Captains would sell it within a day. Even today, the Pisoni Estate wines are hard to come by with your best bet in getting your hands on some being their mailing list. Deep purple in color, raspberry liqueur, macerated plums, smoked meat, savory herbs, silky on the palate with a firm, well structured tannins, persistent finish.