A Look Back at the Santa Lucia Highland’s Humble Pioneer | Wine Enthusiast
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A Look Back at the Santa Lucia Highland’s Humble Pioneer

The wine world has always been obsessed with the notion of place, and for good reason. Certain grapes can only grow distinctively in certain locations. Climate, geology, aspect and other geographical considerations influence the resulting wine.

But as I travel through the unique corners of the Central Coast—distinct places like the Sta. Rita Hills and Paso Robles that trigger terroir envy in viticulturists around the globe—I fear that this obsession is becoming myopic. Our locational bias obscures other factors that are just as critical to a region’s soul, particularly the role of human beings, whose dedication and drive contribute as much to the rise of an appellation as sunshine and soil.

Rich Smith qualifies as such a figure when it comes to the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Pinot Noir– and Chardonnay-heavy slice of Monterey County. When Smith died of pancreatic cancer in December at 69, the region rose to his honor.

“There is not a single grower or vintner on the Central Coast who has not benefitted from Rich’s tireless work in promoting the region,” says Dave Muret, executive director of the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans Collective.

When Robert Mondavi began to seriously expand in the Central Coast, he worked with Rich to develop relationships and find the best ground to farm,” says Steve Smit of Constellation Brands. “His candor and out-of-the box thinking were always a breath of fresh air, and his ability to see the big picture was a tower of strength to us all.”

I only got to spend a little bit of time with Smith, in August 2014, but his humility and vision were evident that afternoon. As we drove down River Road—the Salinas River to our left, the Santa Lucia Highlands sloping toward the peaks on our right—he pointed out the vineyards he planted throughout the 1970s. In those early days, all of the grapes went to the huge producers who blended them with other regions.

“We didn’t have artisan outlets for the grapes,” he told me. “The criterion was industrial.”

So in 1988, Smith and his wife, Claudia, founded Paraiso Winery to bring attention to the region’s potential.Rich Smith at Paraiso

“There have always been nice wines made in all parts of the Salinas Valley,” said Smith during our conversation. “The reason we got into the winery business is because we didn’t have enough artisan wineries.”

When I asked how much wine Paraiso made annually, he said it ranged from 20,000 to 25,000 cases, but then added with a smile, “Our goal is to grow to 5,000.” Clearly, his desire to make boutique wines never waned.

Around the same time Paraiso started, Smith and Nicky Hahn mapped out the boundaries for a hillside appellation and coined the name Santa Lucia Highlands, which the feds approved as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1991. Simply put, without Smith, there might not even be a Santa Lucia Highlands at all.

Of course, as a kid, Jason Smith thought that everyone grew up driving tractors with a grape-growing dad. His parents put no pressure on Jason to enter the family business, but he did after graduating from UC Davis, his dad’s alma mater, and worked alongside Rich for nearly 25 years. Even then, it wasn’t until the past few years that he realized how much people credited his dad for the region’s success.

“For my dad, it was just about exploring opportunities,” says Jason. “He and my mom started the winery because they believed in Monterey County, and they believed in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the incredible Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that could come out of the area.” According to Jason, the focus was always on the collective rather than their own brand. “It’s about seeing our neighbors succeed,” he says.

But in the past two years, the Smiths have started charting a new course, creating the Smith Family Wines umbrella in February. It encompasses Valley Farm Management (the vineyard company Rich founded decades ago), the Paraiso brand ($20–$45 retail), a Zinfandel brand called Irie, and the newly launched Alexander-Smith label ($45–$65).

“We’re numb to it because we are in it, but family-owned estate vineyards and wineries are unique,” says Jason. “We have the opportunity to be from root to table, so Smith Family Wines is how we encompass that. When my dad passed, it took on new meaning legacy-wise, to have his name covering our company.”

So raise a toast to Rich Smith tonight, and never forget that people are as important as place when it comes to fine wine.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA hosts its annual celebration this Saturday, May 14, 1–4 p.m. at Mer Soleil Winery. See www.santaluciahighlands.com.