California winemakers are riding the Climate roller coaster and
still producing top rated drinks. It’s all about the passion.

By: Louise L. Schiavone

“This crazy weather is my biggest concern,” winemaker Dan Morgan Lee tells me in the middle of the California winter’s extraordinary rainy season. A lifetime winemaker and founder of Morgan Winery, Lee owns 65 acres in Soledad, California’s Santa Lucia Highlands. In this rain-drenched winter, the hillsides have transformed from drought-parched brown to a green as rich as the Scottish Highlands. Fifty acres of the vineyard are planted with grapevines and, together with the grapes that Lee buys from other farmers, Morgan Winery produces 30,000 12-liter cases a year. Its stocks sell out annually, with retail prices ranging from $20 to $75 per bottle. He holds 90+ ratings for many of his wines, mainly chardonnays and pinot noirs.

Morgan bottles everything from the vineyard before the next harvest. “We sell a good product that tastes good to us,” Lee says. But in recent years, like all farmers, he’s concerned about the intensifying manifestations of climate change. “The dry years are really dry, and the wet years are only wet.” The Highlands experienced a flood two years ago. In 2020, a fire in the hillsides corrupted the flavor of red grapes in many vineyards, including Morgan’s, with smoke taint so powerful that it made them unusable. A Labor Day temperature spike last year dehydrated some grapes on the vines, but Lee sees every day as a new exercise in advance planning and patience. “We find that, a lot of the time, your sugars rise with a full moon and once it starts to wane, they normalize.”

Beneath the Santa Lucia Highlands, Lee says, is an aquifer that’s bigger than Lake Tahoe, enough to support growth for at least two decades. When this highly coveted land became his in 1996, he resolved to go organic. “There were so many people around here who said, ‘You’re absolutely crazy!'” But, he thought, “we were so fortunate. Land in the Santa Lucia Highlands doesn’t change hands, probably ever, and we thought, How do we treat this property with the most love and the most respect that we can?”

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