River Road winds along the base of the Santa Lucia Range, connecting Salinas to Soledad. For generations this road cut a swath between a rich, fertile valley — the world's salad bowl — and the rural, largely uninhabited highlands above.

Formed when the stately Santa Lucias were pushed up 2 million years ago by the Pacific Plate colliding with the North American mainland, the highlands has always enjoyed early morning sun and heat followed by cool, misty fog rolling down the valley from the bay — the perfect growing environment for wine, especially Chardonnay, Syrah and the fickle Pinot Noir.

The earliest vinifera plantings, in what was to become the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation in 1991, took place in the 1790s, with the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries and conquistadors. The modern era, however, began in the early 1970s, with initial plantings by Rich and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow, Phil Johnson at La Estancia, and Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook.

Today, from the glorious Mer Soleil Vineyards to the sensuous Pisoni hideout in the hills, this region has become a hotbed of fine wine. Many have gone so far is to call it the new American Burgundy.

"Today Monterey is back on the wine map thanks to a stretch of land just 18 miles long and a few miles wide: the Santa Lucia Highlands," wrote Tim Fish in the June 2008 Wine Spectator. "Since the early '90s, some of the better wineries in California — Ojai and Loring, for example — have been sourcing grapes for their small-batch Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Syrahs from this terrace.



A mere five years ago, along this gorgeous country road there were a scarce two or three tasting rooms, led by Paraiso Vineyards and its sleek Chardonnays and Pinots, followed by Hahn/Smith & Hook with its finely balanced reds, and completed by the much loved Cloninger. Rich Smith, proprietor of Paraiso, says he used to walk out from his house in the morning to find that a female mountain lion had taken up residence behind a tool shed. "The mountain lion stays way up in the hills now because there are a lot more people around. Now the tourists there are treated to a spectacular view of the Pinnacle National Monument's extinct volcano cone resting across the valley."

Steve Pessagno, former winemaker for Lockwood down in the south valley, who has remodeled the old Cloninger tasting room as Pessagno with his deeply structured Pinots and Zinfandels, concurs.

"It was raw and beautiful back then," he said. "We were the settlers. The land was wild and beautiful. It's still wild, but now the world has discovered us."

Those still on the outside looking in have two upcoming opportunities to discover River Road and the Santa Lucia Highlands — Saturday's River Road Wine Trail SpringFest Open House and the Highlands' Fling on May 16.

The accolades keep coming from the wine world. Syndicated wine columnist Robert Whitley wrote recently that the Talbott 2006 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay "should be declared a national treasure"; Wine Spectator's Bruce Sanderson calls Santa Lucia Highlands "the fastest rising wine region in the country right now"; Pessagno 2006 Four Boys Vineyard Pinot Noir earned 96 points from Wine Enthusiast; and Garys' Vineyard (a joint effort between Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni) produces some of the most celebrated and revered grapes in California — with much of the yield ending up in bottles from other winemakers.

Like many SLH growers, Franscioni turned his family's agriculture-based farm into vineyards. Recognizing the region's potential for premium wine grapes, Franscioni and longtime friend Pisoni partnered on Garys' Vineyard in 1997. In 1996 Franscioni planted the 50-acre Rosella's Vineyard — named for his wife — on their estate property just a few miles north of the Garys' Vineyard.

Unlike Pisoni, who had to beg his father to plant grapes, Joe Alreid of the new Tondre Grapefield had to be cajoled by his own father into making wine. "He was pretty insistent, seeing the growth of the Monterey wine industry all around us," said Alreid, with a glass of his own highly regarded Pinot Noir in his hand. "I was a little reluctant because our vegetable fields are so successful. But, boy, I'm glad I did. The recognition is entirely different. Our name has gone into parts of the world it never would have before."

George Edwards of Pacific Grove's WineMarket concurs: "My customers are coming in here more and more and asking me where the River Road Wine Trail is and how can they get there. They want to go right to the source of their drinking pleasure. What I also tell them is that 40percent of the grapes for Napa Valley wines come from right here."

The celebration of this region begins the new and still timeless River Road Wine Trail, which offers visitors an increasing array of delights. The best way to begin is with a stop at Zeph's in Salinas — the deli extraordinaire, wine shop and hangout for all the local winemakers. Bill and Vince, the proprietors, offer more than 40 different kinds of Monterey wines by the glass, with wonderful wine lore and a great food basket to take along for the day of tasting.

Heading toward Monterey from Zeph's, stop in at The Farm at the junction of Highway 68 and Reservation Road and learn about the rise of agriculture and grape-growing in the Salinas Valley — a perfect complement to your reason for being here.

Just down the road there are three exceptional B&B's with wildly different experiences. A night at Coralini Inn and Spa on River Road will submerge you in a hot tub and massage and wonderful Victorian décor. Further down River Road, a stay at Vision Quest's B&B includes its Wild Things animal park with the elephants, lions, zebras and various other surprises. The elephants themselves have been known to serve breakfast to the lucky guests. And almost next door, Barlocher's Inn offers country simplicity centered around its corral and horseback riding experience.

But the real attraction is the wine, and the River Road Wine Trail Open House celebrates just that. The 15th annual free event (no reservations necessary) takes place from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and features new releases, barrel sampling, food and entertainment. Twelve of the great names of American winemaking will be there inviting you into their tasting rooms and directly into their vineyards — Boekenoogen, Paraiso, Pessagno, Marilyn Remark, Puma, Manzoni, Blackstone, Scheid, Chalone, Ventana, Hahn and San Saba (see www.riverroadwinetrail.com for a map and more information).

On Saturday, May 16, the Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands, an alliance of the appellation's winegrowers and the wineries that rely on the district's fruit, have announced the final pouring lineup for its third annual gala, taking place from 2-5 p.m. at Hahn Estates.

This "Highlands' Fling" celebration will feature strolling wine tasting from most prized vintages and special reserves of the S.L.H.'s artisan winemakers — paired to delicacies prepared by local chef/caterer Terry Teplitzky. Attendees will also be able to bid on one-of-a-kind "big bottles" from some of the wineries.

Guests will have the opportunity to sample rare wines poured by the vintners themselves. Wineries scheduled to participate include: Belle Glos, Bernardus, Boekenoogen, Cru, Hahn, La Rochelle, Lucienne, Manzoni, Martin Alfaro, Mer Soleil, McIntyre, Morgan, Novy, Paraiso, Pelerin, Pessagno, Pisoni, Puma Road, Roar, Robert Talbott, Testarossa, Siduri, Six Strings, Tondre and Tudor.

Tickets are $85 per person and can be purchased online at www.santaluciahighlands.com.