(Published by the San Jose Mercury and its affiliates on September 19, 2013)
We’re blitzing between rows of grapevines on an ATV, fat tires spewing up dust. Our driver-guide is saying something about all the vines we’re passing but the motor’s roar drowns her out. Now hotfooting up a steep trail, we come to a quick stop at the upper edge of this mountain vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The green Salinas Valley with its checkerboard of crops spreads out below and in the sudden quiet of the silenced engine, we hear starlings chatter as they dive-bomb the vineyard.
This “vineyard safari” at the Hahn winery way above the sleepy town of Soledad demonstrates how far beyond pours in a tasting room wineries are going to attract customers. Wine tasting with craft fairs and wine-and-golf or wine-and-spa pairings are now old school. Tastings with film festivals are getting there. How about a one-day glider ride, kayaking and tasting tour in the Santa Ynez Valley? Or cross-country tasting tours in the Napa and Sonoma regions via amphibious vehicle? Wine tasting has even been paired with rock n’ roll in a few locales. Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon, anyone?
“The challenge we face attracting visitors is the appellation’s geographic isolation,” explains Paul Clifton, director of winemaking at Hahn Family Wines. “We’re combating that by offering our ATV tours and a culinary program and giving visitors great reasons to come into the Santa Lucia Highlands and spend the day.”
With more than 650 acres of vineyards in the region, Hahn is a major player that is happy to lead the charge in giving the Santa Lucia Highlands more visibility. The winery’s ATV tour followed by wine tasting lasts about an hour and a half, with stops to drink in the extraordinary views and learn about viticulture or local wine history.
“I love being up on top of the mountain and looking out over the valley. I love being able to go to places I normally couldn’t get to. That’s why I went back and did it a second time,” enthuses Ileen Groves, a relatively recent resident of Soledad who’s sampled many of Hahn’s new visitor enticements.
Groves and her husband have also attended several of the monthly food-and-wine events at Hahn, which mate mini-courses with compatible wines. Hahn executive chef Dyon Foster alternates two events: pairing three tapas with three matched wines or coupling three food tastes with a single wine. “They really do a good job of educating you about why to pick certain wines with certain foods,” reports Groves.
Among many hits that have emerged from his kitchen, Foster has offered wine-friendly treats like a robust wilted kale salad with warm bacon that’s designed to go with big reds, and softly spiced lamb kebobs that bring out the best in pinot noir and Rhone blends.
For those not willing to wait a month to indulge in these events, Hahn holds “Fromage Friday,” where guests get complimentary nibbles of wine-compatible cheeses. On the non-culinary side, Hahn also offers a foot version of the ATV tour as guided vineyard walks followed by wine tasting.
According to Clifton, the best possible outcome would be if other Santa Lucia Highlands wineries followed suit with new visitor attractions. “Eventually, we would love to see dozens of options that people can choose from to construct a full day of activities to enjoy,” he says.
Ileen Groves is already a believer. Relocating her bookkeeping business from Ohio two years ago, she has been reveling in the wine, scenery and activities along the local wine trail. She says that compared to life in her previous locale, “I feel like I’m Alice and fell down the rabbit hole.”
Details on Activities at Hahn Winery
“Vineyard Safaris” take place at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on weekends and by appointment on weekdays. Cost is $45 per person with wine tasting. Frequent discounts are available on sites like Living Social.
Vineyard walking tours, which are shorter versions of the ATV tour, last an hour and cost $25 per person with tasting.
Monthly food-and-wine events take place on Saturdays and cost $15 for three bites with one wine and $35.50 for three bites with three wines. There are discounts for wine club members.
For more information and reservations, go to the “visit” section of www.hahnwinery.com.