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Gold Medal Wine Club
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Morgan Winery- Monterey county

An Underground Succes Story

Daniel Morgan Lee had to do it his way. He already knew he could make great Chardonnay. But he wanted a chance to do it all. Frustrated by the constraints of someone else running the show, Dan Lee knew he could start a winery of his own and make it work.

That entreprenuerial attitude led to the creation of Morgan Winery. The year was 1982--that's right, 1982. The country was in the midst of a big reccession, and interest rates were skyrocketing through the roof. Was Dan Lee that sure of himself, or was he just being foolish? Ignoring the doom-and-gloom soothsayers, Dan got busy. He enlisted the help of his bride-to-be, Donna, along with his brother and parents. While still working as winemaker at another winery, Dan began to build his dream. They worked in over-cramped quarters, topping barrels on weekends, and hand labeling bottles at night.

Fast-forward to 1993. Looking back, it is very obvious that Dan did know what he was doing. Not only has the operation been financially profitable from day-one, Morgan Winery today stands among America's best Chardonnay producers.

The Morgan Winery is situated in Monterey County, just south of Salinas. The county's cool, coastal growing conditions (in fact, it is California's coolest growing climate), make it an ideal area for Chardonnay. This was a fact known to relatively few people in the early 1980's. "To use grapes from Monterey county, or to have a winery located here, was still an oddity" recalls Dan. "We were already seeing some great wine coming out of the area back then. But because it wasn't Napa or Sonoma, people weren't paying attention," he adds.

Daniel Lee wasted no time in making the wine-world stop and pay attention. His 1982 Monterey County Chardonnay was the first wine he entered into a major competition. It promptly won a Gold Medal. By virtue of it's credentials, the wine was allowed into the Gold Medal Chardonnay Taste-Off sponsored by Wine & Spirits Magazine. This was a competition open only to Gold Medal winning Chardonnays from the nations' top wine competitions. The Morgan Chardonnay was the overall winner, taking home the coveted Grand Platinum Award!

The Morgan Philosophy of winemaking sounds simple: find the best vineyards, make the wines with a minimal amount of manipulation, build complexity by adding components from different vineyards. Of course, if it was that easy we'd all be doing it, right? Dan continually works with his contract grape growers, trying new techniques in the vineyards. Using up to 12 different sources to produce his wines, allows Dan to purchase only the best grapes, from the best areas of each vineyard. Always searching for the best grapes, new and unproven sources will undergo several years of testing before being used to make Morgan wines. "The fruit must be consistantly good, year after year, or we won't use the vineyard," Dan confirms. It is no accident that Morgan Winery turns out great wine year after year.

Dan still considers Morgan Winery as an "underground" success. "We don't spend much money on marketing. All of our success has come from the power of the wine itself," says Dan. "It's really been a 'serendipity' situation" he quips. Indeed. With a modest start producing 2,000 cases, his 8,000 square foot facility now turns out 25,000 cases a year, making four different varietals. Chardonnay continues to be the winery's flagship wine with over half the production devoted to three different bottlings. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir round out the current offerings. Short term, Dan has plans to add a Zinfindel to the portfolio by 1995. Long term, he sees the winery eventually reaching the 40,000 case level.

Gold Medal Wine Club is very pleased to present two great selections from Morgan Winery. The 1991 Chardonnay is among the best of a great lineage of Morgan Chardonnays. It's a blend of eight different Monterey county Chardonnay fruit. Each vineyards' grapes have added their own subtle component and characteristic to this superb wine. The 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from the Carmel Valley, just south of Monterey. The Carmel Valley is gaining worldwide recognition for its big, rich Cabernets and Merlots. The warm days and cool nights make an ideal climate for these varietals. The featured Cabernet has won numerous awards in this years' competitions, including 'Best of Region' at the California State Fair. It is the fourth vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon for Morgan. And it's a winner!

We hope you enjoy this month's featured wines.

Joe Davis began making wine for Morgan Winery in 1986

After graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington in 1983, Joe returned to his hometown of Monterey, California. There he began working as a counselor at a local boys ranch. While at the boys ranch, Joe decided to pursue his love of wine by enrolling in the U.C. Davis enology program.

In 1985, at the Monterey Wine Festival, Joe met Dan Lee, and persuaded Dan to hire him as assistant winemaker. Joe says, "I just kept showing up at the winery and dragging hoses around until Dan decided to pay me!" It was the beginning of a friendship that saw Morgan Winery grow from its 2,000 case start, to its present size of 25,000 cases. Joe has overseen all of the production since 1987, and was promoted to winemaker in 1989.

Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee points to his parents when asked how he got to where he is today. Oh sure, they helped him out a bit financially and lent plenty of moral support during the winery's early days. But it's the attitude to which Dan is referring. "The Lee family has always had that entreprenuerial attitude," he says. "When I worked for other wineries, I couldn't stand being on the sideline, not calling the shots!" he adds.

Dan worked hard and keenly observed the operations at Jekel Vineyards, where he started right out of college. He already had experience working the harvest for Cuvaison Winery during the summer. "It was the best thing that ever happened, from a learning standpoint," he recalls. "At the time, that hands-on experience was much more valuable than the classes at U.C. Davis," he relays. Valuable as it may have been, Dan's lasting inspiration would come later that year from those same classrooms at the University of California at Davis. Dan became fascinated with the seminars which brought in the likes of pioneer winemakers, Walter Schug and Andre Tchelistcheff, to speak about their craft. "We used to grill those poor guys for hours on end!" he laughs. "But the insight and motivation they provided was invaluable." he quickly adds.

Dan's experience at Cuvaison led to a full time winemaker job even before he was to graduate from U.C. Davis. In the fall of 1978, he went to work at newly formed Jekel Vineyards. He was also able to gain additional experience in the same capacity for nearby Durney Vineyards. Both Jekel and Durney vineyards were among the first to establish themselves in Monterey county.

For four years, until the start of his own winery, Dan turned out superb wine for both operations. During this time he also became active in the Monterey Winegrowers Association. It was at these meetings, that Dan and his wife, Donna, first met. Her interest in winemaking came from a banker's point of view, attending the meetings as a loan officer for Wells Fargo Bank. Donna helps at the winery when she can, but working full time at the bank and attending to their 2-year old twin daughters can easily fill the daily schedule!

On a day-to-day basis, Morgan Winery is run by a small but talented and dedicated crew. Other than Dan, Joe Davis has been the winery's only winemaker (see related story), Joe's wife Seri, looks after the sales and marketing aspects, while good friends Jean and Jan hold down the fort in the office.

Although currently recognized as one of the top twenty five Chardonnay producers in the country, Dan would like to see that climb to among the top five. Judging from the wines we are featuring this month, we'd say he's already there!