One of the most reputable names in Monterey
Morgan Winery is the brainchild of Daniel Morgan Lee and his wife Donna, a couple with an underground success story and a reputation for world-class Pinot Noir that many consider set the standard for the Monterey County region.
Dan Lee grew up in the small agricultural town of Turlock in the Central Valley of California, and preparing initially for the study of veterinary medicine, he enrolled as a pre-med student at UC Davis. It wasn’t until late in his studies that he took some classes in Enology and found what he really wanted though: a field that satisfied his interest in both science and agriculture, but with an added element of creativity.
After working a harvest at nearby Cuvaison Winery, and visiting tasting rooms on the weekends with classmates, Lee was hooked, and immediately enrolled in the prestigious graduate program the university had to offer.
Upon completion of his graduate work in 1978, Lee landed a winemaking position at Monterey’s Jekel Vineyards, followed by a stint at Durney Vineyard in Carmel Valley. Lee always assumed he’d end up in either Napa or Sonoma, but after spending some time in Monterey, quickly discovered the potential of the region as a world-class wine-growing location and joined the Monterey County Winegrowers Association to further support the budding appellation.
At a Monterey County Winegrowers Association meeting Lee shared his vision with a banker, Donna, who encouraged him to open his own winery. In addition to becoming his banking advisor, Donna would also become Dan’s wife.
“I really wanted to work for myself,” Dan explained. “I was frustrated by working as just a winemaker at other wineries and wanted to do the marketing side of the business too. I saw what other wineries were not doing, and wanted to be the one making the decisions.” Such spirit is partially due to the entrepreneurial attitude of the Lee family, but it’s that courage and character that are necessary to successfully build a new winery from the ground up.
Dan and Donna started Morgan Winery together in their spare time in 1982, making their first Chardonnay while Dan was still making wine full time at Durney. For the next two years they operated the winery from their home until moving into a state of the art facility in Salinas in 1984. This was also the year they added Sauvignon Blanc to the profile, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in 1986.
Unlike most wineries, Morgan Winery found immediate success when the 1982 vintage Chardonnay won a Gold Medal at a prestigious Los Angeles Wine Competition, and what started as an underground winery quickly grew by word-of-mouth popularity.
“Nineteen Eighty-Two was supposedly a terrible time to start a winery because of the recession, but I knew it would work and I knew I could make good wine,” Lee said with confidence. He was right, and Morgan Winery grew faster than most wineries could even dream of. By 1988, Lee was already producing 18,000 cases.
Morgan Winery was working with contract grape growers at the time, actively testing new vineyard sites each vintage to find the best that the region had to offer. It wasn’t until 1996 that Dan and Donna finally purchased their own vineyard, a 65-acre property located in the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands. It was perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two cornerstone wines of Morgan Winery, and it showed potential for Syrah as well. The Lee’s named it Double L, short for Double Luck, for their identical twin daughters, Annie and Jackie, who were five years old at the time.
Dan continues to source fruit from some of the region’s most recognized growers, among them Gary Franscioni (Rosella’s Vineyard) and Gary Pisoni (Garys’ Vineyard, co-owned by Franscioni and Gary Pisoni). His special bottlings from these sites have become an exciting (and successful) project for Morgan Winery as well.
In 2003, Dan Lee was named Winemaker of the Year by San Francisco Chronicle, and it seems his wines have only improved since. With a world-class vineyard location, a portfolio of excellent cool-climate wines, and a winery brand ranked as one of the state’s finest, the Lee’s are thrilled, and couldn’t be happier living their dream come true.
About the Vineyard
Situated in the center of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is Rosella’s Vineyard. The site has a desirable southeast exposure with a marine climate of strong coastal winds, foggy mornings, breezy afternoons, and a long, drawn out growing season. Its fifty planted acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah thrive in this cool weather, particularly the Pinot Noir, and the result are wines with ripe fruit, balance and complexity, as expressed from the vineyard.
Morgan Winery’s single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays have really brought the winery to a new level, so vineyard selection has become of vital importance to the winemaking team. Rosella’s Vineyard is among the most famed estates in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was planted by Gary Franscioni and his wife Rosella over the course of seven years (1996-2003). Their conscientious winegrowing and excellent location yield some of the region’s top-flight wines.
Gianni Abate - Assisted Winemaker
Dan Lee is assisted by winemaker Gianni Abate who started working in the wine industry in the San Joaquin Valley, where he was raised by a wine drinking Italian family. Working for companies such as Bronco, Delicato, and Woodbridge in northern California, he laid a good foundation for his winemaking career, but his love for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ultimately lead him to the Central Coast in 2002. While on the Central Coast, Gianni also worked for the Robert Mondavi Corporation.
Gianni found his way to Morgan Winery in 2005 and was thrilled to work with Burgundian varietals. He has a tremendous palate, which is necessary to produce world-class wines and with access to premier fruit, Gianni is able to craft truly elegant wines for the Morgan brand. He's thrilled to work with the distinctive terroir at Morgan's organically grown Double L Vineyard and select premium vineyards throughout the Santa Lucia Highlands and northern Monterey appellations.
Daniel Lee - Owner & Winemaker
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 entrepreneurial 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!