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Monterey County is home to 349 vineyards, 82 wineries, and a wine region that generates approximately $1 billion annually for the local economy. Celebrating the area’s lush viticulture is a given — and maneuvering through the diverse varietals may be easier than you think.
By Peter Fish
“What could compare with the Pirate’s delight that evening when a fruit jar of wine was put in his hand, when he sat with his friends and sipped the wine and listened to the talk?”
— John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat
Monterey County and winemaking were made for each other. Just ask the county’s most famous writer, the legendary John Steinbeck, who created the most entertaining wine-loving characters in American literature in his 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat. Go back even further in time and you’ll bump into the mission fathers who planted the first wine grapes in the region in the 1700s.
Today, Monterey Bay visitors will discover that this region is one of the wine capitals of the world. It boasts 46,000 acres of vineyards and grows more than 40 wine grape varieties. The county is the largest producer of chardonnay in the United States and the largest producer of pinot noir in California. If you want to savor the wine made from these vineyards you can choose from more than 60 tasting rooms.
Visitors to those tasting rooms will discover something else. Wine touring here is remarkably an uncrowded and unpretentious experience. Sure, some of the wineries may resemble elegant French châteaux or luxurious Spanish haciendas, but tasting fees are reasonable, generally about $15. And the tasting room atmosphere is always casual and fun. Just the way John Steinbeck’s Pirate would have liked it.
Regions Within Regions
Monterey County is big: 3,771 square miles, encompassing a dramatically rugged coast, sun-washed valleys, mountains that rise more than 5,000 feet, and some of the richest farmland in the world. To organize that vast geography, winemakers have divvied up the county into nine different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each with its own distinctive climate, terrain, and soil. The Monterey AVA, the oldest and largest, starts at Monterey Bay and sweeps inland to the fertile Salinas Valley. It’s best known for its chardonnays but also produces cool-weather-loving rieslings near the coast and petite sirahs in the warmer interior. The smaller Carmel Valley AVA generates superb cabernet sauvignons and merlots. Along the west side of the Salinas Valley, the wineries of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA are famed for award-winning pinot noirs and syrahs.
The Perfect Wine Tour for You
How you make the most out of this wine country depends on your mood — and your time. If you’re looking for an accessible, urban wine-tasting experience — combined, say, with shopping or a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium — the wineries at Cannery Row are ideal; try Pierce Ranch and Carmel Ridge. Taste of Monterey offers a one-stop tasting of wines from 95 area wineries, and at The Wine Experience you can not only taste wines but blend your own.
For sophisticated, small-town sampling, spend a day strolling Carmel-by-the-Sea. Tucked beneath the village’s oaks and Monterey pines are more than a dozen intimate tasting rooms. Standouts include Silvestri, owned by famed film composer Alan Silvestri; Blair, which showcases wines from the Arroyo Seco AVA; and Wrath, known for the pinot noirs and chardonnays produced from its vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands. You can hit up many of the town wineries by following Carmel’s self-guided Wine Walk by-the-Sea; if you’re looking to really get to know the region’s wines, in one day or over a weekend, you can buy a $100 Wine Tasting Passport that entitles the buyer to one flight at 10 of the 14 participating tasting rooms.
Take a Country Drive
Inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea, the grape- and horse-loving Carmel Valley easily blends cowboy and winemaking cultures. Its elegantly rustic “downtown” area, Carmel Valley Village, now hosts some two-dozen tasting rooms where you can enjoy wines from the Carmel Valley AVA and also from nearby Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands. A good place for a first sip is Parsonage Winery, the valley pioneer that opened up in 1998. Elegant Talbott Vineyards and down-home Cowgirl Winery make very enjoyable next-door neighbors. You can sample award-winning sauvignon blancs and chardonnays inside Joullian Winery’s handsome stone tasting room, and Folktale Winery and Vineyards offers the most luxurious tasting experience imaginable: You sit on a spacious patio while your “wine educator” brings glasses of sparkling wines, rosés, and chardonnays (plus, they greet you with a taste of sparkling brut upon arrival). With Happy Trails Wagon Tour, Cowboy Pete is your guide. He’s at the helm of a tractor and wagon that carts 10 people through Carmel Valley’s casual wine scene.
Feeling even more adventurous? Head east to the vineyards clustered along River Road, south of Salinas. The River Road Wine Trail leads to a half-dozen tasting rooms, most offering wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA that rises up into the mountains before you. At Smith Family Wines enjoy sprightly pinot noirs while taking in spectacular views of the Salinas Valley. Meanwhile, the tasting room at Hahn occupies a pretty yellow cottage, and the wines and views are equally impressive.
Whichever route you choose, be sure to leave room in your car; you’ll be bringing many bottles of the world’s best wines home with you.
The Wines of Monterey
Monterey County grows more than 40 different wine grapes. Here are five outstanding varieties and the award-winning wines produced from them.
The Carmel Valley AVA is known for rich, full-bodied cabs. Taste: Joullian Winery 2015 Family Reserve cabernet sauvignon.
The county’s No. 1 grape, it produces white wines known for hints of tropical and stone fruit flavors. Taste: Blair Estate Delfina’s Vineyard Arroyo Seco 2015 chardonnay.
Particularly well-suited to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, this grape produces red wine with hints of cherry, rhubarb, and spice. Taste: Folktale Estate 2015 pinot noir.
A cool-weather grape, it thrives in the portions of the Monterey AVA nearest the coast. Taste: 2016 Scheid Family Vineyards Hive and Honey.
The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is especially known for producing deep red, intense syrahs. Taste: Hahn Family Wines 2016 Hahn SLH pinot noir.
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