The Hidden Treasures of Monterey

Get to know the winemakers and vineyards who are shaping the future of Arroyo Seco, Chalone and Carmel Valley in California's Central Coast.
Arroyo Seco vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

A region where princes and paupers can find their dream bottle, Monterey County plays to both the quality and quantity extremes of winemaking.

The Pacific-influenced Santa Lucia Highlands produce some of the best and priciest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California. Yet from the floor of the Salinas Valley come myriad wines labeled simply as “Central Coast,” which typically sell for less than $20.

Monterrey, CaliforniaHiding in plain sight are the Arroyo Seco, Chalone and Carmel Valley regions, three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that provide an ample middle ground between distinctively pricey bottles and relative affordability. After years of being impressed with the wines from these AVAs, I explored them in greater depth this summer.

Arroyo Seco

Unrelenting Wind and Granite Graveyards

The Arroyo Seco, a tributary of the Salinas River, carves a wide gulch through the steep Santa Lucia Mountains, whose coastal flanks frame Big Sur just 20 miles to the west. It then spills rocks of all sizes onto the flatlands near the farm towns of Greenfield and Soledad.

Founded in 1983, the Arroyo Seco AVA predates the Santa Lucia Highlands by a decade, and it was historically dominated by large-scale growing operations. It’s an especially promising place for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but its varied topography affords opportunities for aromatic whites as well as Rhône- and Bordeaux-inspired reds.

Banging the Arroyo Seco drum loudest is Mike Kohne, whose résumé includes many years at Rosenblum Cellars.

“I saw a lot of California,” says Kohne. “We wanted to carve our own niche and do something no one was really doing. And there was nothing really like the Arroyo Seco. It was just that rock.”

His Mercy Wines label, one of the region’s first to promote single vineyards, began with the 2008 harvest.

The Wente family’s foothold in the region, which today amounts to almost 1,000 acres of grapevines, started in the 1960s. As fifth-generation vintner Karl Wente drives me across the property that’s dominated by Chardonnay but includes Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Syrah and Pinot Noir, he talks about “farming for flavors.”

Pinot Noir vines at Wente Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright
Pinot Noir vines at Wente Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

Rocking the Region

Wente, a graduate of Stanford and University of California (Davis), sings along to tunes by his rock band, The Front Porch, which plays on the truck’s stereo. Wente mentions that he was just appointed chief operating officer of the company, though he prefers that not much change.

“I want to stay as close as I can to having dirty boots in the vineyard and a purple tongue in the winery,” he says, ending our tour atop a crest that overlooks the whole appellation, the fog of Monterey Bay visible far to the north.

Why To Watch Emerging Wine Regions

After crossing the river on a green bridge slung low over families playing in the pools below, I come to the vineyard of Luis Zabala, an eighth-generation Californian whose Spanish ancestors arrived in Santa Barbara in 1793, and settled here in 1862. As we drive through vines first planted in 1972, a coyote scampers toward the riverbed. Though his stretch of the river is dry as a bone on this day,  it can flood in the winter.

Luis and Leslie Zabala / Photo by Michael Housewright
Luis and Leslie Zabala / Photo by Michael Housewright

Unlike much of drought-stricken California, the Arroyo Seco’s aquifers are full of fresh, clean water that’s scrubbed by this natural stone filter. But those rocks are a bane when planting, resulting in piles and rows of “granite graveyards” throughout the region. Zabala sells grapes to about two dozen producers, but only a few have listed Zabala Vineyard on the label.

“That number is starting to grow,” he says.

Hot Air

Rocks and clean water are just part of the story. There’s also constant wind, which hisses through a nearby orange tree as I sit down with Jeffrey Blair of Blair Vineyards.

His family settled in the region in the 1920s. Blair points over his shoulder to the house where, as a kid, he used to make wine with his grandpa in the basement. Cattle ranching and breeding was his primary focus until about 2007, when he planted vines and began to learn how to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Jeffrey Blair / Photo by Michael Housewright
Jeffrey Blair / Photo by Michael Housewright

He believes that the wind adds stress to the vines, cuts down sugar production and causes acid levels to climb. “Today, I leave my refractometer at home,” he says, referring to the sugar-testing device. “We decide when to pick on taste.”

His winemaker, David Coventry, is excited to see more folks like Blair lift Arroyo Seco’s reputation.

“The region has suffered from having so many very large wineries and not many small ones,” Coventry says. “The large ones bring attention, but the small ones bring greatness.”

“There’s an endless curiosity here.” —Kristen Barnhisel

If there’s one man who helped bridge the gap between quantity and quality in the Arroyo Seco, it’s Jerry Lohr. He greets me with a wide smile and firm handshake outside of the massive white-wine facility he built in 2014 to celebrate his J. Lohr brand’s 40th anniversary. He recalls jumping into backhoe pits in 1972 when he gambled by planting grapes here.

“I feel blessed to wake up every morning and know that my belief has been proven,” says Lohr.

Left to right: Kristen Barnhisel, Jeff Meier and Jerry Lohr / Photo by Michael Housewright
Left to right: Kristen Barnhisel, Jeff Meier and Jerry Lohr / Photo by Michael Housewright

Inside, Kristen Barnhisel, the winemaker, shows off all the bells and whistles of the facility, which was expected to crush more than 5,000 tons this vintage. Despite that volume, Barnhisel says, “We have a chance to taste it all.”

She’s also encouraged to experiment.

“There’s an endless curiosity here,” she says.

From Soup to Nuts

A few minutes later, I’m riding along with Michael Griva in his 1928 Buick Country Club Coupe, an antique car he maintains as meticulously as his vineyards. Since 1868, his family has run diverse farming and ranching operations, raising everything from cattle and grain to corn for the popular snack, Corn Nuts, and peppers for Ortega Chiles. Griva planted grapevines in 1997, and he quickly became a source for high-quality fruit, including the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc, which Arroyo Seco growers helped save from extinction.

Michael Griva / Photo by Michael Housewright
Michael Griva / Photo by Michael Housewright

“I love growing Sauvignon Blanc,” says Griva, the current president of the Arroyo Seco Wine Growers Association. “It’s like a racehorse. It’s late in bud break, and then it goes fast, so we have a really narrow target for harvest.”

As the sun sets, Griva pulls up to his renovated barn, where grilled links from Roy’s Sausage Factory in nearby Greenfield, cheese from Schoch Family Farmstead in Salinas and more winemakers await.

We taste through a slew of Pinot Noirs in search of typicity. Maybe’s it’s all that talk of rock, but I detect crushed stone in each of the wines, a pleasantly rustic character that binds the region together.

In the remodeled kitchen of the main house, built by a state senator in 1936, proprietor Ann Hougham scrambles eggs as I take a stroll past the very chickens responsible for breakfast and then through her 14-acre vineyard of Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.

I conduct a similar tasting later in my trip with the Chardonnays, which can be a diving board for California-style lovers to spring toward Burgundy. The wines are just ripe and rounded enough for Golden State familiarity, but with freshness, savory salt and chalky tension that hint at the Old World’s best.

The next morning, fog-laced sunlight streams into the window of my bedroom at Mesa Del Sol Vineyards, one of the few overnight options in the area. Dramatically perched high above the Arroyo Seco riverbed, the property was once a stagecoach stop and health spa frequented by Teddy Roosevelt.

In the remodeled kitchen of the main house, built by a state senator in 1936, proprietor Ann Hougham scrambles eggs as I take a stroll past the very chickens responsible for breakfast and then through her 14-acre vineyard of Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.

Ann Hougham / Photo by Michael Housewright
Ann Hougham / Photo by Michael Housewright

Reds Do Well Here

Because Mesa Del Sol is located farther up canyon, it’s protected from that fierce wind, which allows warm-weather varieties like Zinfandel to do well. The same is true a few miles away at Wiley Ranch, where Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Verdot and other grapes are planted among its 500-plus acres.

“This is the power stroke right here,” says the ranch’s grower Roger Moitoso, who also farms Chardonnay for the Scott Family Estate down in the cooler zone.

I finish my expedition at Ventana Vineyards, the best known of the Arroyo Seco’s brands, with about 20,000 cases sold in 36 states. It’s one of the only places with a tasting room, which is a converted dairy barn. That’s where I meet Sabrine Rodem, the winemaker, and Bruce Sterten, a retired TV producer. Sterten took over the brand in 2005 with renowned farmers Steve McIntyre and Randy Pura.

“We don’t have a lot of those artisans. They’re coming, but they’re not quite here yet. Our premise is, ‘Build it and they will come.’ ” —Bruce Sterten

Jackrabbits and quail scatter as we drive through the Ventana Vineyard, home to the grapes used in their four primary wines, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Rubystone, a Grenache-Syrah blend. We continue to the Mission Ranch Vineyard, a powerful Pinot Noir site that’s across the road from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Rodem and Sterten have high hopes for the region, and they plan to build a custom-crush facility to attract boutique producers. Some are already starting to pay attention, best evidenced in my tastings of alternative whites, where brands such as Lepe, Harrington, Scratch and Chesebro excel in varieties like Riesling and Vermentino.

“We don’t have a lot of those artisans,” says Sterten. “They’re coming, but they’re not quite here yet. Our premise is, ‘Build it and they will come.’ ”

Chalone Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright
Chalone Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

Chalone

Rugged and Remote

Like the out-of-place volcanic spires of the nearby Pinnacles National Park that shoot toward the sky, the remote, rugged Chalone AVA is an anomaly. Despite scarce water, nearly impervious soil and treacherous chaparral all around, about 300 acres of vineyard survive against all odds. It also produces what just might be the most distinctive wines in California.

The region’s late pioneer, Dick Graff, built the Chalone brand into one of the first globally respected American wineries, thanks to success at the historic Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. The region’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay remain incredibly ageworthy and reflective of the terroir.

Today, the Chalone AVA is being discovered by a generation of winemakers that is finding success with more obscure varietal grapes like Mourvèdre. After years of relative isolation, due in part to Diageo’s hands-off ownership of the Chalone brand from 2004 until earlier this year, the public is being invited back, with tasting rooms slowly opening in the area.

“There’s a wild element to the wines up here,” says Michael Michaud, who worked with Graff in the 1970s.

Michael Michaud / Photo by Michael Housewright
Michael Michaud / Photo by Michael Housewright

Michaud bought his own property in the early 1980s to produce his namesake wines, which can now be tasted on site. He’s also back consulting with Chalone, a move made by Bill Foley when he bought the brand in January from Diageo.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

“The thing you’re fighting is tannin,” Michaud says. “There is so much sunlight that you get the flavors naturally, but you get tannins, too. The wines age beautifully.”

The five-acre Boer Vineyard is becoming popular among Pinot Noir, Grenache and Mourvèdre makers, including Ed Kurtzman (Sandler) and David Rossi (Fulcrum). Meanwhile, the 20-acre Antle Vineyard is all the rage with millennial-appealing brands like Dirty & Rowdy, Birichino, Enfield and Hobo.

Antle Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright
Antle Vineyards / Photo by Michael Housewright

“There’s a lot of tension in this soil,” says Bill Brosseau. He tends to Antle, whose granitic soils are surrounded by white sage, chemise, elderberry, buckwheat and thyme.

“The thing you’re fighting is tannin. There is so much sunlight that you get the flavors naturally, but you get tannins, too. The wines age beautifully.” —Michael Michaud

Brosseau’s primary focus, though, is his family’s 42-acre vineyard. It surrounds the Inn at the Pinnacles, a bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by his parents.

Wooed by a bottle of old-vine Chenin Blanc in the 1970s, his father planted the vineyard in 1978 and had to truck in water to keep it alive. Today, it’s a loudspeaker for the region, with winemakers from across the state using its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Bill Brosseau / Photo by Michael Housewright
Bill Brosseau / Photo by Michael Housewright

“There’s no other vineyard like this,” says Brosseau as we taste through 37 wines from different vintages and brands in his dining room. “Even within the appellation, they’re all different.”

“For people who know Burgundy and get it, this is the closest way to get there.”

Carmel Valley

Coast to Canyon

Unlike the fog-shrouded seaside hamlet of the same name, the Carmel Valley bathes in sun most of the year. Of the appellation’s 19,000 or so acres, only a few hundred are planted to grapevines. Their surroundings vary widely, from breezy, hilltop, ocean-view vineyards to properties further up the canyon, where the heat is relentless.

There are plenty of places here to try the wines, from the dozen tasting rooms that line Highway 16 to restaurants throughout the valley. My introduction was at Roux, a restaurant opened by Fabrice Roux in 2015.

Chef Fabrice Roux / Photo by Michael Housewright
Chef Fabrice Roux / Photo by Michael Housewright

Tiny Vineyards, Giant Potential

There, winemakers for Albatross Ridge, Chesebro and Joyce shared their latest wines, from zippy pét-nats to romantically rugged Rhône-style blends. They explain that there are three types of earth here—chalk rock, decomposed granite and sandstone—and that a 30-acre vineyard is considered big, since the topography is severe.

Albatross Vineyard / Photo by Michael Housewright
Albatross Vineyard / Photo by Michael Housewright

“It’s the verticality,” Mark Chesebro says.

Albatross Ridge’s Garrett Bowlus drives me to the top of a ridgeline that stares at the Monterey Bay, where his family recently planted 25 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. On land near where his grandfather tested Albatross sailplanes decades ago, it’s one of the most dramatic vineyards I’ve ever seen, but presents a lot of challenges.

“We’re not dogmatic about anything, except in letting the site show,” he says.

Garrett Bowlus / Photo by Michael Housewright
Garrett Bowlus / Photo by Michael Housewright

A couple of crests over, veteran vintner Dan Karlsen peers over the Diamond T Vineyard, planted by the Talbott family on a wind-wracked site in 1982. As a red-tailed hawk soars above, he praises the site’s high-acid Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

“I never had to learn the idiosyncrasies of winemaking, because we were never making wine,” says Karlsen, who has 37 harvests under his belt. “We were growing it.”

At nearby Carmel Valley Ranch, I taste a wide variety of wines, from crisp Pinot Gris to hearty Bordeaux-style blends, from Carmel Valley stalwarts like Bernardus and Joullian as well as newer players like Holman Ranch and Figge Cellars.

Respected Monterey County grower Peter Figge, owner of Figge Cellars, started a custom-crush facility recently in the nearby seaside town of Marina. Among other producers from Arroyo Seco and Carmel Valley, it’s where Mike Kohne makes his Mercy Wines.

Mark Drickson and Mike Kohne / Photo by Michael Housewright
Mark Drickson and Mike Kohne / Photo by Michael Housewright

Both join me for dinner at La Balena in Carmel-by-the-Sea, along with Hougham from Mesa del Sol and Heather Brand, whose love of wine led her husband, Ian, to start the Le P’tit Paysan brand.

We enjoy creative modern Italian fare over glasses of Brand’s La Marea Albariño, which is a good foil for the whole region.

“This is a great expression of Monterey,” says Brand. “We just bring it in and keep it cold.”

Published on November 11, 2016
Topics: California Winemakers
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.



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