For decades, Monterey County grew a lot of grapes but made very little fine wine. Most of the fruit ended up in the gigantic tanks of big wine companies, where it was blended into inexpensive jug wines.
After the boutique winery era started, Monterey slowly emerged from its slumber. Inspired vintners with starry eyes started up wineries, struggling for recognition. Today, Monterey boasts many famous wineries, but it took the work of these pioneers to get there.
The earliest modern efforts date to the 1960s, when Chalone Vineyard was founded in a remote region of the rugged Gavilan Mountains. Subsequently, visionaries like Jerry Lohr, the Wente family, Rick Smith and Nicky Hahn launched their labels. Three names in particular stand out for the high regard their brands brought to Monterey: Talbott, Pisoni and Morgan. The Pisoni vineyard, in particular, almost singlehandedly introduced the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation to the world, through selling their Pinot Noir grapes to other brands before producing their own wines.
These well-recognized wineries frequently help launch new talent, as the proprietors hired young assistant winemakers poised to become tomorrow’s legends.
At the same time, Monterey is attracting a new wave of winemakers eager to explore its potential. The county’s diversity of terroirs and relative lack of long-standing wine-making traditions allow for a more creative, idiosyncratic approach than in more established regions where habits are entrenched. Here are three winemakers and one winemaking family who are exploring Monterey’s possibilities for cool-climate wines. —Steve Heimoff
A former surfer, bear hunter, Peace Corps vet, ski bum and carpenter, Brand, ended up in California with an old VW bus, a surfboard and not much else. Pretty much broke, he took a job working the bottling line at Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, and discovered his life’s passion: wine.
“I pestered the winemaking team to learn about every detail,” Brand recalls. In 2008, when he decided to do his own thing, he chose Monterey County. “I want to help this area get over the perception that it’s all bulk wine,” a stereotype that had been lodged in the public’s and critics’ minds for years.
Shunning more popular appellations like the Santa Lucia Highlands, Brand looks to the Gavilan Mountains in the east and the southern Arroyo Seco, both of which he calls underappreciated. “They have good soils and climates, but a paucity of interesting wines.” He thinks he can do better. Among the wineries Brand works for are Coastview (owned by others) and his own projects, Le P’tit Paysan and La Marea.
Raised in Marin County, Sabrine Rodems got her B.A. in Theatre, Film and TV at UCLA. But after working in the entertainment industry for 10 years, she decided on a change, went back to school at UC Davis and got her degree in viticulture and enology in 2004.
She’s the employed winemaker at two brands, Wrath and Kori, but in 2011, “I decided to create my own personal wine project on the side, Scratch Wines.” It is a brand, she declares, “designed to push my limits, a challenge to pick varietals I love and make them in styles that show them off.” These include racy Riesling and elegant Grenache, both from the Arroyo Seco, and a graceful Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir.
Another Bonny Doon alum, Eric Laumann, originally moved to Santa Cruz “to surf Four Mile or Mitchell’s Cove at lunch.” While there, he concluded the chilly coast makes for the best wines. “The cool climate is always better for every varietal with one huge condition: that the grapes achieve physiological ripeness.” When it came to establishing his own winery, Cambiata, he turned to Monterey County, much as Ian Brand had.
Laumann produces two Monterey wines, Albariño and Tannat. The former is an old Spanish white variety, while the latter constitutes the dark, tannic red wines of the Madiran region of southwest France. Both posed challenges. Planting Tannat in a cool climate was a risk. “There’s so little track record for it in California that you have to have an open mind and just go for it,” says Laumann. Albariño ran a similar risk of being too acidic.
Yet he succeeded. Both varieties are now among the best of their type in California.
The Caraccioli family had worked in agriculture for four generations. Inspired by the success of their neighbors in the Santa Lucia Highlands, they decided to jump into wine, launching their eponymous winery in 2006.
Their first effort: a méthode Champenoise bubbly. For that, they turned to veteran sparkling wine expert Dr. Michel Salgues, who for decades oversaw production at Roederer Estate winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Later, they added Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the roster. The still wines are produced by another veteran, Joe Rawitzer, who started winemaking in the 1970s.
The resulting wines show a cool-climate influence in their crisp acidity and delicacy. “Our goal is to produce not only distinctive still wines, but also high-quality vintage sparkling wines that highlight the ideal Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” says Scott Caraccioli, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales. The winery operates a tasting room in Carmel-By-The-Sea.
Off the Beaten Path: River Road Wine Trail
It’s not Highway 29 in Napa Valley, with its fancy wineries and restaurants. In fact, on the River Road Wine Trail, yours might be the only car. But that’s part of the charm.
The Trail winds for a few dozen miles south of Salinas along the picturesque eastern benchlands of the Santa Lucia Mountains, below the soaring heights of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Dry and rocky, the Vaca Mountains rise 20 miles to the east. On the flats in between, bisected by the main 101 Freeway, lies “America’s Salad Bowl”—the vast Salinas Valley. Its endless tracts of rich, black earth are heaven for row crops, such as lettuce, celery and the micro-greens so in demand by local chefs.
The wineries include Talbott (the furthest north), followed by Pessagno, Hahn, Paraiso and, furthest south, Scheid. There are 13 tasting rooms in all, offering everything the region does best, from Cabernet Sauvignons of grace to fat, unctuous Chardonnays and silky, age-worthy Pinot Noirs. There’s not much else to do besides visiting wineries: no restaurants, few B&Bs. You’re out in the country here. But you’re likely to find the proprietor or winemaker pouring the wines, and the informality of Monterey makes a refreshing switch from the bustling tasting rooms to the north.
Monterey's Top Varieties
Pinots from the Santa Lucia Highlands are rich, dark and ageworthy; those from the Gavilan Mountains are delicate.
The most compelling come from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Extraordinarily ripe, they often show apricot and tangerine notes, as well as lavish oak.
There isn’t a lot of it in Monterey, but from producers in the Santa Lucia Highlands, the wines are rich and dry, with mountain intensity.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends
Most of Monterey is too chilly to ripen these varieties, but the small Carmel Valley appellation shows increasing sophistication.
The few Monterey examples of this southwestern France variety show enormous potential. The wines are dark, tannic and complex, and utterly unique.