Monterey wine people are smiling these days. There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment, and for good reason. In terms of improved quality, no California wine region has come so far, so fast, as Monterey.
It’s no exaggeration to say that today Monterey Chardonnays vie for honors among the state’s best. And Pinot Noirs, especially from the east and west side of Salinas Valley, are attracting more and more interest. Then there are a bevy of other whites, including Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, which can be superb. And it doesn’t end there. Syrah, often deeply flavored and heady, is shaping up as an emerging star. Even Cabernet Sauvignon, once marred by underripe fruit and vegetal flavors, is rising to respectability, if not yet greatness.
How things have changed in a rather short period of time. Just ten years ago, you could barely give Monterey wines away. The Central Coast county was regarded by purists as too windy, too foggy, and way too cold for good wine. ButMonterey is now a full-fledged partner in the elite coastal band of counties that, from Santa Barbara on up through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, constitutes California’s premier wine belt.
You don’t have to taste too many Monterey wines to realize that what makes them special is fruit: full-blown, ripe, spicy, bright, jazzy fruit. Monterey’s harvests, among the latest in California, assure the long hang times necessary for full flavor development. Just as important, the region’s very cool temperatures keep acidity high. When you have grapes this good, only bad winemaking can foul them up. And Monterey winemakers have shown that they know what they’re doing.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Monterey has seven official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), excluding the Monterey County appellation itself. From north to south, they are Monterey (an amoeba-shaped appellation that more or less straddles Highway 101), Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, Chalone, San Lucas, and Hames Valley. In general, no premium grapes are grown north of Gonzales—too cold. From Soledad down to Arroyo Seco is Burgundian-style wine country. South of Greenfield things warm up enough for Bordeaux varietals, and even a little Zinfandel, to begin to ripen.
All the AVAs, with the exception of Carmel Valley and Chalone, lie within the vast, 100-mile long Salinas Valley. The valley is the key to understanding Monterey wines. Every summer day, intense heat causes dry air to rise, creating a powerful vacuum that pulls in chilled, moist air from Monterey Bay. The air is funneled by the two mountain ranges that line Salinas Valley—the Santa Lucias on the west and the Gabilans (also spelled Gavilans) on the east. As the distance between the two ranges narrows, the wind gathers speed. So at three o’clock on an August afternoon, you can practically get swept off your feet by what locals call “howlers.”
You see evidence of this astonishing wind everywhere. Tall, spindly eucalyptus trees bend in a southeast direction. Row crops dare not be any taller than leafy greens, for anything else would be torn apart. The trim, tidy little farmhouses all have sentinel lines of wind-breaking trees on one or two sides, and few grapes are grown on the valley floor until close to King City because of the wind and the accompanying fog.
As a result, most of the wineries are clustered mid-valley, around Soledad. To find the vineyards, you have to stray a little from the main floor and onto the alluvial fans of the Salinas and Arroyo Seco watersheds, and then up into the benchlands and sheltered hollows of the Santa Lucias and Gabilans. There, growers take advantage of little knolls, sub-valleys, and ridges to find spots both out of the direct wind and above the fog line.
The Salinas Valley’s prime AVAs, from a quality point of view, are Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco. Connected at the aptly named farming and prison community of Soledad (Spanish for “solitude”), they are both cool areas, the latter being a little warmer because it twists to the southwest, out of the main direction of the wind. Arroyo Seco probably stands as good a chance as any Monterey appellation of becoming famous, although many wineries still are not using the AVA on their labels.
River Road, which follows the Salinas River along the base of the Santa Lucia Highlands from Soledad north to the main road leading into the town of Monterey, is increasingly spoken of by locals as Monterey’s Côte d’Or, a reference, of course, to France’s fabled Burgundy region., and there’s no denying that River Road wineries and vineyards, among them Morgan, Mer Soleil, Cloninger, and Robert Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow vineyard, are turning out some pretty good Chardonnays. On the opposite side of the valley, in the Gabilans, there’s no separate AVA, but here, too, Chardonnays can be terrific, as evidenced by Estancia and, higher up, Chalone.
Pinot Noir plantings tend to echo those of Chardonnay; where the latter does well, so does the former. Although Pinot is grown on both sides of the valley, the edge in quality goes to Santa Lucia Pinots, and more specifically to increasingly well-regarded individual vineyards like Garys’ Vineyard and Pisoni Vineyard, both on River Road in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
WHERE IT BEGAN
The county had few vines before the 1960s, when some of the big North Coast wineries started planting in Monterey because they were being pushed out of the Bay Area by subdivisions. Borrowing a page from the row farmers, they planted windbreaks of willow, oak, and eucalyptus trees. They tinkered with reorienting vine rows to make them less susceptible to wind, and tore excessive leaf growth off their vineyard canopies so that direct sunlight could warm the struggling grapes.
A few vintners dedicated to Cabernet did the unthinkable: They bypassed the Salinas Valley altogether and planted not further inland, as you might expect, but closer to the ocean—in a verdant valley tucked between the Santa Lucias and the Monterey Peninsula, sheltered from coastal conditions by the Big Sur mountains. Durney was first to explore Cabernet’s potential in the Carmel Valley AVA, and it was followed by Galante, Bernardus, Georis, and Joullian.
Most of them actually grow their grapes in a bowl-shaped depression over a ridgecrest from Carmel Valley proper, called Cachagua (pronounced “Ca-SHAW-wa”) Valley, which doesn’t have its own AVA. . As for the Carmel Valley, fewer than 100 acres of vineyards dot the charming landscape; the growing numbers of tourists driving along picturesque Carmel Valley Road, or visiting the boutiques, restaurants, and tasting rooms of quaint Carmel Valley Village, will see few grapevines (although Talbott’s Diamond T vineyard is right above the village).
Yet for all the success Monterey vintners have had in rehabilitating Cabernet Sauvignon, in most cases the wines still do not rival the quality and overt fruitiness of Napa and Sonoma Cabernets.
SYRAH JOINS CHARDONNAY ON CENTER STAGE
Monterey’s turn-around during the 1990s was due almost entirely to the success of Chardonnay. It started in the 1980s with Arroyo Seco wineries, including J. Lohr, Jekel, Ventana, Mirassou, and Wente, and then moved to the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan, Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow, and Mer Soleil have stunned wine lovers with full-throttle Chardonnays that are well oaked and lavish in flavor.
Chuck Wagner of Caymus in the Napa Valley describes the northern Santa Lucia Highlands as “an extremely cool growing area, which brings high acidity; the weather is complemented by a lack of rain, so hang time is possible more than in any other region I know of.”
If Chardonnay is what best defines Monterey, then the hottest newcomer is Syrah. The cool county, with its huge day-night temperature swings (which can be as much as 50 degrees), seems to perfectly suit the great grape of the Northern Rhône.
In California, Syrah was long thought of as a grape that needed warm temperatures to thrive, like Zinfandel. But Salinas Valley Syrahs suggest just the opposite. From vineyards like Paraiso Springs, where the Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco AVAs come together, it’s a grape with a beautiful cherry-berry character. Further south, down toward San Lucas and especially from the huge Delicato-owned San Bernabe vineyard, peppery notes emerge, acidity drops. In Arroyo Seco, it falls between these two extremes.
Ultimately, the county’s future hinges on the development of more boutique wineries, and more use of the Monterey, Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, and other appellation names. Rick Smith, co-owner of Paraiso Springs Vineyards, who sells grapes to many local wineries, calls the Coastal bottlings “the beginning of the bridge” from no awareness of Monterey wine to a public that sees Monterey as one of California’s vinous treasures.