A Wine Lover’s Guide to Monterey County

Adirondack chairs surrounding a fire pit on a beach at sunset
A classic California beach bonfire / Photo courtesy of Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette

Home to the famous golf courses of Pebble Beach, the cypress-lined vistas of 17-Mile Drive and arguably the world’s best aquarium, Monterey County is a globally renowned tourism hotspot. And thanks to the region’s booming wine industry, which thrives from urban wineries near the sands of Marina to the vineyard-covered hillsides of the Santa Lucia Highlands, there’s more to enjoy here than just sunsets and sea life.

Monterey County stretches from the heavily farmed Salinas Valley, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” to the majestic cliffs of Big Sur. But the region’s epicurean core is at the southern end of Monterey Bay. A bevy of restaurants, bars and tasting rooms line John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Monterey and extend into the adjacent towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove. Slightly inland, the Carmel Valley is home to two dozen tasting rooms that operate alongside eclectic restaurants and luxury resorts.

There’s been a recent surge of new wineries and tasting rooms, but the region’s winemaking history extends further than almost anywhere in the U.S. The first wine grapes were planted in 1771 by Spanish friars near the missions of Soledad and San Antonio. The modern era began in 1919, when a Frenchman, Lucius Charles Tamm, planted Chenin Blanc and other varieties at what’s now Chalone Vineyard. Almost four acres of those century-old vines survive, and they are used to produce fantastic wines.

Over the past 50 years, thousands of acres of grapevines have been planted in every appropriate nook and cranny of the county. Monterey County became the backbone of many Central Coast wines, including popular Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Regions like the Santa Lucia Highlands had become critical darlings by the early 2000s.

Like in other California wine regions, the culinary seeds planted by this viticultural tradition have flowered with hip wine bars and exquisite restaurants featuring eye-opening lists. There’s a burgeoning beer and spirits scene as well.

“It is exciting seeing so many new restaurants opening around town,” says Thamin Saleh, who’s worked in the region since 1984. He opened a restaurant, Jeninni Kitchen & Wine Bar in Pacific Grove, five years ago. “They are introducing fun, new options for diners and pushing established restaurants to stay fresh. And it will get even more exciting when the Michelin Guide expands its coverage to the Central Coast this summer.”

Left image of two silhouettes drinking wine overlooking the ocean, right image of a "Pinot Noir" sign above shelves of bottles
Photo courtesy of A Taste of Monterey

Wine Shops and Wine Bars

A Taste of Monterey

A frontrunner in the county’s wine-tasting scene was A Taste of Monterey, which opened in a small shopping center on Cannery Row 23 years ago. The airy space offers expansive views of the Monterey Bay and more than 100 wines. “Back when we started, hardly anyone had tasting rooms,” says Scott Kuramura, the assistant manager. The wines are available in tasting flights (eight different lineups, $15 to $24), by the glass or bottle, or to take home.

“It’s always been our mission to represent Monterey County the best we can,” says Kuramura.

Stave Wine Cellar at Spanish Bay

Full of resort restaurants that feature deep wine lists, Pebble Beach lacked a proper wine bar until 2015, when Wendy Heilmann opened Stave Wine Cellar at Spanish Bay.

“I wanted a comfortable space where people could enjoy wines from around the world,” says Heilmann, who leverages her role as the resort’s wine & spirits director to access amazing Champagnes, Burgundies and Bordeauxs to complement Stave’s strong Central Coast lineup.

The sommelier, Jeffrey Birkemeier, has built a series of winemaker events and classes. “We have a real educational component to everything we do,” says Birkemeier.

Two women and two men at a wooden high-top table in front of a chalkboard sign shoing a beer tap list
Village Wine Tap Room / Photo by Patrice Ward and Michael Hughes

Village Wine & Tap Room

After she watched small producers struggle with distribution, Carmel Valley native Jessica Trask and her husband Michael opened Village Wine & Tap Room in March.

“It’s a wine bar that focuses only on the up-and-coming,” says Jessica, who pours boutique brands like Lepe Cellars, Samuel Louis Smith, Kobza, Larkspur and Sinecure. Miguel Lepe also makes the bar’s house white and red blends, which are named after Trask’s ever-present English bulldogs, Emme and Elle, and cost $7 and $8 per glass, respectively.

“I felt strongly about having good quality, but keeping it under $10,” says Jessica. Trask also sells beer on tap, like regional brewing pioneer Peter Blackwell’s English Ales.

The Wine House 


Located at the epicenter of Carmel Valley, The Wine House is the creation of sisters Rachel Beshoff and Charlotte Beshoff Joyce, who’s married to second-generation winemaker Russell Joyce. The Joyce Vineyards tasting room is in the same complex, as is the tasting room for Testarossa Winery.

“The concept was to create a locals’ hangout vibe,” says Charlotte. “We wanted to incorporate some fun, different and exciting wines that locals want to try.”

The wines extend out of the region to sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire, Vinho Verde from Portugal, rosé from Provence and Gamay from Beaujolais. Throw in bocce, firepits, tap beer, a small bite menu and live music, and it’s no wonder the place buzzes until its 9 pm close every night.

The Cheese Shop

Though it’s called The Cheese Shop, this small gourmet market has been Carmel-by-the-Sea’s go-to wine store for decades.

“We love big format, and we try to have a lot of geeky stuff,” says Kyle Felder, a senior associate. The shop stocks more than 200 cheeses, and you can add a hunk of cheese to the wine tastings held in the rear of the shop.

“Our lineup changes day to day,” says Felder of the wine tastings, but the cheese is a different story. “We can taste all of the cheeses every day.”

A Gothic-inspired wine cellar with a long table in the middle, with a lit candelabra
Photo courtesy of Sardine Factory

Restaurants with Great Wine Lists

Sardine Factory

The exterior of the Sardine Factory is fisherman-kitsch, complete with a sloop that rests on the porch just a block off of Monterey’s Cannery Row. But inside is fine-dining opulence, from the glass-ceilinged Conservatory to the ornately wallpapered Captain’s Room.

The restaurant’s cellar is legendary, built up over the decades by renowned Master Sommelier Fred Dame. There are more than 12,000 bottles across 1,800 different brands. More than 35 pours are available by the glass and 40 more in large formats that include Napa Cabs going back to the 1940s.

Passionfish

Pacific Grove’s Passionfish sports a progressive wine list that connects the Old Word and New World. It’s the handiwork of Jannae Lizza, the wine director/general manager who’s worked there since 1997.

The eatery highlights sustainable wines, supports brands that raise money for nonprofits, espouses the glory of Aligoté and offers a deep range of bubbles. Lizza’s efforts ensure that the eco-minded cuisine of chef/owners Cindy and Ted Walter is supported in both sensory and soulful ways.

Portrait of man looking at camera, alcohol bottles to the left
Thamin Saleh of Jennini’s Kitchen & Wine Bar / Photo by Manny Espinoza

Jennini’s Kitchen & Wine Bar

Nearby, Thamin Saleh opened Jennini’s Kitchen & Wine Bar in 2013 with a focus on regional Mediterranean cuisines including North Africa, the Levant and Greece. The veteran sommelier pairs the food with more than 97 wines from California and Europe which include 23 by-the-glass offerings.

“We don’t mark up our wines high to encourage our customers to try and enjoy new varietal or a region that they can comfortably afford,” says Saleh, who also champions low-alcohol and no-alcohol cocktails.

La Balena

Ask a winemaker where they eat in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and they’ll likely say La Balena or Il Grillo. Both Tuscan-influenced restaurants are owned by Florence-raised Emanuele Bartolini, who opened La Balena in 2012 and il Grillo, which offers a bit more rustic fare, in 2015. He’s proud to show off the younger class of Monterey winemakers on his lists, but they’re also full of vibrant Italian wines.

A plate of six open oysters on ice, three pairs of different sauces
Oysters at The Sanctuary Beach Resort / Photo courtesy of Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette

Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette

In the seaside town of Marina lies The Sanctuary Beach Resort, a tucked-away hotel with villas just steps from the beach’s nightly bonfires and steadily pounding surf.

Its centerpiece is Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette, where Paul Corsentino uses a wood-fired grill to make magic with barbecued chicken, pork chops and ling cod. But oysters are the star, from crisp raw and savory smoked versions to ones topped with kimchi butter or béarnaise-tarragon pesto. Like the seasonal menu, the cocktails follow suit, while the wine list reflects the freshness of the coastal setting.

Valley Kitchen at the Carmel Valley Resort

In the Carmel Valley, the top dining spots are often located on resorts. Valley Kitchen at the Carmel Valley Resort is where Executive Chef Tim Wood creates dishes using regionally sourced produce, honey, fish, goat milk and even salt. The restaurant’s philosophy extends its Swing Wine label, which Ian Brand is crafting for the resort.

An open-air dining room with a fire pit
Photo courtesy of Bernardus Lodge and Spa

Lucia Restaurant

A 20-year veteran of the wine country lodge/dining experience is the Bernardus Lodge & Spa, where Chef Cal Stamenov utilizes produce grown in the ranch’s organic garden to power the Lucia Restaurant’s refined cuisine. The 30-page wine list features its Bernardus wine brand, along with other California stars and Old World classics.

Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse

Big city steakhouse vibes reign at Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse, where Niman Ranch steaks and chops are served with classic sauces, smoked Old Fashioneds and serious Cabernet Sauvignons. It’s the restaurant of vintner Greg and Madigan Ahn, who launched the nearby Folktale Winery & Vineyards in 2015.

Image down a lush vineyard row, a golden mountain in the background
The Viento Estate Vineyards in Greenfield, California / Photo courtesy of Scheid Family Wines

Out and About Drinking Destinations

The biggest concentration of tasting rooms are found in a few locations. There’s River Road, which cuts through the farms and vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands, with a half-dozen spots peppered along the 20-mile route. You’ll find more in the more densely developed hubs of Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea, where tasting rooms seem to lurk around every corner.

On River Road, start at Wrath Wines on the northern edge of the appellation, where winemaker Sabrine Rodems makes vivid Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. There are also more avant-garde offerings like Falanghina aged in amphora. Toward the southern end is Hahn Family Wines, home to both great values and the higher-end Lucienne brand. Make reservations for an ATV tour through the property, or schedule a pairing lunch amid epic views of the Salinas Valley.

Beige walled and gray roofed buiding in the evening, next to a small pond and flowering bushes, large hills in background
Wrath Wines / Photo by Mike Kelley

In Carmel-by-the-Sea, Caraccioli Cellars produces some of the best sparkling wines in California. Winemaker Scott Caraccioli also does a fine job with still versions of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and rosé. You can also explore the breadth of Monterey County with a tasting at Scheid Vineyards. It farms 39 varieties—not to mention 20 clones of Pinot Noir—across 4,000 acres in the Salinas Valley.

In the Carmel Valley, two dozen tasting rooms operate within a few walkable blocks. Learn about the Arroyo Seco appellation from Mercy Wines, one of the loudest champions of this rocky region just east of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Or try superstar Master Sommelier-turned-vintner Chris Miller’s new label, Seabold Cellars. It produces a wide range of moderately priced bottlings that serve as excellent examples of why single-vineyard expressions matter.

When it’s time for beer, opt for Alvarado Street Brewing, a key part of downtown Monterey’s revitalization. It opened in May 2014 as a bustling restaurant and beer garden inside of the old Rio Theater, built in 1916. But it’s also the production brewery of brews like the wildly popular Mai Tai PA, which adds a toasty note to the hoppy format.

“We have a new canned release every week,” says Wade Caswell, the head pub brewer who estimates with a laugh that he makes far more than 50 different beers per year. “It’s always evolving and always changing.”

In 2016, Alvarado Street opened another production facility and tasting room in a warehouse district of Salinas. Together, the two facilities pumped out more than 8600 barrels of beer last year. Late last year, it introduced Yeast of Eden, a sour beer facility, bar and restaurant in the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea, just steps from the Wrath, Blair and Hahn tasting rooms.

Published on May 3, 2019
Topics: California
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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