From the Big Sur coastline to the fairy-tale cottages of Carmel- by-the-Sea with its many restaurants and award-winning wines, Monterey County is a unique California getaway. Mira Advani Honeycutt gives us the lowdown
A 90-minute drive south of San Francisco lies a spectacular slice of Monterey County. The scenic stretch along the Pacific Coast hugs the rugged Big Sur coastline dotted with the iconic wind- sculpted cypress trees and is home to the tony 17-Mile Drive, the world-renowned Pebble Beach golf course and the picture-perfect town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, all of which adds up to a unique California getaway. Dine on the local bounty of the region at exceptional restaurants, complete with award-winning wine.
Carmel-by-the-Sea Cobbled streets, flower-filled shop windows and thatched-roof cottages set the tone for this storybook town which earlier on was not an inspiration just for artists but also for Hollywood stars who called this town their home. Clint Eastwood reigned as the town Mayor in 1986 for one term and restored a historic barn to become a woodsy upscale Mission Ranch inn. The pet-friendly town was also home to the late legendary Doris Day who established the dog-friendly Cypress Inn hotel. Over a dozen tasting rooms feature local wines.
Home to the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row, known in the 1940s as the “Sardine Capital of the World”, Monterey was made famous by author John Steinbeck in his eponymous novel, “Cannery Row”. Over time, the old factories of Cannery Row got repurposed into shops and restaurants noted for fresh seafood bounty. Add to that the wines of Monterey County.
The region’s wine history dates back to the late 18th century when Franciscan friars first planted vineyards at Soledad mission, later revived in 1919 by Frenchman Charles Tamm who planted the Chalone Vineyards. In the 1960s, there was a renaissance of vineyards, namely Wente, Paul Masson, Mirassou, J. Lohr, and then Chalone produced its first wine label. But in the past two decades, the laid-back region has gained traction, drawing acclaim for its distinctive wines, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Framed by the Gabilan and Santa Lucia ranges, Monterey County’s weather pattern varies dramatically from the cooler, fog- shrouded northern part to the warmer southern end. A multitude of micro-climates combined with diverse soil types offer a perfect landscape for some 53 wine grape varieties. However, Chardonnay rules in this region making up half of the County’s total output.
Other popular varieties include Bordeaux and Rhône-style wine grapes; the popular Portuguese Tinta Cão and Touriga Nacional; Italian varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo; Spanish Tempranillo and Graciano; and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation.
The County’s oldest producing vineyard, Chalone, where the first planting of Chenin Blanc still exists, is located in Chalone, the first area to receive an AVA status (American Viticultural Area) in 1982. Perched at an elevation of 1,800 feet in the remote Gabilan Mountain that sits at the base of an extinct volcano, Chalone Vineyard’s limestone- based soils mimic those of the Burgundy region, producing Chardonnays with edgy minerality and brilliant acidity and Pinot Noirs that are expressive of forest floor, spice and fruit notes.
American Viticultural Area (AVA)
Of the County’s 10 AVAs, Monterey, established in 1984, is the largest sub- appellation with 40,000 acres under vine. (Chalone and Carmel Valley are the smallest with 300-acre plantings in each). Covering much of the entire length of the County, Monterey offers a range of climate patterns and therefore diversity in grape varieties. The cooler northern part is where Riesling and Pinot Noir thrive; the warmer southern part is well suited to Bordeaux and Rhône style varieties and Zinfandel.
Other AVAs such as Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe and San Lucas are also noted for Bordeaux and Rhône-style varieties. Hames Valley and San Antonio Valley both tucked in the region’s southernmost part are known for Spanish and Portuguese varieties. The newest area to be granted AVA status is Gabilan Mountains, which straddles both Monterey and neighbouring San Benito County. While all the AVAs reflect their distinctive characteristics, it’s Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH), that is the jewel in the region’s crown and the County’s prime Pinot and Chardonnay zone.
Santa Lucia Highlands
The unique wind-swept environment allows the SLH fruit a longer hang time on the vines, thus deepening the flavour in the grapes. Some 50 vineyards perched atop terraces of its namesake mountain ridge, covering 22,000 acres, are tucked around mesas (plateaus) scaling up to 2,300 feet in elevation. Wineries are few, lined along the River Road Trail, and many are not open to the public. The SLH fruit has an iconic status with winemakers across California and Oregon who crave access to such pedigreed vineyards as Pisoni, Rosella’s, Sierra Mar, Hahn Hook, Tondré, McIntyre and Boekenoogen — vineyards synonymous with SLH appellation’s artisanal wines.
Among the pioneers, Gary Pisoni has made a mark by establishing three prized vineyards, Pisoni, Sobranes and Garys’ (the latter planted with his childhood friend and another local pioneer, Gary Franscioni). On my recent visit to the SLH region, I was fortunate to visit second-generation viticulturist and Gary’s son Mark Pisoni, and Joe Tondré Alarid, founder of the noted Tondré Grapefield.
“When my dad planted grapes here 40 years ago, no one knew about him or Pinot Noir or SLH,” Mark Pisoni recalled. Gary began as a home winemaker with initial plantings of Pinot Noir and Bordeaux varieties and fared well selling his wines at local fairs. “But it was a struggle to get people to try Pinot from our area,” said Mark. Half of Pisoni grapes are sold to a handful of artisanal producers of vineyard-designate wines, such easily recognized names among them as Peter Michel, Patz & Hall and Kosta Brown.
Ranked among America’s Grand Crus by wine critic Robert M Parker, the Pisoni Estate wines are hand-crafted by Jeff, who is Gary’s older son and winemaker. Their portfolio of three brands expresses the Pisoni depth and complexity — wines that soar with power and lush fruit, yet are elegant and balanced with supple tannins. They include the flagship Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, the Lucia collection of Chardonnay, Pinot and Syrah and the Lucy brand of Gamay, Pico Blanco and Rosè.
Joe Tondré Alarid calls his vineyards “a grapefield” and rightly so, as his 400-acre ranch was once a row crops field. “This was all vegetables,” said Alarid driving us along the vast ranch that once stretched to 1,000 acres.
“It was my dad’s idea to plant wine grapes.” Planted in the late 1990s, the 104-acre vineyard is mostly Pinot with some Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah; 95% of the fruit is sold to noted artisanal wineries. Alarid keeps enough to produce a mere 400 to 600 cases of wine under his Tondré label.
There’s such high demand for his prized Pinots that he has to turn down buyers. However, Alarid stated that Napa Valley’s renowned Duckhorn winery is set to release a Tondré Pinot under the Migration brand this autumn.