Today, Richard Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards and a Monterey County grape grower since 1973, can proudly boast, “If it’s a Monterey grape and it’s growing in the right place, it has more flavor.” But this veteran of over 30 years of hands-on viticultural experience in the county knows only too well the trials of growing grapes in an untested region.
Monterey’s modern wine history dates from the early 1960s. There were less than 200 acres of vineyards in the county when Wente, Mirassou, Paul Masson, and Almaden arrived, encouraged by the advice of UC Davis professors Maynard Amerine and A. J. Winkler, who had deduced from their data that the Salinas Valley was a good place to grow wine grapes, from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon. The early 1970s experienced a huge surge in vineyard development—25,000 acres were planted between 1972 and 1974, some underwritten by insurance companies, which took advantage of tax-shelter loopholes. Too many acres supported overwatered, sprawl-trained red-grape vines in too-cool areas much more suitable for white varieties. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the “Monterey veggies” were a common characteristic of the region’s red wines.
Amerine and Winkler had failed to look beyond the climatic data and take into account the fierce “Monterey Mistral,” the daily vine-chilling wind that often shut down the vines’ metabolism in mid- to late afternoon. In reality, the growing days were much shorter than in other California wine regions. Vineyard managers were forced to adopt new methods to ripen grapes in Monterey County. In the mid-1980s, Smith and fellow growers like Ventana’s maverick Doug Meador participated in what he refers to as the “second generation” of Monterey viticulture. Row spacing went from 12 to 8 feet, and many vineyard rows were reoriented north–south from the common wind-buffeted east–west configuration. Overhead sprinklers were replaced by drip irrigation, and superior new clones were grafted in place of poorer-performing “certified” vines. Among other innovations, Meador developed a trellis architecture and tighter row configuration that promoted both grape ripening and commercial yields. The wine region was on its way to producing better wines.
Continued improvements in the vineyards and wineries in the 1990s, with committed producers such as J. Lohr Winery founder Jerry Lohr and Claude Hoover, COO of San Bernabe Vineyard, spearheading better vineyard practices and promotional efforts through a proactive Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association (MCVGA), has led to wider recognition of wine quality that is in the bottle. Lohr, a founder of the MCVGA, notes, “We’ve hosted media people, and we’re getting out into other markets and putting on Monterey tastings.” For many years, prestigious northern California wineries have tapped into Monterey as a source for high-quality, high-value grapes and wines. Now more than ever, the region’s homegrown producers are sharing in the glory.
Appellations and Climate
Today there are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Monterey County with diverse and well-delineated differences in geography, climate, and, in some cases, soils. Within the 80-mile-long, five-mile-wide Salinas Valley, where most of Monterey’s wine grapes are cultivated, is the large Monterey AVA, established in 1984, which engulfs five smaller AVAs: Arroyo Seco (approved in 1983), San Lucas (1987), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), Hames Valley (1994), and the recently demarcated San Bernabe (2004). The two oldest appellations, which lie outside this boundary, Chalone (1982) and Carmel Valley (1983), are markedly different grape-growing environments from the Monterey AVA and the AVAs it encompasses.
As the Salinas Valley heats up during the day, cool moist air is drawn in from the deep and cold Monterey Bay. Valley winds kick up in the afternoon, and the temperature drops rapidly. The winds howl through the valley-floor corridor along the Salinas River, making the riverbank land north of Greenfield much more suitable for vegetables than wine grapes. The maritime influence leads to a long, mostly rain-free, temperate growing season; water resources are plentiful, and well-draining sandy loam soils prevail. The temperature-lowering wind is the most important determinant of locations where white- and red-grape varieties can ripen.
After years of trial and error, the better sites for growing each white and red variety in the Salinas Valley AVAs have been established. Of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Bill Legion, president of the rejuvenated Hahn Estates, proclaims, “The future is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. We can do as well as anyone in the world.” The vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands lie on alluvial fans above the fog line on southeast-facing slopes that define the western boundary of the Salinas Valley. The Arroyo Seco AVA, much of it riverbed gravel, sand, and stones, is a particularly appropriate milieu for Chardonnay, but Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and even some red varieties are grown here. In San Bernabe, 22 different varieties are cultivated on the sprawling 12,640-acre property (over 5,000 acres in vines) owned by Delicato. White varieties thrive here; Winemaker Ignacio R. Cruz-Osorio rates the reds: “Merlot is always good, Syrah is stellar, Pinot Noir is an unsung hero, and Sangiovese does well. It’s too moist for Zin, Petite Sirah is tough to ripen, and Cabernet Sauvignon, except for Block 6, is hit or miss.” Lockwood Vineyards, whose 1,850 acres dominate the San Lucas AVA, successfully grows Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon in a climate with diurnal temperature swings that reach 60°F. Merlot thrives in Hames Valley, the southernmost of the AVAs.
In the much smaller Carmel Valley, closer to the Pacific but much more sheltered from direct maritime winds, vine-yard acreage is mainly planted with red Bordeaux varieties (Talbott’s Diamond T Estate Chardonnay is one exception). Bernardus, Galante, Georis, Heller Estate (formerly Durney, whose founder William Durney was the first to plant grapes in 1968), Joullian, and Talbott own vineyards located in the Cachagua region of the upper Carmel Valley at 1,200 to 1,400 feet, with Galante’s new Pinot Noir vineyard above 1,800 feet. Fog shrouds the vineyards much less frequently than in the Salinas Valley, and the intensity of the sun at this altitude ripens the grapes during the warm autumn days and cool nights. Poor, thin soils naturally lead to low-yielding vines with small berry size, and Carmel Valley wines are character- istically long-lived, with intense fruit and spice flavors.
Location, climate, soils, and history all set the Chalone appellation apart from Monterey’s other AVAs. At 1,800 to 2,000 feet in the Gabilan Mountains on the east side of the Salinas Valley, Chalone receives more sun, more daily heat, better radiational cooling at night, and less fog and wind than the valley-floor AVAs. Grapes were first planted here in the early 1900s by a Frenchman, Maurice Tamm, who was attracted by the limestone-rich soil—a rare find in coastal California. Chenin Blanc was planted by the next property owner in 1919, and the old dry-farmed vineyard exists today. In the 1960s, Richard Graff and his partners bought the property and quickly gained a reputation for quality, long-lived Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (the 1974 vintage placed third in Steven Spurrier’s famous Paris tasting in 1976). Until recently, Chalone was a one-winery appellation; now Chalone Vineyard shares the AVA with Michaud, Graff Family, and Brousseau/Gabilan Estate.
Waves of Whites
Chardonnay is the region’s leading variety, with more than 14,000 acres under cultivation—roughly 40 percent of the county’s grape crop. The grape is grown in every Monterey appellation, but three certainly stand out: Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, and the aforementioned Chalone. From Arroyo Seco, Jekel’s Gravelstone, J. Lohr’s Riverstone and Arroyo Vista Vineyard, Ventana’s Gold Stripe, and Wente’s Riva Ranch bottlings, to name a few, are all wines of distinction and excellent value—perennial gold-medal winners in juried competitions. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, Chardonnay is a stellar performer the entire length of the appellation, from Mer Soleil, Robert Talbott, and Morgan at the northern end to Paraiso and Olson Ranch near the southern border.
The bold beauty of Monterey Chardonnay and its status in the marketplace ensure its continued dominance, but Sauvignon Blanc, especially the Musqué clone introduced by Meador and grown in warmer sites in Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe, and San Lucas, is a star grape. Some of California’s best Riesling comes from Arroyo Seco and Paraiso’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Paraiso is planting more due to demand from its winery customers. Excellent sites exist for Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, and white Rhône varieties in the Salinas Valley. Notable successes include Chalone Vineyard’s Pinot Blanc and Marilyn Remark’s Marsanne.
Reds That Ripen
Merlot edges out Cabernet Sauvignon as Monterey’s leading red grape, with over 5,200 producing acres. While Carmel Valley is a natural home for these Bordeaux varieties, Merlot also ripens in Delicato’s enormous San Bernabe vineyard and in the San Lucas and Hames Valley appellations. Outside Carmel Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon can fully mature in the southernmost vineyards of Monterey County. Surprisingly, old Cab vines in Block 6 in the San Bernabe Vineyard and high on the hill at Hahn Estates in the Santa Lucia Highlands produce fruit for worthy Cabernets.
A Monterey red grape that has caught the wine world by storm is Pinot Noir. Chalone’s Pinots have enjoyed a long track record of excellence, but fame for Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir is much more recent. Well-known brands such as Blackstone, Estancia, and Gallo’s Anapamu Cellars, as well as homegrown Morgan, Paraiso, and Talbott, all make consistently complex Pinots from this appellation. Artisan producers from outside Monterey, such as Siduri, Testarossa, Miura, and Arcadian, and local small-scale producers—Lucia, Pessagno, Pisoni Estate, Roar, Trés, and Tudor, to name six—are selling “cult” bottlings from Pisoni, Garys’, and Rosella’s vineyards, competing in price and glory with the highly touted Pinots from Santa Barbara and Sonoma.