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Beautiful Wines & Scenery in Monterey

Monterey County is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. Nature lovers, avid golfers and families alike flock to its many attractions including coastal hiking and biking trails, world-class golf courses and attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and 17-Mile Drive. In the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, once an artists’ colony, you’ll find boutique hotels and shops, excellent restaurants and the mission. Nearby Carmel Valley is known for both its sunshine and its many wineries. But what you may not realize is that the Monterey County wine scene extends far beyond Carmel Valley. In fact, Carmel Valley is just one of the nine AVAs (American Viticultural Area) in the region.

monterey

Where Vines Meet Ocean Breezes 

Monterey vineyard

It was once thought that this coastal region was too cool for growing winegrapes. But now it’s known for being one of the premier growing regions in the Golden State. There are many reasons why Monterey County is a great place for growing wine. One of the most important is the climate, which is heavily impacted by the ocean. The Monterey Bay contains what scientists call the “Blue Grand Canyon” located about 100 yards off the shore. Because the water is so deep in the Blue Canyon, it’s also very cold. This cold water has a dramatic effect on the air, which cools considerably before being pulled down into the Salinas Valley in the afternoons. This can cause up to a 40-degree temperature swing from north to south during the summer months.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the grapes grown in the northern part of Monterey County closest to the ocean are those that do best in cool climates. There, you’ll find lots of Chardonnay that comprises about 40% of all winegrapes grown in the region. Pinot Noir, Riesling and Pinot Blanc grapes also thrive in this cooler weather. In the southern portion of the county that stretches towards Paso Robles, grapes that do well in warmer climates like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot are grown.

In general, the climate in Monterey County is very mild. And as a result, the growing season is extraordinarily long. Bud break (the time when buds first appear on the grapevines) occurs weeks earlier there than in most other wine regions in California. Harvest happens weeks later. This gives grapes an extra long time on the vine that allows them to develop their characteristic intensity. When winegrapes have time to slowly reach maturity, it produces an ideal sugar-to-acid balance, which is the hallmark of Monterey County wines.

Where is Monterey County? 

Monterey County is part of the larger Central Coast AVA that stretches from Santa Barbara County to just south of the San Francisco Bay area. The AVAs within the Monterey County AVA are:

  • Arroyo Seco – Arroyo Seco (which means dry riverbed) is located at the foot of the Santa Lucia mountains and extends east into the Salinas Valley (AKA the Salad Bowl of America thanks to the many farms there). The soil contains river stones that help with drainage and also protect the roots of the grapevines. Several different varieties thrive in the mild climate here including Chardonnay, Riesling, Zinfandel, Bordeaux varietals and Rhône varietals
  • Carmel Valley – Carmel Valley is famously warmer than the city of Carmel. Many of the vines grow above the fog line, though they can still be subject to coastal influences. That means a nice, long growing season that produces complex fruit. Wines from Carmel Valley are rich and full-bodied and primarily varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
  • Chalone – Part of the Gabilan Mountain Range, Chalone has some of the oldest vines in Monterey County. Limited rainfall and a unique limestone and granite-rich soil composition mean that there are fewer grapes on the vine. As a result, wines are concentrated and rich. The region’s varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Syrah.
  • Gabilan Mountain – The region’s newest AVA is also relatively small. Located partly in Monterey County and partly in San Benito County, the grapes from Gabilan Mountain are complex and fruity with good minerality. The soils are quick draining and dry conditions stress vines that results in more intense flavor. 
  • Hames Valley – At the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Hames Valley is the southernmost AVA in Monterey County. Due to its location, it has the biggest diurnal temperature swings of any in the region. That, in addition to its shale soil, makes it an ideal location for bold Rhône varietals.
  • Monterey – Best known for its exquisite Chardonnays, the Monterey AVA is the largest in the county. In the north, cooling ocean breezes make it ideal for Rieslings and Pinot Noir vines as well. As you head inland towards Salinas Valley, hotter days produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Syrahs and Zinfandels.
  • San Antonio Valley – This AVA is encircled by the Santa Lucia mountains and in southern Monterey County. It has warm days, cool evening breezes and morning fog. These temperature fluctuations, along with rolling elevation and gravelly loam soils, make it the perfect place to grow full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Marsanne, Tempranillo, Grenache and Albariño.
  • San Bernabe – Located in the center of Monterey County, this AVA experiences a variety of microclimates and an extremely long growing season. Its loamy soil combined with modern irrigation techniques means that upwards of 20 varieties thrive there. Wine from San Bernabe is rich and full-bodied with complex aromas. 
  • San Lucas – This AVA is at the southwestern edge of the Salinas Valley. Because of its location, it has much less ocean influence, though it’s still exposed to morning fog. This means that daytime temperatures can fluctuate up to 40 degrees in the summer. The growing season is long and grapes ripen slowly allowing for very complex flavors and dark colors. 
  • Santa Lucia Highlands – Grapevines are planted on southeast-facing terraces along the Santa Lucia Mountain range allowing for more morning sunshine and afternoon breezes. The growing season is long and ideal for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
wines in Monterey
wines in Monterey

How Many Vineyards Are in Monterey County? 

There are about 350 vineyards in Monterey that grow grapes that are best suited for their climate and soil type. Monterey grows 42 varieties that include red, white and sparkling wines thanks to its diverse microclimates and soils. That means you’re sure to discover a new favorite wine or appreciate the finest iteration of an old one.

Where to taste wine in Monterey County 

There are so many wonderful places to taste wine in Monterey County that we suggest taking a long weekend or two devoted to exploring the region. Leave the kids (and the golf clubs) behind so you can really get to it! There are three unique places to taste wine there in the region: downtown Carmel-by-the Sea (as well as a few spots in the city of Monterey), Carmel Valley and the Monterey Wine Trail (which includes Salinas Valley and River Road). Here are a few of our favorite stops:

Carmel-by-the-Sea  

Enjoy walkable wine tasting at some of Carmel’s 20ish tasting rooms. Note that one of the quirks of this quaint seaside village is that there are no street addresses. Another is that wearing high-heeled shoes is illegal unless you obtain a permit from city hall.

  • Scheid Vineyards – This family-owned winery has 12 estate vineyards located along a 70-mile stretch of the Salinas Valley. It  now have two tasting rooms; one in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and one on the River Road Wine Trail.
  • Talbott Vineyards – The winery’s two estate vineyards, Sleepy Hollow and Diamond T, are located in Monterey County. Visit them to taste their renowned estate-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wine.
  • Carmel Road – Jackson Family Wines – The sustainably farmed vineyards create vibrant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
Carmel by the Sea Sign

City of Monterey

  • A Taste of Monterey – a must-visit if you’re short on time but want to experience as many local wines as you can. This regional wine market and bistro also boasts incredible views of Monterey Bay.

Carmel Valley 

Carmel Valley is located inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea. One of the sunniest parts of Monterey County, it’s a beautiful day trip with plenty to see, eat, and experience while you’re there. 

  • Joullian Vineyards and Winery – Enjoy Bordeaux-style wines at the tasting room in Carmel Valley Village.
  • Georis – Restaurateur Walter Georis combined his love of food and wine and began making wine at his Carmel Valley ranch in 1982. Visit his tasting room, or enjoy some of their wine when you visit Cassanova in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

River Road Wine Trail 

The trail meanders along the River Road / Foothill Road corridor and has several intimate, boutique wine-tasting experiences. Many feature limited-release wines, and often winemakers themselves are working in the tasting rooms! 

  • Wrath Wines – Small production Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc from its estate vineyard and other properties in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
  • Manzoni Estate Winery – A small family-owned winery specializing in Chardonnay, Rose, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
  • Scheid Vineyards – This location features outdoor games and picnic areas, a chef’s garden, vineyard demos, private wine dinners and is dog friendly.
  • Rapazzini Winery – roduces Muscat, Chardonnay, sparkling, and several red varietals including Sangiovese, Barbara and Cabernet Franc at the small winery.

See our full list of Monterey wineries for your next visit.

Note: Reservations are not required but are recommended — especially during weekends.

Savoring Sustainability in Monterey

Sustainability has been a part of winegrowing for many years in Monterey County. Local vintners were early proponents of conscientious farming practices and protocols in order to protect valuable resources like the Monterey Bay, natural habitats and wildlife, land, economic vitality and social consciousness.

sustainability wind turbine

Scheid Vineyards employs a wind turbine that generates all the power it needs to keep the winery and bottling operations running smoothly. And get this: it even supplies enough energy for an additional 125 homes in the area. Unlike solar panels, which clock out after sunset, the turbine keeps on churning out electricity day and night, thanks to the constant winds of the Salinas Valley. It’s a simple, effective way to tap into renewable energy, no frills attached.

Other wineries, like Talbott Vineyards, proudly bear the “Certified Sustainable” certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Some of the sustainable practices it employs include use of solar panels, recycling water back into the vineyards, using micro-drip irrigation and boosting biodiversity by planting cover crops that attract beneficial insects and enrich the soil. 

And we can’t forget about land restoration. One example is Carmel Road’s approach. Instead of plowing over a natural stream bed to plant vineyards, it opted to restore it, creating a haven for rainwater and preserving the original ecosystem. In Monterey, it’s not just about making great wine; it’s about doing it the right way — for our planet and future generations.

Farms in and around Monterey County supply a lot of the United State’s food supply. The mild climate and rich soils provide optimal growing conditions for over 150 different crops including leafy greens, spinach, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and of course, winegrapes. Let’s kick off summer with a light salad celebrating those leafy greens. Pair with a California Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc.

Shaved Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Ricotta Salata

A light and delicious salad perfect for a warm evening. Pick up a rotisserie chicken from the market and dinner is ready to go in 10 minutes.

Shaved Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Ricotta Salata

Ingredients

Dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce
  • 1 small clove garlic, very finely minced or grated
  • Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Salad:

  • ½ pound (250 g) thick asparagus spears (weight after trimming)
  • 3 ounces (90 g) baby arugula
  • Chunk of ricotta salata cheese

Serves 4

Directions

Make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, fish sauce, and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Working with one asparagus spear at a time, lay the spear flat on a work surface and shave it lengthwise into thin ribbons with a sharp vegetable peeler. Put the asparagus in a salad bowl with the arugula. With a cheese plane or vegetable peeler, shave about 3 ounces (90 g) of cheese—or as much as you like—into the bowl.

Add enough dressing to coat the salad lightly; you may not need it all. Toss gently, taste for seasoning, and serve immediately.

Recommended Pairings

California Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris

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