Monterey County is no newcomer when it comes to producing wine.
Thanks to a prime location along the hilly, pastoral Central Coast, with its favorable grape-growing climate, Monterey County boasts an oenological heritage that stretches all the way back to the 18th century. That’s when the Franciscan friars who established the Spanish missions began planting grapes and making wine for meals and religious services. These days, Monterey County is a hotspot for some of the nation's most acclaimed and renowned wineries and the varietals they offer.
Spanning some 90 miles from north to south, the Monterey County wine region is home to around 40,000 acres of vineyards producing 42 varietals. Chardonnay dominates the northern areas of the county, representing some 40 percent of the total, while Pinot noir prevails in the warmer southern zones. All told, the county offers 175 vineyards with more than 60 tasting rooms to explore and enjoy.
Located just east of the Monterey Peninsula, the picturesque Carmel Valley was the first area to garner attention from the wider world. It's now home to a half-dozen winemakers, including Bernardus Winery.
Dutch vintner Ben Pon cites the west-facing orientation and day-to-night temperature fluctuations, not to mention the natural beauty of the location, as the main reasons he chose Carmel Valley more than 25 years ago as the location for Bernardus. Today the former racecar driver and Olympic shooter oversees 54 acres planted among three estate vineyards, all of them based on sustainable farming to ensure good vine and soil health while reducing reliance on chemicals.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Marinus, a signature red Bordeaux blend, dominate the Bernardus stable. The tasting room, a converted former Bank of America building, was the first of more than 20 such rooms in Carmel Valley Village. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, visitors can enjoy wines in the lounge, on the outdoor patio or in the private room used primarily for wine dinners.
Elsewhere in the Carmel Valley, one of Monterey County's most unique and accessible wineries, Folktale, sprawls across 15 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards on the banks of the Carmel River. Wines are served in tasting flights with optional food pairings. Guests are free to imbibe at tables, around fire pits or on the lawn. Entertainment abounds, including local musicians on weekends, movie nights, yoga sessions and vineyard dinners.
Among Folktale’s flagship wines are Sparkling Brut, Folktale Chardonnay and Folktale Pinot noir. There's also a limited production of an estate dry rosé, the first wine produced grape-to-glass at this recently renovated winery. Folktale's Carmel Valley Road tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Tours of the winery and vineyard are available by appointment.
Hahn Family Wines
The Hahns released their first vintage from Salinas Valley grapes in 1980, and they’ve never looked back. Hahn Family Wines claims 650 acres of vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands and an additional 750 acres in Arroyo Seco, both of whose grapes contribute to three quality labels: Hahn, Hahn SLH and Lucienne.
The tasting room is located in the heart of the Smith Vineyard, with the wide, gorgeous Salinas Valley as a backdrop. Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and hang out on the deck while sipping a little of the Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Grenache or Merlot produced by Hahn. Tasting flights are offered daily between 11 a.m. and 5 pm. An extra treat is the Estate Vineyard ATV Adventure, a fun and informative guided tour that ends, naturally, with a wine tasting.
With a name inspired in part by the wrath of the gods that set Aeneas upon his journey in "The Aeneid," as well as the wind that sometimes howls down the Salinas Valley, Wrath is not your grandpa’s winery.
Wrath Wines, located in the Santa Lucia Highlands, has two co-founders — archeologist Michael Thomas and winemaker Sabrine Rodems — who describe their wines as “artisan” and “bespoke.” That means small, limited quantities of Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon blanc, sometimes made in terra cotta urns called dolios.
Their Ex Anima Series wines focus on the fruit without too much manipulation or oak usage. The Winemaker Series showcases winemaking experimentation. The Single Vineyard Series revolves around the unique characteristics of grapes grown in different terroirs.
Wrath wines can be sampled at two locations in Monterey County. The winery tasting room in Soledad, with its sunny terrace and great views, is open weekdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Carmel Plaza tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Multiple wineries in one setting
An exciting addition to the Monterey County wine scene, Urban Wine Row in Marina is a collaboration of three local boutique wineries: Comanche Cellars, Cima Collina and Sinecure Wine. The row is located in a warehouse winemaking facility off Highway 1 in Marina Business Park, a new venue that allows connoisseurs to sample limited-production handcrafted wines in a fun yet intimate environment. Urban Wine Row is open Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.
In Carmel-by-the-Sea, you can sample the product of 10 nearby vintners when you take the Wine Walk. The walk is a leisurely self-guided stroll to tasting rooms that are all located within one square mile of one another on both sides of Ocean Avenue. Grab a passport from the Carmel Visitor Center, located in the Carmel Plaza on the Ocean Avenue level, any day (minus major holidays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you’re looking for the ultimate in variety, though, hop on Highway 1 from Marina, take a brief drive down to Monterey, and head for A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row. This wine market and bistro showcases more than 95 Monterey County wineries in addition to stunning bay views and plenty of culinary delights to sate you when you get hungry.
—Joe Yogerst for See Monterey