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Apr 27, 2011 05:38 AM

Vacation in Carmel: what should I drink?

I'll be in Carmel/Monterrey/Santa Cruz next month, and I'd like to order local wines in restaurants while I'm there. I rather doubt I'll get my husband in any tasting rooms. But just in case, if you had to pick one in the area, what you you pick?

What types of grapes do you think are made especially well in the area? Producers to look for? FYI, I have reservations at Passionfish (Pacific Grove) and Manresa(Los Gatos). From what I've read, the former has a bargain of a wine list, and the latter is just the opposite. Thanks!

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  1. Danna, let me start by acknowledging my biases. To make two broad generalizations (always a bad idea; always loads of exceptions):

    -- the Santa Cruz Mountains is the most underrated appellation in the State of California;
    -- Monterey County is one of the most overrated appellations in the State of California.

    Now to be sure, a number of great wines are made in Montrerey, but (for me) there is a similarity to far too many of them . . . c'est la vie. Also, keep in mind that -- despite 35+ years in the California wine trade -- I tend (another broad generalization ahead) to prefer European wines to those made in California. So add whatever number of grains of salt you deem appropriate.

    There are over 75 different wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, so there's lots to choose from. I would look for the following producers (a PARTIAL list only, presented in alphabetical order):
    -- Ahlgren Vineyard, especially their "Bates Ranch" Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains (SCM) AVA.
    -- Alfaro Family Vineyards, especially SCM Pinot Noir.
    -- Clos Tita, SCM Pinot Noir.
    -- Equinox, m├ęthode champenoise wines from the SCM AVA.
    -- Kathryn Kennedy Winery, Cabernet from SCM
    -- Mount Eden Vineyards, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the SCM AVA.
    -- Rhys Vineyards, SCM Pinot Noir.
    -- Ridge Vineyards, SCM Cabernet, Chardonay, Zinfandel, etc.
    -- Soquel Vineyards, especially their Cabernet and Pinot Noir from SCM AVA.
    -- Storrs Winery, especially Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir from the SCM AVA, and their Riesling and Gewurztraminer from the Monterey AVA.

    Lots more of course, but I figured ten wineries were enough.

    From Monterey, look for:
    -- Bernardus Winery, Carmel Valley Cabernet/Bordeaux blend, and Chardonnay.
    -- Gallante Vineyards, Carmel Valley Cabernet.
    -- Morgan Winery, great Monterey Chardonnay and Pinot.
    -- Robert Talbott Vineyards, great Monterey Chardonnays (also their second label, Logan).

    Also, don't overlook Chalone and Jensen . . .

    4 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      thanks so much! your list is printed out for memorization during the plane ride. ;-)

      1. re: zin1953

        That's a great list. Big +1 for Bernardus, Morgan, Talbott, Ridge and Mt. Eden.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          I'm a big fan of Bernardus Chardonnay. And their physical property is impressive. Also, they have a fabulous lodge and restaurant. Pricy, but worth it.

        2. re: zin1953

          Just had the opportunity to visit Equinox in Santa Cruz. Lovely Cuvee Brut and also enjoyed the Grenache I believe made from grapes grown near Gilroy, CA.

        3. Ridge and Mount Eden are some of my most favorite California wines!
          Mount Eden does not have a tasting room, but Ridge at Monte Bello does. Given the level of great wine at Ridge- I would go there.

          6 Replies
          1. re: sedimental

            I know you're in Washington State, so you may not know that Ridge Vineyards (17100 Monte Bello Rd., Cupertino, CA) is more than 50 miles -- and probably a two-hour drive minimum -- from Carmel . . .

            1. re: zin1953

              Oh, see that is nothing to me. I drive way more than that everyday and I go to Napa yearly and drive the wine loop. But maybe it would be too out of the way for the OP. I can't recall a nice tasting room to recommend that is closer. I haven't been to that area for many years but my neighbor just got back and did some wine tasting. I will ask her if I remember.

              I believe it would be well worth the drive for Ridge :)

              1. re: zin1953

                Jason, if the OP is driving from Carmel to Los Gatos, for dinner at Manresa, maybe Ridge isn't that big a deal if visited the same day?

                1. re: Midlife

                  From downtown Carmel to Manresa (Los Gatos) is a distance of 65 miles, mostly on 2- or 4-lane highways (not freeways), subject to congestion. It should take a minimum of 1:15 hours (75 minutes) to make the drive, presuming there's little to no traffic.

                  From downtown Carmel to Ridge Vineyards, and THEN to Manresa is a total distance of 100 miles -- figure a total drive time of 2:30 (150 minutes) +/-15 minutes or so, and the road up to Ridge is narrow, windy and not the easiest road to travel when sober . . .

                  Is it feasible? Sure. But I wouldn't necessarily try it -- ESPECIALLY if I were doing anything else that day!

                  And I'm presuming the OP is staying overnight in Los Gatos . . .

                  1. re: zin1953

                    Actually, the OP is staying overnight on a plane! We're eating dinner in Los GAtos on the way to the airport our last night.

                    But, yeah, my only shot at visiting a vineyard is if it's quite convenient , or just happens to be on a cycling route. Anything right on Carmel Valley road...and is that safe for bikes? It's hard to tell what kind of road that is from the map, but it's now the ToC route since hwy 1 is closed.

                    1. re: danna

                      Bernardus Winery is on 5 W Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, CA 93924
                      (831) 659-1900

                      We're rather fond of their Chardonnay.

            2. I strongly agree with Jason, on point #1 - Santa Cruz Mountains is highly underrated, and will add one - Picchetti, on the way to some of Ridge's vineyards. Do NOT miss Santa Cruz Mtns.

              Now, where I differ is with Monterey County. There are some losers there, but do not turn your nose completely up at Monterey. Mer Soleil and and Talbott are quit good, for what they do - big Chard, primarily.



              9 Replies
              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Bill, I don't think you differ with me at all. Rob Talbott makes excellent Chardonnays (mentioned him above), but a lot of Monterey grapes still go into wines like Kendall-Jackson and other "fighting varietal" labels. Doesn't mean they are "losers," per se, but there's also not a lot to necessarily see, either.

                Monterey County "exports" a lot of grapes to other parts of the state. For example, as I indicated above, Storrs Winery -- located in the Santa Cruz Mountains -- gets their Riesling and Gewurztraminer from Monterey County; so, too, do a number of other Santa Cruz-based wineries, let alone wineries in Napa, Santa Barbara, the East Bay, and everywhere else you can think of!

                Doesn't mean there aren't good wineries in Monterey itself, but it's also a matter of taste. There are a tiny handful of wineries in Monterey I like (headlined by Morgan and Talbott), but stylistically I tend to gravitate to other locales . . .


                1. re: zin1953

                  Why no mention of Santa Lucia Highlands region? I love Santa Cruz Mtns, but Santa Lucia is very close to Carmel and certainly deserves a mention for someone wanting to try local wines.

                  The winelist at Passionfish is quite good and has many local wines.

                  1. re: Ed Dibble

                    And out of Santa Lucia Highlands look for Pisoni Estate and Roar (great pinots) and anything by Lucia.

                    1. re: HoosierFoodie

                      Yes, well -- I *did* acknowledge my biases . . .

                      Let's just say that I have only had a handful of Pisoni Pinots (and none from ROAR) that I've thought were very good.

                      1. re: zin1953


                        Your biases are well known, and you know that mine are different than yours. I'd tell the OP that if she likes the over the top style of most CA Syrahs that some of the Santa Lucia Highlands wines are excellent. Personally, I think that they are great and I love some of the ones I've had from ROAR (properly spelled in caps btw) when they have some age on them.

                        Let's face it, most of the new Young Lions in CA are coming from that area and are producing some highly acclaimed wines, especially Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. Folks like Adam Lee, Brian Loring, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, Andrew Vingiello, etc.

                        That said, I tend to look for wines from that area from specific vineyards, some of which are managed by Gary Pisoni (i.e., Gary's Vineyard and Rosella's Vineyard)

                        However, for a local producer in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I like, Paul Romero of Stefania wines makes some great stuff for a very good price. While his Cabs need some age or major decanting, this Chardonnay Chaine is drinking well if you like that big style.

                        1. re: dinwiddie

                          Yes, well a) it's not like I'm hiding my biases, and b) since I am no longer writing about wines professionally, I -- for better or worse (and probably for worse, to be honest about it) -- am less inclined to recommend wineries I do not like.

                          As a wine writer/judge/buyer, I had to appreciate, and evaluate, wines that may not have been to my *personal* palate preference and yet are still very fine examples of ________ wine in ___________ style. So, I can taste a wine from, for example, ROAR and think that it's way OTT (over-the-top), and not (personally) like it, but that won't stop me from appreciating that -- in its style -- it's very good and buy it for my store/wine list, recommend it to my readers, etc., etc.

                          That said, there have been a few wines made from Pisoni grapes I've enjoyed, but none that I ***personally*** would spend money on from ROAR, Kosta-Browne, Loring . . . I've liked some from Adam Lee (Siduri), and have only had one or two from Andrew Vingiello (A.P.Vin) to really make an informed/definitive opinion.


                    2. re: Ed Dibble

                      The Santa Lucia Highlands can indeed be an excellent, if not outstanding, source of grapes, but we were talking more of wineries not sub-AVAs -- that is while mentioning specifically the appellations of "Santa Cruz Mountains" and "Monterey County," I then went on to name specific wineries, rather than go into greater detail regarding the sub-appellations of the "Ben Lomond Mtn. AVA," the "Carmel Valley AVA," or "Santa Lucia Highlands AVA."

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Having lived in Monterey for a dozen years, I just thought you were overly dismissive and geographically off base. While I would consider Ahlgren excellent and almost local (they are on the south side of Santa Cruz Mtns), Ridge is, in my geography at least, far out of the area since it overlooks San Jose.

                        I was also reminded of an evening of pinot drinking by several of us recently, where we had various Oregon and other pinots (not high end, I am a community college English prof, after all) and I thought the best wine we had that time was a regular bottling from Paraiso, one of the first wineries in the Santa Lucia region. And a nice place to go tasting.

                        I agree that Mty county produces large quantities of decent juice that goes into CA blends etc, but Carmel Valley and the Santa Lucia Hghlnds are worth special attention.

                        1. re: Ed Dibble

                          And nothing you've said is anything I disagree with, so . . . ?????

                2. Yes Chalone, also Marilyn Remark (esp. grenache), Pelerin (les violettes syrah), and Ventana (pinot gris).

                  You may distract DH with waterfront for a drink at the Aquarium (excellent selection, also craft beer if he prefers). Taste of Monterey is also on the Row, in a cannery-mall with a Harley Davidson shop, where he might be safely left while you sip a glass near an unbeatable bay view. Also, if he's into antiques or local history, newer Pierce Ranch (albarino) tasting room is practically next to Cannery Row Antique Mall. Besides usual vintage Americana, there are great local finds related to the canneries, Steinbeck, etc...

                  There are two more local vintage tasting rooms downtown, one on the ped-path next to Portola Hotel, and one facing the entrance to Portola on Del Monte+Calle Principal. Basically half a block from each other.

                  More food joy to be found at Mundaka (Carmel), Flying Fish Grill (Carmel), La Bicyclette (Carmel-lunch), Red House (PG-breakfast!), Amir's Kebab House (Lighthouse Ave Monterey), and Phil's Fish Market (Moss Landing-cioppino). In SC, Red and 515 (same owner-expert old fashioned cocktails), and Penny Ice Creamery (rose petal and earl grey flavors!). For Manresa, unless you're planning on the dinner pairing, you might check on corkage fee and bring your SC wine.

                  Monterey State Historic Park just reopened adobe tours--if you go, you'll see the old (est 1770) Monterey that tends to be hidden in plain view, along with heritage "secret gardens". Make sure to walk the rec trail anywhere from Lovers Point to Fisherman's Wharf, the boardwalk from the end of Asilomar to 17 Mile Drive, and/or Point Lobos, and do a quicky sail from the Wharf (Monterey Bay Sailing). Take pics. Your friends will die of envy.

                  Monterey is best for picnics, so bring your bottle, some cheese (Cheese Shop Carmel), bread (Pavel's PG), hummus (Troia's Monterey) and olives (Whole Foods, oh well, Monterey), to stop by the water pretty much anywhere. Simple pleasures are the best part of Monterey Bay!

                  p.s. bring your scarf, toque, and jacket--damp fog is habitual, but when the sun shines you know it's worth it. :)

                  p.p.s. apologies for going beyond the boundaries of the question...can't help it, it's monterey!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: marmarket

                    Wow! thanks for all the good info. I did not realize there were tasting rooms in the downtown area...assumed they were all out at the actual wineries. hmmm....

                    thanks also for the ice cream rec...we're heading up to SC to mountain bike, and that sounds like a good apres-ride plan.

                    Speaking of picnic...what are the rules regarding take-away wine in CA? (always an issue for me since the husband barely drinks anything -I can't finish a bottle- but it would be nice to have it for the patio the next day)

                    1. re: danna

                      Cork it and transport in the trunk of your car or other inaccesible area.

                      1. re: danna

                        Take a VacuVin along and use it to recork your wine. Less chance of perfuming your trunk with the wine than just sticking the cork back in.

                        1. re: danna

                          Yes, the appellations are widespread and mostly difficult to reach, so there are vineyard tasting rooms in Monterey, Carmel, and Carmel Valley. The two local vintage rooms I mentioned (besides Taste of Monterey), downtown near the Portola hotel are Wine From the Heart and Terranova. The former is a family biz, friendly and knowledgeable; the latter (haven't been, heard pours are generous) has a bit of sports bar atmos, if that would appease DH! Santa Cruz must have something like, I'd imagine, otherwise, off to HWY 9 with you!

                          No open containers is the law, keep it in the trunk, as posted by others. Get a Platypus water bottle or original Bota bag, to keep air out and maintain the flavor, and refrigerate in hotel room. Some local vintages sell splits (but usually just the biggies).

                          Also check out SeeMonterey, super aggregate info on all happenings (we fest every other week, it seems), and suggested day trip itineraries by interest, it really is wonderfully handy for planning.

                          The other awesome ice cream in SC is Marianne's. PIC is newer and has 5-6 exquisite flavors. Marianne's is an institution with both traditional and unique flavors (melon, green tea!), rich,'s a shocking 80 degrees right now, and so now I *have* to go get some after writing about it!

                          Have fun in Monterey ("the better bay area" tee hee)!

                          1. re: marmarket

                            Theres quite a few tasting rooms on the westside of Santa Cruz, just south of Hwy 1. Go to:


                            Zoom into the area S of Hwy 1 between Natural Bridges State Park on the west and Lighthouse Field State Beach on the east (closest to the pier). Most are in the boundary between Swift and Fair Aves, and Ingalls and McPherson. Storrs is not far back off of River, N of MIssion, close to Hwy 1 and the San Lorenzo River.