Wine Files: Monterey, California

Once relegated to mass-market blends, Monterey wines are finally standing up on their own.

Hahn Family Wines (vineyard pictured) replaced most of its Cabernet plantings with Pinot Noir and other varietals better suited to Monterey's climate.
Hahn Family Wines (vineyard pictured) replaced most of its Cabernet plantings with Pinot Noir and other varietals better suited to Monterey's climate.

As one of the nation’s prized tourist destinations, Monterey County, California, is home to the picturesque golf courses of Pebble Beach, the artist colony and gift shops of quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the rugged marine history of Cannery Row and Monterey Bay itself. But it’s only recently that visitors in significant numbers are moving beyond the seashore and inland to the region’s vineyards, seeking out some of the best grapes and wine made in California. Tasting rooms are opening up as Monterey’s wines—many from small start-up producers—garner more praise. The rest of the country may soon be discovering the region’s wines, too.

Local winemakers all agree it’s about time Monterey made its move. The Heller Estate Organic Vineyards has 120 acres planted in Carmel Valley and produces about 15,000 cases annually of Pinot Noir ($47 a 750-ml. bottle), Cabernet Franc ($55) and Malbec ($45). Winemaker Rich Tanguay struggles to find enough water in the arid climate to feed his vine’s roots, which stretch 20 feet underground in search of moisture. He also struggles to sell his labels in such far-flung markets as New York, New Jersey and Florida, where he travels regularly to host tastings for an audience that too often is reduced to confusion. “People want to talk Napa, Sonoma and maybe Santa Barbara,” Tanguay explains. “They don’t want to talk about Monterey wines. It’s hard for us to grab a spot on wine lists and get respect from sommeliers.”

But a rebranding process is underway, as Monterey seeks to move beyond its past as a bulk grape supplier to big names like Gallo, Constellation, Paul Masson, Kendall-Jackson, Chalone and Mirassou. Monterey fruit has been cheap—with monstrous yields sometimes reaching 10 tons an acre—and typically cast into California blends for many years, fueling the region’s anonymity in the process. Now Monterey is a serious-minded American Viticultural Area in its own right, as marketers push low-yield, perfumey Pinot Noirs from the Santa Lucia Highlands and mineral-laden Chardonnays from Arroyo Seco into the marketplace.

“Monterey is trying to forge its own identity, though it’s been a real challenge,” says Dan Karlsen, winemaker and general manager at Talbott Vineyards in Gonzales, California. The company’s legacy vineyard in Sleepy Hollow within Santa Lucia has been the source of its famous Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay ($45) for the past couple of decades. Karlsen estimates that at one time, 85 percent of all the grapes harvested in Monterey ended up vinified in California or Central Coast blends sold by a mass producer. That ratio is believed to be closer to 50 percent today.

“This area was always a hidden treasure for the big boys of wine,” says Karlsen, who produced 135,000 cases of Talbott last year—triple the total six years ago. “Kendall-Jackson and others would grow good-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on Monterey land that was a lot cheaper than in Napa and Sonoma. Back in the 1970s, if Paul Masson or Estancia needed more Cabernet Sauvignon, they’d simply plant it here.”

Heidi Scheid, senior vice president of Scheid Vineyards, essentially agrees. “Monterey has been the workhorse of quality wine in California,” she says. Founded in 1972, Scheid’s winery currently operates on 4,000 acres. “There has been a lot of acreage available here at cheaper prices, at an agricultural frontier with a good supply of both water and labor,” she notes.

Talbott Vineyards produces top-rated Chardonnay in Monterey.
Talbott Vineyards produces top-rated Chardonnay in Monterey.

Fresh Offerings

The big producers haven’t gone away, but new brands are crowding onto the landscape, in some cases sourcing grapes from big farmers. They have often-fanciful names such as Chock Rock, Cowgirl Winery and Dawn’s Dream Winery. Boekenoogen Winery is raising grapes on land once reserved for lettuce and cattle. Caraccioli Cellars, in business since 2006, is making some of the best sparkling wine in the state outside Carneros, yet almost nobody has heard of it.

Some young winemakers are moving boldly beyond the Chardonnay/Pinot Noir axis. Ian Brand, formerly at Bonny Doon Vineyard up the coast in Santa Cruz, makes some 4,000 cases a year under the Le P’tit Paysan label. His offerings include the 2011 La Marea Grenache ($30 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2012 Apiculteur Viognier ($22). There are also 290 cases of the 2012 Kristy Vineyard Albariño ($22) that’s sold as far afield as New York City and Washington, D.C.

Le P’tit Paysan’s grapes are sourced from local growers, and Brand thinks Monterey wines are coming into style for some timely reasons. “The wine styles in the 1990s and much of the 2000s were big and ripe and juicy,” he says. “But Monterey has never been about lush wines. The soils here are lighter, with more igneous rock and seabed with mineral verve. We also get a lot of winds running down the Salinas Valley, which keeps acids high compared with a place like Sonoma County. So the wines are lighter and more aromatic and they have an increased minerality. They’re closer to a Loire-style profile, which has been coming into fashion over the last six to eight years.”

Brand also believes that a couple of factors have kept Monterey from reaching its potential. First, winery-investing entrepreneurs over the years have been attracted to places like Napa and Santa Barbara for the luxurious lifestyles they afford. The golf-centric Carmel is just as attractive, but most of the county’s wine is actually produced closer to the Salinas Valley, more than an hour over the Santa Lucia mountains to the east in a gritty agricultural area. It’s some of the richest farmland in the world, blessed with 320 days of sun a year and a ready labor force, but not a place where hedge fund billionaires want to live so they can watch grapes grow outside their back door.

The geography gets even more complicated. Brand notes that it’s San Franciscans and tourists who populate nearby Napa and Sonoma on weekends, while Los Angeles feeds tourists to Santa Barbara. Monterey, which served as California’s capital in the early 1800s, is more than two hours from San Francisco. “Nobody from a big urban center has claimed us. We have to fight it out here to attract wine lovers,” Brand says.

That image is changing with the advent of a genuine Monterey wine trail. By some estimates, the area has more than 40 local wine tasting rooms now, with so many cropping up in downtown Carmel—15 at last count—that the city council recently enacted prohibitions limiting their development to four per block. More tasting rooms are popping up in remote spots along River Road in Gonzales, which tourists are managing to find.

Hahn Winery in Soledad draws thousands of visitors each year to a rural facility 1,000 feet above sea level with grand views of the valley floor and a wide-ranging menu of small plates to accompany its wines. The climate surprises people: Fog often lingers each day until nearly noon, with temperatures in mid-summer reaching only 80 degrees and then plunging as low as 50 at night. “We have the longest growing season in California,” says Hahn’s general manager and director of winemaking, Paul Clifton. “We get bud break in March and then we’re harvesting Syrah and Grenache into November.”

Monterey newcomers like Caraccioli Cellars (vineyard pictured), a sparkling wine producer, have reinvigorated the area's reputation.
Monterey newcomers like Caraccioli Cellars (vineyard pictured), a sparkling wine producer, have reinvigorated the area's reputation.

Cabernet Correction

More than three decades ago, wineries in Monterey made the mistake of planting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes everywhere. In many places, temperatures didn’t become hot enough for the varietal to ripen properly. Hahn pulled out most of the Cabernet vines on the 1,000 acres it owns a decade ago, replacing them with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Grenache, Syrah and Merlot. “In the old days, we could make a decent Cabernet once every three years,” Clifton recalls. “But we could never really compete with Napa in that regard.” This year, Hahn will produce 400,000 cases of wine, with Pinot Noir accounting for 160,000 cases of that total. The biggest seller is the 2012 Hahn California Pinot Noir ($14 a 750-ml. bottle) at 120,000 cases, with some of the fruit sourced from Sonoma and the Santa Rita Hills to the south.

Matthew Shea, vineyard manager at Bernardus Winery, believes that Monterey today is still living down the bad Cabernet that was planted years ago. He doesn’t think the region began to find its bearings until the mid- to late-1990s. “We saw more owner-operators coming to the area and Wine Spectator began to grant our local wines scores of 90 and above,” Shea explains. Bernardus currently produces about 50,000 cases a year, much of it Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The winery does make 3,000 cases a year of the 2009 Marinus ($46 a 750-ml. bottle), an elite Bordeaux-style blend of 50-percent Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, sourced from carefully selected parcels. In addition, Bernardus produces 350 cases of the 2012 Précis ($36), an unoaked Chardonnay that’s meant to taste like Chablis. The wines win plaudits, but Shea says that marketing them is a challenge.

“We struggle here in Monterey when we produce a wonderful wine and try to price it in line with a similar Napa wine,” Shea says. “We just don’t have Napa’s reputation for consistent excellence.” This is the main reason, he notes, that few, if any, Monterey wines ever rise to $100 or above at retail.

But prices have been climbing. Dan Morgan Lee, owner of the Morgan Winery, says Pinot Noir grapes from Santa Lucia that were priced as low as $1,800 a ton on the spot market 15 years ago now sell for as much as $5,000 a ton. His top-selling labels include the 2012 Highland Chardonnay ($28 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2012 Double L Vineyard Chardonnay ($65), though he makes just 700 cases of the latter a year. “I’m doing tastings and wine dinners around the country to support our marketing,” says Lee, whose winery sold 45,000 cases last year. “It’s less of a challenge now than it was years ago. The Santa Lucia Highlands are increasingly becoming recognized and respected, though we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Some longtime residents are pushing cautiously into new varietals. Galante Vineyards in Carmel Valley, launched in 1983 on a former cattle ranch by descendants of Carmel founder James Frank Devendorf, originally had 60 acres planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The winery’s current president, Jack Galante, took over in 1991 and began to replace some Cabernet acreage with Pinot Noir, Malbec and even Viognier. The 2013 Wagon Wheel White ($25 a 750-ml. bottle), a new blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, is emblematic of the company’s latest direction. Galante will make a bit less than 5,000 cases of wine under its own name this year, while selling off some two-thirds of its total grape volume to custom-crush clients, many of them new-breed artisans.

Even the biggest producers are still fine-tuning their production and experimenting. J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in Arroyo Seco, for instance, was growing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon when founded in the 1970s by Jerry Lohr. At one point there were a dozen varieties being grown. Today, that assortment has been pruned to just four: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Valdiguié, or Napa Gamay. Production last year amounted to 1.6 million cases, most from a Lohr-owned 900-acre parcel and another 400 acres in various joint ventures. The biggest seller is the 2013 Riverstone Chardonnay ($14 a 750-ml. bottle) at more than 500,000 cases. The company is also experimenting with newer labels such as the 2012 Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir ($16), with an annual volume of 25,000 cases.

Wendi Hammond, the brand ambassador for Jackson Family Wines’ Carmel Road Winery, has been impressed to see the larger players invest in Monterey. “For years we had big companies growing grapes here, but making the wine someplace else,” she says. In the 1990s, Kendall-Jackson sourced two-thirds of the fruit for its best-selling Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay from Monterey and routinely trucked its grapes up to a Sonoma plant until 16 years ago, when the company invested in its own crush facilities in Arroyo Seco for the first time.

There have been complications, however. Hammond notes that some of the Jackson Family wines have carried the Arroyo Seco AVA on their labels. “We’ve changed most of them to Monterey,” she explains. “We think that appellation is better understood. Many people still don’t recognize Arroyo Seco. It’s an amazing place to grow grapes, but it’s not fully appreciated.”

Scheid Vineyards is still struggling with its branding, too. The winery once sold off all its grapes to others until building its own state-of-the-art facility nearly a decade ago with the capacity to crush 35,000 tons a year, equal to 2.5 million cases. In recent years, the company has introduced new labels and hired sales and marketing staff for the first time. It enlisted a public relations firm and has sponsored such high-profile events as the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament and the Monterey Jazz Festival. The winery has also moved the Central Coast designation to Monterey for many of its wines. “People have struggled with the choice between Central Coast and Monterey in recent years,” Scheid says. “We continue to have a bit of an identity crisis.”

Even local retailers and restaurants have needed convincing. In the 1990s, the old Nielsen Brothers Market in downtown Carmel—established in 1930—carried mostly French and Napa wines. Now the store is stocking plenty of local names, though its private-label wines are still bottled in Napa and San Luis Obispo. Mainstays include the Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay ($38 a 750-ml. bottle at the store) and the Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Reserve Chardonnay ($36).

At Montrio Bistro in Monterey, wine manager Eli Severson prices the 2012 Talbott Chardonnay at $65 a 750-ml. bottle on the restaurant’s menu and calls it “the benchmark wine in this area.” But he’s offering more small-production labels all the time, such as the 2011 Boekenoogen Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($78), the 2011 Roar Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir from the Sierra Mar Vineyard ($98), the 2011 Figge Monterey Pelio Vineyard Chardonnay ($51) and the 2007 Caraccioli Santa Lucia Highlands Brut Rosé ($80). All these prices pale in comparison to a Napa label like the 2010 Joseph Phelps Insignia at $289, the vaunted Bordeaux blend that serves as the most expensive wine on the Montrio list.

“We had a lot fewer Monterey wines on our shelves 10 years ago,” says Nielsen wine buyer Patrick Schrady. “Now the quality of the wines has improved and the recognition has become more international, Talbott has been one of the best Chardonnays in the world for years. But younger labels like Boekenoogen are coming along, too. It’s an exciting time here.”