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Arroyo Seco: good wine, but nobody knows where it is

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Met up the other day with Mark Dirickson and Mike Kohne here in Oaktown. You probably don’t know their names but you’re most likely familiar with some of the wines they’ve been behind. Mike was winemaker at Rosenblum for a long time, while Mark was at Rancho Santa Rosa, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Now, they have a small new project, Mercy Wines, and I have to say the wines are quite good. (My reviews will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.)

One thing Mark and Mike wanted to talk about was how to promote the little American Viticultural Area where they’ve decided to get their grapes: the Arroyo Seco, which is in Monterey County. Of California’s 104 (and counting) AVAs, Arroyo Seco is one of the smaller ones: only 18,240 acres, which makes it vastly smaller than, say, Russian River Valley, Napa Valley or Paso Robles. It’s also one of the older AVAs in California, having been recognized by the Feds in 1983 (a flagship year for California AVAs, with 16 created, the most of any year, before or since, in that early-Eighties era of appellation-mania).

ArroyoSeco

I’ve always had a good respect for Arroyo Seco. I’ve been there, walked through it, and every time I’m on the 101 driving along the Salinas Valley I look for it, nestled there to the west, between the valley floor and the Santa Lucia Highlands, on its own little sort of bench. It’s a very rocky place, with big piles of stones left behind after thousands of years of Salinas River flooding. It’s also a cold place. Winds from Monterey Bay — whose waters never get much above 58 degrees — sweep fiercely down the Valley; not for nothing are they known as the Howlers. They make Arroyo Seco a Region 1 growing area on the old U.C. Davis system. In other words, cold!

Arroyo Seco’s problem has been the same as that of many California regions in the Central/South coast, all the way down to Santa Barbara County: for many years, growers sold their grapes to big, outside companies — Gallo, Constellation, Diageo and others — who blended them into California- or Central Coast-appellated wines. The public consequently never got to hear about Arroyo Seco, which meant producers didn’t want to put the name on a label, which meant none of the wines became well known, which limited price, which meant the grapes continued to be blended into bulk bottlings, etc. etc. The same old vicious circle.

In my mind, one of the first pioneers to break the cycle were the Meadors, Doug and LuAnn, at their Meador and Ventana wineries. Jerry Lohr also broke through and bottled some fine wines. But a few good wines here and there are not enough to put the name of a smallish AVA on the lips of tastemakers, like sommeliers, wine critics and merchants. Arroyo Seco still means nothing to the average consumer.

Mark and Mike want to change that, but they’ve been around the business long enough to know it’ll be hard. For one thing, making a region famous depends only partly on wine quality. It’s also a function of tourism infrastructure. One reason Napa/Sonoma and Santa Barbara are so famous is because they’re so hospitable to visitors, with their inns, hotels, golf courses, restaurants, towns, tasting rooms, etc. The Arroyo Seco has none of that. In fact, Monterey County has none of that in the Salinas Valley. The last time I stayed there to report, I took a room in a Motel 6. (At least the towels were clean.)

It’s a pity, because the Arroyo Seco really does have that “placeness” that a good wine region needs. It has terroir. As chilly as the area is, the grapes take a long time to get ripe, but there’s almost no threat of Autumn rains because this is far south enough to avoid rains, usually until at least late November. (Coastal California precipitation decreases rapidly, on average, south of San Francisco Bay.) The result of the climate and the stony soils gives wines of character: great fruitiness and high natural acidity and minerality, which are wonderful traits for a wine to possess. The Arroyo Seco isn’t the place for Bordeaux red grapes: way too cold (although I did once really like a 2006 Merlot from Wente). But Pinot Noir does great, as do Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and what little Syrah there is (usually from Meador or Ventana) has a smoky, meaty Northern Rhône-style thing going on.

Over the years, the best Arroyo Seco Pinots have been from K-J (Seco Highlands), La Rochelle, J. Lohr and Carmel Road. The best Chards are from K-J, Wente, J. Lohr, Mount Eden, Jouillian and Scott Family. I’ve liked the Sauvignon Blancs from Pessagno, Bernardus and Radog. And now, I like all three of those varieties from Mercy.

The discussion about how to promote an AVA reminded me of similar discussions I’ve had with representatives from Suisun Valley and the Santa Maria Valley. All AVAs recognize the desirability of being better known and respected in the consumers’ mind. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to do that, most of the time, no matter how good the wines may be. That’s where we writers enter the picture: we can educate.

  1. Arroyo Seco also has Syrah, Tempranillo and Bordeaux varieties. It’s not a uniformly “chilly” – which one experiences when they visit.

  2. A quick point.

    Arroyo Seco has been hurt as an AVA by the fact that its leading vineyards have been inconsistently handled. Ventana was a label, then a s supplier of grapes, and now has cut back its sales to limited production wineries so it will be less of a source. Jekel made some good wines from Arroyo Seco, but the sale of the label to Brown-Forman reduced the winery to fighting varietal status. j. Lohr has been inconsistent and has never made the leap to the up-scale side. Wente’s issue from Arroyo Seco has been inconsistent.

    While I have also tasted the Mercy wines and might be less enthusiastic than you about them, it will be through the efforts of guys like Dirickson and Kohne and Jeff Cohn (JC Cellars–whose Ventana Syrah has been well received) that Arroyo Seco can make its spots look better. It is the rare AVA that has ever earned its place in the world based on the efforts of large wineries.

  3. Steve,
    You say Arroyo Seco isn’t the place for Bordaux grapes. Sort of like Santa Ynez isn’t?
    I think you have not had the opportunity to taste some good Bordeaux styled wines grown in the warmer “tail” of that AVA. You might find yourself changing your mind on that idea as well.

  4. Steve – Thank you for talking about Arroyo Seco and Monterey Co. in general. Rhonda Motil and company at the MCVGA are working very hard to find ways to promote the diverse ava’s and micro-climates of Monterey Co. They are planning a series of seminars which will kick-off quite soon.

    Morgan Winery is proud to present many fine wines (at great values) which utilize Arroyo Seco fruit…Metallico Un-oaked Chardonnay, Cotes du Crow’s (Syrah / Grenache), Sauvignon Blanc, Lee Family Farm Grenache, Lee Family Farm Rose…

    Thank you again. Eat, Drink & Be Merry!

  5. Arthur, like I said I recently had a Wente Small Vine Merlot from AS that was pretty good and over the years there may have been a handful of Bordeaux reds from there that were good. But I’m not holding my breath until AS becomes a source of consistently good stuff, especially Cab Sauv. As for SYV well I’ve probably tasted as much Bordeaux red from there as anyone. I was saying years ago that SYV does good Merlot. Also that SYV does bad Cabernet Sauv. And nothing I’ve had recently has changed my mind. I’m keeping my eye on Happy Canyon and if anyone down there thinks they’re making killer Cab, I hope they’ll let me taste it.

  6. Charlie, agree.

  7. Steve, I think Arthur has a point there. The Arroyo Seco AVA has in fact two very distinctive mesoclimates; the one you described, is the bench west of Greenfield, which is geographically part of the Salinas Valley, with cool climate (2,506 Winkler heat units – Region I to II) and windy afternoons. But as you enter the Santa Lucia range canyon it warms up dramatically, to the point of becoming a Region IV (3,800 HUs) at the junction of Arroyo Seco Road and Carmel Valley Road.
    I agree with Charlie that human factor is key, but when I coupled Arroyo Seco-Greenfield climate (& solar radiation) data and indicators with different varietals I saw huge potential, in the results, for Merlot and Carmenére(?!).

  8. We know the way to Arroyo Seco, it’s half way to San Jose from Paso Robles.

  9. The chardonnay fruit from the area has been consistently excellant for some time.
    We’ve purchased fruit since 1999 from the Smith family of Paraiso Vineyards. Their tasting room and event facility are worth a visit.
    Then join us downtown Paso Robles to enjoy our 2007 Dijon Clone Chardonnay from Arroyo Robles Winery.

  10. Gotta agree w/ Charlie, both on his overall take and on Ventana. The Syrah that Jeff makes from Ventana grapes is one of the finest in his portfolio…displays loads of cool-climate Syrah character plus some herbality (herbality in small amounts, like VA, adds some interest to a wine). DougMeader seldom gets his due recognition as a pioneer in the Calif Rhone movement (and, as well, as his pioneering work w/ SauvignonMusque), planted Syrah there in the early-’80′s in what I thought was a totally nutso move….Syrah in such a cold place??? Ludicrous.!! But his first Syrah (’85 or ’86) was ample proof that AS can make Syrah as great as any in Calif.
    Tom

  11. Mark Osmun says:

    Actually, the microclimates of the Monterey AVA are so diverse that the Monterey vintners and growers have coined the term “Thermal Rainbow” to describe the region. Steve, I’ll send you an interesting graphic from them.

  12. Steve, thank you for the nice words and most importantly the plug for the Arroyo Seco. We at Mercy Vineyards are proud to be a part of what already is a great appellation.

    To follow what you, Charlie, Peter, et al, have stated, there is a lot to love about the AVA and it’s one of the reasons that we feel so many large companies have made home there (which is not a bad thing, especially from an investment and varietal refinement standpoint). That said, as a boutique producer, we (and others) feel like we can show the appellation in a different light by making small lots of select varieties (using particular and specific clones), employing judicious amounts of new oak (in our case French) to the varietals that it fits, and ultimately refining our wines to a point generally not available on a large scale. Of course no matter how large or small a winery, the appellation does have a sense of place to which we are all beholden (at the “mercy” of). For us and the wines we aspire produce, the regional aspects of the Arroyo Seco are alluring, as is the opportunity to do something real special in such a deserving appellation.

    Thanks again for the nice words (although I should clarify that, as much as I’d like to take credit for making wine, I was the Marketing Director at Rosenblum and Alan Phillips makes the Mercy wines). I do hope to continue the dialog about Arroyo Seco for many years to come…

  13. Steve:

    Thanks for the kind words about La Rochelle. Arroyo Seco has been an important place to my family since 1961 when we planted the Mission Ranch vineyard (the first planted in this part of Monterey County, I believe).

    When you mention “the howlers” you hit on THE major climate-driven factor in the appellation. I can remember my father telling me about how wet the nieghbor’s field 1/4 mile away would get as the wind whipped our irrigation water away from potatoes we were growing for Lay’s and onto his stuff.

    Regarding micro-climates, we get great Merlot from the Cedar Lane vineyard which is tucked down in a little bowl surrounded by those Greenfield “potatoes” you alluded to (countless cobblestones deposited by the Arroyo Seco over eons), and warmer than the surrounding vineyards which produce much better Pinot Noir, in my opinion.

    The key to Arroyo Seco’s “success” is the same key for other appellations, such as the Livermore Valley, for example: the right varieties made excellently, year after year. Eventually wine writers and wine consumers will find you.

  14. My first introduction to Arroyo Seco was from a small winery, SilverStone – Dan Kleck, winemaker, who purchased chardonnay grapes from there. I enjoyed his Burgundian winemaking style. This was years ago. I believe that Dan is still a wine consultant to several local wineries in his area. He had become ill and closed his downtown Paso Robles tasting room. Dan made some great pinots also for Orchid Hill.

    Good article on Arroyo Seco. Thank you.

  15. I grew up near Pasadena, and everyone knows that Arroyo Seco is where the Rose Bowl is.

    Thanks Steve for helping lesser known AVAs become better known!

  16. Gerre James says:

    For an unknown AVA, got to like the length of the thread. Goes to show what winemakers and lovers of true climate driven wines have known for a long time.

    To define and market Arroyo Seco, you have to understand the entire Monterey Wine region from Hames Valley all the way to the bay. The geography and climatic effects are truly unique in the wine world. For years this simple fact has escaped wine writers and winemakers, not for lack of trying, but because the answer is complex.

    Mark Osmun is correct, MCVGA has been working on being able to describe the region in terms that all wine lovers can understand. Having seen the presentation last week at J. Lohr, I believe they have accomplished their task. If Mark and Mike or anyone is sincere about trying to promote their AVA, I would suggest they start there.

    Arroyo Seco and the rest of the Monterey AVA’s have been a well kept secret for a very long time, all that is about to change.

    Sincerely,

    GJ

  17. Pat Bennett says:

    How about a mixed Monterey case that shows off the various styles? The Stag’s Leap District pack is great and I believe sells out every year.

  18. Gerre James says:

    Excellent suggestion Pat.

    There are trade packages sent nationwide annually with just that very thought in mind. But to my knowledge there isn’t a Monterey sampler available to the consumer. The most likely source would be “A Taste of Monterey” which is a local wine shop that only carries local Monterey wines that are members of MCVGA.

    I’ll pass on your suggestion to Ken Rauh and Rhonda Motil.

    Stay tuned.

    GJ

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