Monterey: an up-and-coming wine region
I’m off to Monterey this Friday for the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association’s big annual consumer event, where I, as California Editor of Wine Enthusiast, host/moderate a couple tastings. In the past this event has been known as The Great Wine Escape and Best of Blue, but this year they’re calling it Party in the Hangar, because it’s in an airplane hangar at the Monterey airport.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Monterey. Most of the grapes traditionally have gone out of the county, to disappear into the blending vats of wineries far afield, so that Monterey has struggled to achieve recognition in its own right. Santa Barbara County went through the same growing pains, and look what a great job they’ve done in promoting their appellations. The Montereyans [word ?] are working hard to do the same. There are some great terroirs there for wine, more than merely the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is probably the most famous AVA. The climate can be warmish, like Carmel Valley where most of the Cabernet houses are clustered, and the southerly appellations towards Paso Robles; but mostly Monterey is cool, especially the Salinas Valley including the Arroyo Seco, where white wines and Pinot Noir star. The sprawling Gavilan Mountains, wealthy in vineyards, form the east wall of the Salinas Valley. I don’t have a good feel for what the climate is like up there. It’s such a big area, with so few wineries, while altitude and exposition play havoc with generalizations. Coolish to warmish is the best I can do, depending on exactly where in those hills you’re talking about. But the Gavilans are promising.
The suitability of Monterey for premium grapegrowing is, of course, its proximity to the cold, blue-green waters and west-northwest winds of Monterey Bay. (For an excellent explanation of the terroir, check out this article.) Of all the coastal regions in California, from Santa Barbara up to the Anderson Valley, I think Monterey offers the most opportunities for site development. There are so many little-understood microclimates, so many different types of soils especially in the mountains, that vintners have barely scratched the surface in knowing what’s best, and where. Partly the challenge has been that Monterey’s grapes were sold rather cheaply, so there was little incentive for ambitious winemakers to invest, as they’ve been able to do is, say, Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County. Monterey’s modern incarnation as a winemaking region started out as an inexpensive source of grapes planted in vast plantations. That was a great success with wineries like Paul Masson, Almaden, Wente Brothers, etc. but, to some extent, that limited Monterey’s potential. The county still is trying to punch its way out of that limitation.
It would be easy to view Monterey as California’s Languedoc, the source of easy-priced, sound drinking wines, and that’s not a bad reputation to have. I think that remains a vital part of the county’s future, but I can testify from the ground that a burgeoning group of vintners is seeking to produce wines of true terroir and cru. I’ll be reporting more on this next week.