Monterey County and its wines
I was down at the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association’s 21st annual Winemaker’s Celebration event (which Wine Enthusiast sponsors) this past weekend. It’s not one of those big, fancy extravaganzas, with tablesful of prosciutto and wine geeks who look for scores. Instead, it’s an intimate get-together of “just wine-loving folk,” who come and go throughout the afternoon in an outdoors setting in Carmel Valley, just off Highway 1. An old-fashioned, friendly event, relaxed and casual, and you didn’t have to wait in long lines to get up close and personal with the winemakers. (And, by the way, kudos to the young cadets of the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, for providing such excellent volunteer service!)
I didn’t have any formal “duties,” such as moderating a panel or conducting a tasting, which was fine with me, since it gave me the opportunity to simply chill. I like just wandering around an event like that, connecting with whoever, chatting about wine and other things, tasting wines I haven’t had before, meeting new people and learning about things. For example, I was speaking with Ian Brand, the young proprietor (Le P’tit Paysan and La Marea) and winemaker (Coastview), whom I’d interviewed previously for Wine Enthusiasts’s “bookazine”, a special collector’s edition on California wine, food and lifestyle that will be published this Fall.
Ian mentioned he’d been thinking about an appellation based on the Gablian (or Gavilan) Mountains, a part of the California Coast Ranges that runs through San Benito and Monterey counties. That was a real head-smacker, because an hour before, I’d made the same suggestion to someone else at the event (I don’t remember who). I’m not generally a fan of new AVAs in California, but a Gabilan one makes sense (and I may be writing more about that soon).
From a quality point of view, the top appellation, arguably, among Monterey’a nine AVAs is the Santa Lucia Highlands, which exploded on the scene 10 or 15 years ago. I say “arguably” because you could make an argument for Carmel Valley; but comparing them is really apples and oranges. Chalone is, of course, a great appellation, but with only handful of wineries up there, it’s too small to garner the top slot. Monterey’s other small AVAs–Hames Valley, San Antonio Valley, San Lucas, San Bernabe–have yet to achieve a solid identity in my mind. These southerly regions, on the road to Paso Robles (or away from it, depending on which direction on the 101 you’re driving) could do exciting things in the future; it’s a question of time, money and will-power. Arroyo Seco, right in the middle of the Salinas Valley, at the base of the Santa Lucias, is an up-and-comer I’m keeping my eye on. I think of it as a coolish place that makes dry, varietally pure wines of brisk acidity and fair pricing. Its best wines have been whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris), as well as Pinot Noir. Syrah can be good; so, too, the occasional Merlot and Grenache. Cabernet Sauvignon, not so much. Jekel and Muirwood get credit for trying.
Then there are the Monterey and Monterey County appellations. These are in general good, everyday wines, and usually don’t cost too much. In this sense Monterey is like the vast Languedoc region of France, the source of oceans of vin ordinaire. Every wine producing country needs a Languedoc. Monterey is America’s.