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Thoughts on Monterey County

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Spent yesterday in Monterey County, specifically in the Salinas Valley and the hills (Gabilan and Santa Lucias) that frame its eastern and western edges. During my conversations the subject arose as to Monterey’s reputation as a wine region. That is a subject I have lots to say about.

It’s fair to say that Santa Barbara County, to the south, has beaten Monterey in the perceived-quality sweepstakes, as has San Luis Obispo County. And, of course, Napa-Sonoma to the north are still perceived as the non plus ultra of wine country in California. Which leaves the questions, why has Monterey been left behind (again, I stress perception-wise), and what can be done about it?

I think part of the reason is because Monterey has been so famous as “America’s salad bowl,” the source of a huge percentage of our row crops, from greens in the summer to cauliflower in the winter and everything else inbetween. And there’s a school of thought out there that wine country must be a monoculture (the way, say, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are), so if wine grapes are growing right next to arugula, the quality of the grapes and wine cannot be very high.

That is untrue on the face of it; the grapes have no idea what’s growing in the next field over. It’s only people who make these distinctions. We’ve also been raised on the notion that the finest vineyards are in places where farmers can’t grow anything else, because the slopes are too steep, or the soil is too infertile or stony, or whatever. Again, it may be true from an historical point of view that farmers planted vineyards in places where no other crop could grow (or animal graze), but that was in order to maximize land use, not because they thought these slopes or poor soils would produce better wine. So this “can’t grow anything else” belief is also bogus.

Another problem that plagued Monterey—actually, two problems that are closely related—is that the earliest important plantings, in the 1950s and 1960s, were by big companies that sought to grow commodity grapes for mass-produced wines, which weren’t very good. This was compounded by planting the wrong grape varieties; people of my generation will recall “the Monterey veggies,” unripe aromas and flavors that accompanied the Cabernet Sauvignon everyone thought—mistakenly—would do so well. But it’s cold and windy in the Salinas Valley, and Cabernet turned out to be a disaster. Monterey is still trying to overcome that.

Another part of the problem is that gatekeepers have a distorted view of Monterey. They may remember “the Monterey veggies” and the commodity grapes, and they may still think that Monterey is nothing but a vast source of jug wines. The emergence of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of course makes that belief sheer nonsense, but most wines from Monterey County don’t come from the Highlands. It’s still hard to convince sommeliers that there are some pretty good wines coming from elsewhere, such as the Arroyo Seco and some of the unappellated sections of the Gabilans.

The Santa Lucia Highlands aside, Monterey’s several appellations are seeing growth in smaller, premium wineries, focusing on low-production, interesting lots of varietal wines. This is a good development that will put the county onto the fine wine map, linking it with its sister appellations along the coast and making the California coast the longest, unbroken stretch of premium wine land in the world.

  1. Interesting comments on MontereyCnty as an AVA. As you point out, seeing MontereyCnty on the label is pretty much the kiss of death.
    I think the “Monterey veggies” thing has long ago faded from most peoples minds. That was way back in the ’70’s and most wine drinkers today never had any of those wines. It’s very/very rare to get a wine that shows thos “veggies” anymore, since they learned to farm those grapes.
    And, certainly, wines w/ the SantaLuciaHighlands and Chalone AVA’s (and ArroyoSecco AVA, perhaps) get plenty of respect. Though I would say that the current ChaloneVnyd wines aren’t doing much to garnish respect for that AVA. Most of those wines are made by respected winemakers outside MontereyCnty.
    I suspect a big part of the problem is that many of the MontereyCnty wines that do nothing to boost their reputation come from the vast (5,000 acre) SanBernabeVnyd. I can’t recall a single wine (that I know of) from that vnyd that I thought was much good. Even though there is now a SanBernabe AVA, it’s not an AVA that I’d be tempted to buy.
    And while we’re talking MontereyCnty, it would be entirely remiss not to mention the contributions of DougMeador (Ventana at one time). He (and maybe BillJeckel) were the ones who learned how & taught others to properly farm those grapes so has to eliminate the “veggies”. Doug seldom gets the recognition he deserves. His planting Syrah in Monterey was, at the time, regarded by many of us Calif Syrah fans as ludicrous. But it was the very first cold-climate planting of Syrah in Calif and the inspiration for even colder-climate plantings of Syrah. JeffCohn has demonstrated well that you can make world-class Syrah from ArroyoSecco grapes. And let’s not forget that Doug was the one that introduced SauvignonMusque to Calif by his planting it in ArroyoSecco. Doug was/is a true pioneer that deserve our kudos.
    My thoughts, anyway..FWIW.
    Tom

  2. A second on Doug Meador from another Tom

  3. Steve,
    As you drove south down the 101 to Monterey County, you drove right through the Morgan Hill/San Martin/Gilroy vineyards and wineries (Santa Clara Valley appellation). When are you going to stop by?

  4. Dear Todd, no plans at this time! I’m usually on a specific assignment when I travel.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    [[And there’s a school of thought out there that wine country must be a monoculture (the way, say, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are), so if wine grapes are growing right next to arugula, the quality of the grapes and wine cannot be very high. That is untrue on the face of it; the grapes have no idea what’s growing in the next field over. It’s only people who make these distinctions.]]

    No, Steve. It’s soil and climate and a thousand years of viticulture that makes these distinctions. The reason that fine wine grapes should not grow next to lettuce (or prunes!) is that a soil fertile that’s vigorous enough (often combined with a necessary warm climate) to grow the veggies is too god damned fertile and vigorous to grow truly great wine. Yes, you can grow in it. You can grow a lot of it…a lot of over ripe, flabby and alcoholic wine. But for truly great wine, the vines need to stress. That’s why the soils in the great European wine regions really aren’t that good for large scale food crops. Yes, you can grow a bit of arugula or leeks there if you really work at it, but those crops won’t thrive, certainly not in the large scale, commerical way that they do/could/did in California.

    Just try growing large scale arugula fields in the chalky hill of Chablis or Sancerre or Monferrato. You couldn’t….but you can grow some of the most sublime wines in the world there.

    Perhaps that’s why California has “Chalk Hill” even though there isn’t an ounce of chalk or lime in those soils. It’s largely fertile white volcanic ash, more suited to a prune orchard than great Chardonnay. Oh well, what California has always lacked in soil, they’ve managed to more than make up for in disingenuous marketing and hucksterism.

  6. Dear Bill Haydon, it’s a little silly to say “a thousand years of viticulture make these distinctions” since agriculture in the Salinas Valley (and throughout California) is hardly that old! Who’s to say that in 50 years the Salinas Valley will not be a monoculture of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? I wouldn’t go out on that limb. The valley floor itself may be unsuitable, but if you know Salinas Valley you know how abruptly the soils change as you approach the benches and foothills, especially on the western side. As for the eastern side, I’ve toured it, and it’s evident that it’s a very complex terroir whose possibilities have barely been scratched. However I agree with you about “disingenuous marketing and hucksterism” and I like to think I’ve been a leader in calling it out when I see it.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    Thanks for your clarification. As polemical as I can be at times, I do respect your opinions on the wine world even when I disagree with them.

    My point about a thousand years of viticulture, though, had less to do with California terroir specifically so much as it spoke to, what I consider, a fundamental rule of fine wine grape physiology. The need to stress the vines to produce great wine. Soil that is too fertile (whether the wine region is twenty years old or a thousand years old) just can’t get the job done. Yes, you can make plenty of plump, juicy one-dimensional wines, but you can’t achieve greatness.

    It was like when Jake and Elwood were putting the band back together. They knew that–even if they had all the other elements in place–they’d never get that sweet sound without Mr. Fabulous and his horn. No matter how perfect a terroir might be, if the soil is too vigorous and fertile (say to the point that one could grow large, commercial crops of arugula or perhaps a prune orchard), you’ll never get that sweet juice.

  8. Bill, after 25 years of critical tasting and thousands of interviews with winemakers, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that this meme of “stress” has been greatly overrated. I know of too many fine wines that came from vines whose production was not particularly low. In fact, a vine that is too stressed can produce unbalanced wines. Someday I’ll write about all the myths that I’ve had shattered concerning fine winemaking. Yield is one of them.

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