Thoughts on Monterey County
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.