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.
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.
It was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua that I learned, from a winemaker, that Steve Pessagno has just died.
Ed and I had just been talking about him at the hotel bar two nights earlier, in the most favorable way. Steve was the owner/winemaker of Pessagno Vineyard, a Monterey-based winery, where he made some fine wines. I’d known Steve since his days at the old Jekel Vineyards, where he used to be winemaker. I remember him hosting me at Jekel’s little facility, right off the 101 Freeway in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It was Steve who told me about the infamous winds that sweep down the valley. Some years later, after he’d finally been able to start his own winery (which made him so happy) I visited him at his tasting room, on River Road. Steve had a bad back, but he was a big, strong guy and refused to let it interfere with his work.
Steve, to me, was the quintessential winemaker. Nobody handed him anything on a silver platter. He wasn’t born to wealth. After working as an engineer, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker, and he came up the hard, old fashioned way. He never achieved great fame or wealth, but he crafted well-made wines of terroir, at affordable prices, and he put his heart and soul into his work. He also was a true pioneer of premium wines in Monterey.
Steve was the kind of guy who makes the world of wine go around. I doubt that he would have been comfortable in the spotlight, if things had gone differently and the media had discovered and promoted him. I can’t say I knew him well, but I knew him enough to understand his essential humility. He desired to be successful enough to support himself and his family and avoid debt, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and shmooze and entertain an audience at a fancy wine and food event. He was what winemakers have always been: an upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious.
Steve was only 55 years old, way too young. I’m sending my condolences to the family, and I hope Steve’s son, Anthony, will keep the winery charging ahead.
Even if you didn’t know Steve, please give him a moment of respectful silence. He was one of the good ones.
I was reading this article from New Zealand in which this “pioneer of Marlborough wine says that the corporate-dominated New Zealand industry is making it harder for family-owned wine businesses like his to survive.” It immediately brought to mind the comment, which you hear frequently, that the largest wine companies also are crowding out smaller, family-owned wineries in America, including here in California.
This plaint (not complaint: a very different word) has long roiled California’s waters. I heard it nearly 25 years ago when I started writing about wine. It still makes the rounds today, when giant companies like Constellation, The Wine Group, Bronco, Gallo, Treasury, Trinchero, Diageo and Ste. Michelle account for the lion’s share of every bottle of wine sold in America.
I know for a fact that it’s hard for the small family winery to compete. They have trouble getting into the distribution system, that most conservative bastion of the industry. Government, both state and Federal, continues to block the free interstate direct shipping of wine. Their mom-and-pop staffs are over-burdened and barely able to keep their heads above water. They depend on those two most undependable factors, word-of-mouth and customer loyalty, either or both of which may disappear at any moment. And they are frequently overlooked by the critical media, in a way that’s unfair, but inevitable.
Still, for all their travails, the small family winery never has gone away in California, and as far as I can tell, is nowhere near being an endangered species. I continue to be impressed all the time by the number of new brands I discover almost everyday, and by the passion and tenacity with which these often-young proprietors tackle the challenges.
I’m thinking of such producers as Ian Brand (Le P’tit Paysan, La Marea), Sabrine Rodems (Scratch), Matt Villard (MCV), Brian Brown (ONX), Eric Lauman (Cambiata), David Galzignato (Jada), Daniel Daou (Daou), Aaron Jackson (Aaron) and so many others. All have stared the marketplace straight in the eye and decided they can do something different, and better, than anyone else. If you think about it, that’s an insane attitude. Almost everything that can be done in California wine is being done, and even if you can find a niche no one else is exploring, there’s no guarantee you can sell the resulting product. In fact, there’s every indication you can’t. (See paragraph 3, above.) Yet despite the odds, these young winemakers are giving it a go.
You notice that all them are from the Central Coast. That’s no coincidence, in my opinion. It’s too expensive to start up a business in Napa and Sonoma, but from Monterey down through Paso Robles, the price of admission isn’t as high. (Who needs another 94 point Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon anyway? There’s already too much.) The exciting thing is that these winemakers are ready to take risks and try new things. The template in Napa-Sonoma is largely closed. In the Central Coast, it’s wide open, and these adventurous winemakers know it. They have the spirit of experimentalism that Napa Valley had 40 years ago. The Central Coast is the new frontier in California, and I can’t wait to see the fantastic wines from the small family wineries that will be coming out from there.
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.