California’s Undersung Wine Region, Monterey County

A glass-by-glass guide to investigating two AVAs in this laid-back wine region.

Bernardus Lodge vineyards

Enjoy a laid-back vibe, and excellent wine, in Carmel Valley.

Courtesy of Bernardus Lodge

The Monterey County wine appellation has a secret. (Well, kinda.) For years, this Northern California region—a 100-mile stretch that begins in Monterey County and ends just before Paso Robles—was a “feeder” for Napa and Sonoma. It was known primarily for growing grapes used, in part, in the chardonnays and pinots that, in the 1970s, put Napa and Sonoma on the map.

And then, in the early aughts, things began to change. The California Supreme Court required that Napa wines must be made from Napa fruit. Monterey County growers, some of whom had already been producing their own wines, began to turn in earnest to wine production. Five tasting rooms opened in the Carmel and Salinas Valleys, ushering in a new era of wine tourism. But the region never rose to the prominence of Napa and Sonoma.

During the pandemic, things changed again, as I discovered on a recent trip to Carmel Valley and beyond. Carmel Valley is one of nine American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that make up the larger Monterey AVA, and arguably the most well-known, given its proximity to Carmel-by-the-Sea. My destination was Bernardus Lodge & Spa, a Tuscanlike villa where wine and the California good life (sunny days, a charming pool, good food) reign supreme. Your first clue that wine features heavily here: the 28-acre vineyards occupying what some might call the hotel’s front yard. Wine is at the forefront, from the chilled bottle in guest rooms to the extensive wine list, and fantastic pairings, at the on-site restaurant, Lucia.

The hotel, of course, has a partner winery—one of those first tasting rooms to open in the 1990s. (And those grapes in front of the lodge aren’t for show!) Soon after arriving, I made my way to the tasting room. As I tasted my way through pinot noir, sauvignon blancs, and one of my favorites, Marinus, an estate blend of cabernet, sauvignon, petit verdot, merlot, and cabernet franc, my tasting guide casually mentioned that they’ve started to see more and more visitors—people who would normally head for, say, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino. He cited fires and the increased focus on domestic tourism. Finally, it seems, this undersung wine region might be getting its due.

Monterey’s deep roots in winemaking

We can thank industrious Spanish missionaries for Monterey’s wine present. Beginning in 1771, they planted Spanish Mission grapes in order to make sacramental, table, and fortified wines. In 1919, commercial wine production began, with the first Monterey AVA appearing in 1960. In the years that followed, eight more AVAs were established. (The most recent was San Antonio Valley in 2006.)

“There’s so many different microclimates,” says Sabrine Rodems, winemaker at Wrath Wines located in Soledad, located about a 45-minute drive southeast of Carmel Valley. Those microclimates are key to the diversity of her wines, which include pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, and sauvignon blanc.

Both Carmel Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands AVAs are readily accessible to travelers. You can, of course, continue down into other AVAs, including Chalone and Arroyo Seco. But here’s what you need to know about these two lesser-known wine regions.

Where to go winetasting in Carmel Valley

This is where most wine travelers might begin—it’s warm, laid-back, and close to Highway 1. It has changed drastically since the 1990s, when Bernardus was the only tasting room in the Carmel Valley village, says Dean DeKorth, who has been the head winemaker there for the past 17 years. “Now there’s more than a dozen,” he says. “They’re popping up everywhere.”

DeKorth lived in France for 10 years—it’s where he went to viticulture and oenology school—and returned to California in the early ’90s. He loves the combination of the wines, the natural beauty, the weather, and the overall vibe. “It’s just so much more laid-back and easygoing here,” he says. “It’s not a sort of a hardcore tourist vibe here in the tasting rooms.”

Bernardus

Open Tuesday–Sunday, reservations recommended. bernardus.com

Tuck into this elegant tasting room—and its secluded patio space—for a fantastic selection of sauvigon blanc, Bordeaux blends, pinots, and more. For those who want to go beyond the typical tasting, book one of the Wine Experiences packages, which pair winetasting with vineyard tours and a deeper dive into the winemaking process.

Twisted Roots Wine

Open Thursday–Sunday, reservations only. twistedrootsvineyard.com

The bright, airy tasting room almost feels like someone’s living room, it’s that inviting. Twisted Roots is named for the old-vine zinfandel that owner Julie Ruiz grew up with—and, of course, they make an excellent old-vine zin. Watch for other surprises, including sparkling wines and a refreshing hard cider.

Parsonage

Open seven days a week, reservations only. parsonagewine.com

Parsonage is a family-owned vineyard, winery, and gallery, and the tasting space exudes that. The interior is filled with textile art made by co-owner Mary Ellen Parsons, and the outdoor patio offers shaded tables for tasting. (Bonus: It’s child- and dog-friendly!) Reds are the speciality here, from syrah to petit verdot.

Folktale

Open Thursday–Monday, reservations only. folktalewinery.com

With its fairy-tale-like white building, this may be one of Carmel Valley’s most iconic tasting rooms. There are plenty of experiences for travelers to choose from, including Sunday brunch, a tasting in the Wine Garden, and custom shopping excursions. You’ll find a mix of reds and whites, plus more unusual wines like the Folktale Piquette, made from the leftovers of the winemaking process.

Where to go winetasting in the Santa Lucia Highlands

Thirsty, creative people have made wine here since the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries planted the first vines. But the appellation wasn’t formally acknowledged until 1991, when the Santa Lucia Highlands were recognized as a distinct AVA.

From Highway 1, it’s about a 30-minute drive on Reservation Road, which turns into the River Road, until you reach your first winery. The River Road Wine Trail is an excellent resource.

The beauty of Monterey, and the Santa Lucia Highland in particular, and the reason that Wrath winemaker Sabrine Rodems has remained here for so many years, is that “it’s not a monoculture,” she says. “You also get to see the places where our food comes from.” As you drive down River Road hunting for your next stop, you might also see lettuce and asparagus, lemons and avocados.

Wrath

Open Thursday–Monday, no reservations required. wrathwines.com

Headed up by winemaker Sabrine Rodems, Wrath specializes in pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, and sauvignon blanc. The property is gorgeous, with white Adirondack chairs carefully positioned with views of the vines. On a hot day, you can’t beat sipping one of its stellar whites while soaking in the vista. (Note that Wrath also has a tasting room in Carmel.)

Odonata Winery

Open seven days a week, no reservations required.odonatawines.com

Located at the beginning of the River Road wine trail, Odonata offers casual comfort to weary travelers. Winemaker Denis Hoey doesn’t follow any particular regional tradition—you’ll find Rhone red blends and spicy sangiovese. Don’t miss the recently released sparkling wines, which include a fruit-forward sparkling grenache rouge.

Hahn Estate

Open Thursday–Monday, reservations required. hahnwines.com

Looking for a more adventurous tasting experience? In addition to its three more standard options at the winery’s estate tasting room, Hahn offers an ATV tour. The 1.5-hour experience takes you through the vineyards and includes a visit to the wine cellar. Relax after with a glass (or two) of pinot gris or pinot noir.

Rustiqué

Open Friday–Sunday, no reservations required. rustiquewines.com

The tasting room may be new (as of May 2021), but the family behind Rustiqué has been making wine here since 2006. Chardonnay and pinot fans, this is your spot. Enjoy a glass in the barn-slash-tasting room, which is filled with rustic accents. (The winery is named after the family matriach, Rusti, who passed away in 2019.)

Aislyn Greene is a deputy editor at AFAR, where she edits long-form narratives for the magazine and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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