Monterey County is home to Big Sur’s rugged coastline, the golf courses of Pebble Beach, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the quaint, posh village of Carmel, and the rolling hills of the Salinas Valley. It is also inhabited by 75 wineries and 40,000 acres planted in 40 different grape varieties.
The wineries here include a few large million case producers but most make fewer than 25,000 cases annually, with a handful producing fewer than 5,000. Tasting fees range from nothing (at most of the Salinas Valley wineries) to up to $15 in Carmel Valley. Most charge $5 or less.
The vineyards and wineries are spread out within seven different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc dominate the vineyards in the north. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are most common in the south. Over 40% of the county’s vines are planted to Chardonnay with many of the vineyards owned by out-of-the-area wineries. Close to 70% of Monterey fruit is shipped out of the county.
Salinas Valley in February looking north
Nine distinct growing regions produce Monterey County fruit.
Monterey AVA encompasses the 84 mile long Salinas Valley and portions of Carmel Valley. It opens onto Monterey Bay where cooling fog rolls in between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges. In the north maximum average daytime temperatures stay under 70 degrees most of the year. Sixty miles to the south, it is 10 to 15 degrees warmer. This allows for a wide variety of grape varieties to flourish including Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc and the most widely planted grape, Chardonnay. The valley would be arid if not for the irrigation from the Salinas River. Rainfall is less than 14 inches annually and the soils are generally sandy.
Carmel Valley AVA is a mountainous and rugged territory with less than 300 acres planted predominately to the red Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Above the marine influences, the region is distinctly warmer than the northern parts of the Salinas Valley. High elevations and steep slopes with well-drained granite terraces yield rich and flavorful fruit. WInereies here include Chateau Julien, the eclectic Chateau Sinnet, Bernardus Winery and the unique Georis Winery.
Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards are planted on the southeast along the alluvial terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Well-drained granite soils and shelter from the Pacific Ocean by the Santa Lucia Mountains create a well defined growing region. Cool morning fog and afternoon breezes make for a long growing season. Vineyards are at elevations of 40 feet up to as high as 1,200 feet. Nearly half of the 2,300 acres are planted to Chardonnay. The wines are balanced with intense fruit, an elegant structure, and a mineral-laden acidic backbone. Also grown is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and white Riesling. Check out San Saba Vineyards, Hahn Estate and Paraiso Vineyards.
Chalone AVA has fewer than 300 acres, predominately Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir vines- the oldest producing vines in the county. The region stretches across the borders of Monterey and San Benito counties on the eastern hillsides of Salinas Valley. Near the Pinnacles National Monument and at 1,800 feet elevation, vineyards sit above the fog line. Daytime temperatures in the summer reach over 90 degrees but are balanced by the cool nighttime air. Chalone’s soil consists of decomposed granite with moderate amounts of clay and limestone that can impart a distinct mineral character to the grapes. Chalone Vineyards is located here near the Pinnacles National Monument.
Arroyo Seco AVA is in the center of the Salinas Valley on the western edge. It extends from a narrow steep canyon to the Valley floor. Zinfandel and red Bordeaux grape varieties prosper at the warmer mouth of the canyon while the valley floor is planted with Chardonnay and Riesling. Gravelly, sandy loam soils promote excellent drainage. The three to four inch stones dubbed, “Greenfield Potato”, store and release heat from the day, keeping the evening air warm. Scheid Vineyards is a large producer here with a tasting room just off the highway.
Partial view of San Bernabe Vineyard
San Bernabe Vineyard AVA is one of the largest vineyards in the world, encompassing nearly 8,000 acres, planted to 20 varieties. The gentle rolling carpet of vines is located just west of King City in the southern part of the Salinas Valley. The planted acreage is divided into more than 130 distinct blocks. The vineyard produces tremendous amounts of Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Lagrein, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, White Riesling and Valdiguié.
San Lucas AVA is located at the southernmost end of the Salinas Valley between King City and San Ardo. Eight-thousand acres of vineyards are planted on alluvial fans and terraces at elevations ranging from 500 to 1,200 feet. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are planted on the combination of diatomaceous shale and sandstone. The average high temperatures during the summertime can reach well over 90 degrees while annual rainfall averages 12 inches.
Hames Valley is just north of Paso Robles at elevations of 500 to 800 feet. Temperatures over 90 degrees are not uncommon in the summer. In the evening, cool air from Monterey Bay creates dramatic swings in temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the predominant grapes grown. Alvarehlo, Souzao, Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional are also grown and are the traditionally varieties used in making port.
San Antonio Valley AVA. There are 20 growers with 800 acres of vines growing in this warm bowl-shaped valley, but only a small handful of wineries. This warm highland valley, with elevations of up to 1300 feet, enjoy sunny, dry days and evenings cooled by breezes from the near-by ocean. Early morning fog from Lake San Antonio cool the vineyards. The historic Mission San Antonio de Padua is located here and is thought to be one of the first places in California where grapes were planted. Its gravelly loam and clay soils produce exceptional Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.