Head of the Class: Monterey County wines graduate

Kids have all sorts of wistful aspirations. Astronaut, doctor, senator. Mine focused on animals, until I interned at a vet’s office and the sight of surgery quickly quelled that dream. It’s crucial to have these reveries to provide hope and motivation to study, and to eventually grow into someone you’d want to have a drink with (sometimes that’s a stretch though). But in due course, most realize they’re not the next John Glenn. I think Monterey County’s wineries are experiencing the same evolution– they’re figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. On a recent trip to this rising-star grapegrowing region, I experienced a mixed bag of gold star as well as under-achieving wines, much like a nascent kindergarten class launching into the world.

Monterey County is one of those idyllic locales that embody California. People grow up there, flee as adults seeking something better, then spend their whole life trying to return. It’s addictive. Sprawling vineyards are neighbors with verdant lettuce fields – the region’s nickname is “The Salad Bowl” — and flanked by the ever-present Diablo and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. Vegetable and fruit stands dot the roads winding through the edible’s origin, all laid out for the delectation of foodie tourists.

But the same fertile, valley floor soil that nurtures the vegetable’s souls isn’t ideal for vineyards. First cultivated here 200 years ago, grapes experienced resurgence in the 1960’s, but growers are still tweaking the process. If you plant a vine in the same place as a rutabaga, you won’t reap complex fruit – you’ll get an overly healthy vine of dull flavor at harvest.

Much like second graders learning to read, grapes must struggle to succeed, and if placed in the right environment, they’ll thrive. It’s on the sides of the mountains, which funnel cooler air from the Pacific Ocean, where they thrive in Monterey. The soils aren’t as rich and the region’s limited rainfall makes the roots strain for food. Within this chilly, quasi-torturous environment lies a haven for pinot noir, chardonnay and even syrah. (Read more about pinot and some under $20 recommendations)

Dan KarlsonThese varietals sublimely succeed here, but that doesn’t stop winemakers from trying to grow other best-selling grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These varieties require warm weather to fully develop, something northern Monterey lacks, so I found that producers mask the lack of ripeness with oak. And nothing’s less appetizing than sucking on wood.

With Monterey’s perfect climate for chard and pinot, stick with these tried-and-true varietals. Particularly excellent examples come from Monterey’s sub-AVAs, which frequently come highlighted on labels: Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, Chalone and Carmel Valley.

Monterey might still be finding its way, but as far as I’m concerned, they’ve graduated to producing world-class pinot noirs and chardonnays. Bravo.

Wineries to Watch (available for purchase online): Cru, Pierce Ranch Vineyards, and Graff Family Vineyards.

Sip It

Kali Hart 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands From the folks at Talbott Vineyards comes an affordable yet sublime specimen. Elegant and seductive with bright cherry, raspberry and blueberry. It also sports solid acidity, silky, easygoing tannins and an earthy finish. Purely delicious. Might be hard to find but worth the effort. Sw=1. $18. 5 stars.

Morgan 2007 Twelve Clones Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Fuller-bodied and brighter than the other pinots. In your face with raspberry, strawberry, cherry cola, tongue-embracing acidity, earthy mushroomy-ness, and a leathery, cedar finish.  Sw=1. $27. 4.5 stars.

Carmel Road 2007 Pinot Noir Monterey Dried cherries, blackberry, slight mushroomy flavor, tons of minerality and an herby finish. Sophisticated and fun. Sw=1. $16. 4 stars.

Estancia 2008 Chardonnay Pinnacles Ranches Monterey Shockingly great quality chardonnay from a corporate-owned winery. Elegant, soft and creamy with fragrant peaches, tangerine and enough acidity to pair with food. Jump-for-joy price. Sw=2. $12. 4 stars.

Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5.


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