If you find yourself traveling to the Monterey Peninsula with a craving for quality vin, consider spending an afternoon in the Carmel Valley. Nestled among the Santa Lucia range, this is one of eight appellations that comprise the distinctive wine country of Monterey County.
Located roughly 16 miles inland from the city of Monterey, on Carmel Valley Road, this scenic area reveals breathtaking viticulture within its peaks and valleys. The Carmel Valley Village, not to be confused with Carmel-by-the-Sea, boasts a walkable area replete with shops and restaurants -- and tasting rooms a plenty.
The Carmel Valley is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) with starkly different characteristics from the other AVAs in the county: Arroyo Seco, Chalone, Hames Valley, San Antonio Valley, San Bernabe, San Lucas, Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey. The vineyards and wineries mostly sit at 1,000 feet above sea level or higher, which mitigates coastal fog and wind play. The valley, though classified as a cool region, weathers warmer temperatures than surrounding AVAs, providing the latitude for growing diverse and ripe fruit. The warm-summer mediterranean climate is, as we know, perfection for growing wine grapes. The wineries source from various vineyards, including surrounding AVAs. The earliest vinifera plantings in the Santa Lucia Highlands are thought to be from the 1790s as a result of the Spanish missionaries and conquistadors. However, the modern era began in the 1970s, making this a relatively young wine region.
The nascent community of the Carmel Valley Village started development around 1946, patterned after the tight-quartered villages of Mexico. There are more than 20 (and counting) tasting rooms, all within a half mile radius for your convenience. These are just tasting rooms, save one, Folktale (formerly Chateau Julien), which is actually on the property of the vineyard and not within walking distance of the village. The tasting rooms are affiliated with wineries in the region that do not offer tasting at their facility, or if they do, it’s under special circumstances, like weddings or other special events. Typically you don’t need to worry about driving when taking in the Carmel Valley. The village can host you all day, or you can arrange for transportation to and fro. A favorite line is the Carmel Valley Wine Trolley, which costs $100-$500, depending on your selected package. The idea is that the trolley lets you off in the village with a designated amount of time, leaving you to guide yourself. Another more affordable choice, though less glitzy, is taking a public bus from Monterey, aptly named The Grapevine Express and topping out at $10 for a day pass. These transportation options afford tourists the luxury of truly immersing themselves into the experience of this beautiful region.
Situated at the start of the valley is the tiny but mighty tasting room of Heller Estate Organic Vineyards. Established in 1968, Heller is one of the originals. They have been certified organic since 1996, and this practice is revealed in the purity of the wine. They make Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and a Merlot Rosé. For their reds, they have Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Petite Sirah and Pinot Noir. Heller doesn’t stop there. They have some dessert wines, too -- a late harvest Riesling and a vintage Merlot Port. The wine here is structured. Not fussy. The fruit comes through beautifully, conjuring images of their mountain estate vineyards in the Cachagua region of Carmel Valley. They do not disappoint. Tasting fees range, depending on whether you go reserve. As most in the area oblige, the tasting fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase.
Talbott is just as good. Morning, noon and night, they are always consistent. The Talbott tasting room has some unexpected flair: a collection of motorcycles. Additionally, their patio has a mesmerizing view with the hills in the background, creating a snug and secure wine sipping afternoon. They serve exclusively estate-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all of which are delightful.They waive the fee with a two- or three-bottle purchase, depending on which tasting you select.
Cowgirl Winery is perhaps the most playful of the tasting rooms listed here. From the same owners of the elegant Georis, this tasting room and outdoor area includes bocce ball, chickens running amuck and plenty of space for kids (and grown-ups) to let their energy out. The wine is decent. Maybe a bit rough around the edges, compared to others in the area, but that is part of the theme: intentionally rugged. They have a selection of whites and reds that include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, as well as a rosé. Heads up: If you have a pair of cowgirl boots to leave behind, you will walk out with a bottle of wine in return!
Down the way are several tasting rooms in row, strip mall-style, but with far more charm. A few of note are Joyce Vineyards, Holman Ranch and Coastview. Joyce feels modern, as does their wine. They have art all over the tasting room and a spirit of innovation. They make Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Try something from the Tondre Grapefield in The Santa Lucia Highlands. Those wines are very juicy.
Back at the village, the backdrop is stunning with lush greenery. On a frequent sunny day, beams of sunshine illuminate the quaint little setting.
Trailside Cafe was a recommendation from a local, and it was spot-on for breakfast. The patio was open on a signature 75-degree day. Dogs and babies are welcome and they were in abundance (more dogs than babies). The service is excellent, and Trailside is open for all meals of the day, from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. with a happy hour from 4-6 p.m. daily. Their adult beverages consist of beer and wine. Prices are affordable, ranging from $10-$20, with dinner being more pricey. We had breakfast but spied an adjacent table devouring the beignets. They looked like fried doughy clouds from heaven.
Another locally endorsed restaurant is Corkscrew Cafe, known for their wood-fired pizzas and freshly baked breads. They are closed Tuesdays but otherwise open for lunch and dinner. Their menu is inspired by fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and therefore varies based on what is in season. Corkscrew is a tad more expensive, around $15-$30 per person. Food, service and ambiance are all excellent.