John Steinbeck wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939 and in so doing solidified the Monterey region’s place in the canon of American literature. But in spite of the gloomy outlook of the novel’s protagonists and the commentary on the changes in the agricultural landscape and those who work in it, the novel at least hinted at a part of the prosperity on the horizon.
Today that prosperity can indeed be found in Monterey in the form of grapes. The Monterey Wine Country is an industry rooted in history but with an eye toward the future. Marked by unique terrior and playful microclimates, the countryside produces wines as varied and interesting as its beautiful landscape.
Monterey’s wine industry has grown up in the shadow of Napa and Sonoma, but it has not suffered from an inferiority complex. Rather, the wines from Monterey—from boutique wineries and large producers alike—have established a favorable reputation in their own right. That reputation is boosted by the efforts of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association (www.montereywines.org), who work to spread the word throughout the state and the nation about the many top-quality wines originating in the region.
Two hundred years ago, it was Franciscan friars who espoused the merits of winegrowing in Monterey. The birth of winemaking in the area is traced to the friars at the Spanish mission of Soledad California, who planted the first crop of wine grapes, the quality of which is the topic of some debate and pure speculation. But Monterey wines had their modern-day upswing during the 1960’s when a report by Professor A.J. Winkler, a viticultural expert from UC Davis was published indicating that Monterey County could indeed be classified with growing regions similar to those in the premium regions of Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Following the news, vineyards took root in large numbers throughout the region, both from upstart growers and established wineries looking to expand their operation. Among the trailblazers of the era were Chalone, Mirassou, and J. Lohr, all of whom continue to set the standard for Monterey wines.
Today, though, they have been joined by numerous wineries producing myriad varietals that each reflects the intricacies of the regional climate and terrain. Monterey Wine Country now boasts some 40,000 acres of vineyards with a combined worth of more than $200 million. The fruits of the area can be enjoyed at some 25 tasting rooms dotting the landscape and renowned for a certain welcoming hospitality that is as refreshing as it is in retreating supply these days.
Such wineries as Chateau Julien Wine Estate (8940 Carmel Valley Rd, 831-624-2600; www.chateaujulien.com) and Bernardus (5 West Carmel Valley Rd, 831-659-1900; www.bernardus.com) have set new standards for wine industry hospitality, providing tasting room climates as agreeable as their wines. The list of others like them is as long as the region’s history.
While pinot noir, cabernet, merlot, and zinfandel are produced in award-winning styles here, Monterey County is beloved for its chardonnay, representing some 40 percent of the acreage planted. The chardonnay produced in Monterey, however, varies greatly, from producer to producer, making tasting throughout the region an adventure in subtlety and palate education.
But while chardonnay may dominate, there’s still room enough for every kind of grape, because very grape grown in Monterey County is for wine (no table or juice grapes). And although they are often compared with the wines of Napa and Sonoma, Monterey wine grapes possess qualities that easily distinguish them from their California counterparts.
Their distinct quality and varying characteristics is part of why I love Monterey wine and why I can’t help but think Mr. Steinbeck might today have a different description for his grapes.