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Wine trails in Steinbeck country
Wine trails in Steinbeck country

Wine tasting in Monterey County offers many attractions besides its wines, but few surpass the legacy of John Steinbeck, one of America’s most beloved authors.

Ironically, Steinbeck wasn’t very popular in his hometown of Salinas and Monterey County when he was alive, but that’s certainly changed now. References to him and the locations he used fill the county, many overlaying wine destinations.

Monterey County is a major supplier of California’s “Coastal” wines, though not always credited as such. Its grapes create the bulk of many $8 to $15 wines, particularly chardonnay, though it also produces many fine wines as well.

Interestingly, wine grapes are its sixth most valuable crop. Lettuce and strawberries are the biggest, and even broccoli  brings in more revenue. The land is more valuable for growing rappini and radicchio than for cabernet, in fact.

The large county has an unusual topography that allows wine grape growers to dial into almost any climate they want. The long Salinas Valley opens to the Pacific at the north, and cold winds and fog are sucked down the valley each day as the southern end heats and its air rises.

The average temperature on a hot day in the south temperature drops about one-half of a degree per mile toward the head of the valley, producing the perfect spots up north for cool-loving chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, with grapes like cabernet and merlot that prefer things a bit warmer planted in the middle, and syrah and other Mediterranean grapes at the south.

In addition, vineyards on the sides of the Salinas Valley exhibit distinctive climates. The high Chalone appellation in the Gabilan Mountains celebrated as “East of Eden” are far above the daily fog and wind, but cool and sunny because of their altitude and location.

The Santa Lucia Highlands, the elevated raised foothills along the western Santa Lucia range are also above the fog as well as the relentless winds that affect grapes that grow in the valley floor. Both are pronounced the Spanish way, ‘loo see ah,’ not the Italian ‘loo chee ah.’

In addition, three valleys hidden in the Santa Lucias are warm and sunny, perfect for Bordeaux and Mediterranean grapes. They are the new San Antonio American Viticultural Area and the San Ardo Valley, as well as the misnamed Carmel Valley AVA, which is primarily the warm and elevated Cachagua Valley east of touristy Carmel Valley itself.

Unlike the wineries in compact Napa Valley, Monterey wineries are dispersed, forcing wine lovers to decide what areas to visit.

A good starting point, however, is Monterey’s Cannery Row, which hosts A Taste of Monterey tasting room with wines from all over the county in one location. Scheid Vineyards, which lies quite far south in the Salinas Valley, has also opened an appealing tasting room in the new Intercontinental Hotel only a block from the famous Monterey Aquarium, a must visit.

Obviously, Cannery Row was made famous by Steinbeck — though after it had declined — and the spirits of many of its eccentric personalities such as Doc Rickets haunt the buildings. It’s always fun if a  bit tacky, but still boasts some excellent restaurants that produce fine Italian-American seafood dishes — fried calamari was popularized here long after the sardines fled. Oddly, many of the restaurants don’t appreciate the county’s own excellent wines.

Some of the shops sell quality goods instead of T-shirts and junk, while the views of the sea and its inhabitants shouldn’t be missed.

Cannery Row also has some nice places to stay, including the Monterey Plaza Hotel hanging over the water, and some smaller inns.

The second destination for wine tasting should probably be Carmel Valley itself. Morgan has a new tasting room in the Crossroads Shopping Center at its entrance, while Chateau Julien has a lovely winery just a bit further along. Wine grapes don’t prosper here, however; it’s too cool. In the sunnier center of the valley, some grapes grow, but more tasting rooms are sprouting up. Those include Carmel Village include Talbot, Bernardus, Heller Estate, Chateau Sinnet and Parsonage. Their grapes come from elsewhere in the county.

Farther out, it becomes very wild. You can climb up to Cachagua Valley, but call the wineries there first, and if you’re really adventuresome, continue out rugged Carmel Valley Road all the way to the Salinas Valley. There are no services, wineries or cell service, however, and few ranches on the long, lonely trip. You’re as likely to encounter wild pigs as people.

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Most people instead return towards Carmel, or perhaps climb Laureles Grade, passing near pastoral Corral de Tierra Steinbeck called Pastures of Heaven, with its unique Castel Rock formation visible from the lower road.

Laureles leads out Highway 68 to River Road, the route to half a dozen of Monterey’s top wineries. Lying on the Santa Lucia bench, they produce much of the county’s acclaimed pinot noirs and chardonnays: Pessagno, Manzoni, Boekenoogen, San Saba, Hahn Estates/Smith and Hook, and Paraiso Vineyards. Other famed wines come from vineyards along the bench. At the end of the road is neglected Paraiso Springs Resort, Monterey’s counterpart of Pope Valley’s Aetna Springs.

Other vineyards — and the fabled Soledad Mission — are on the nearby valley floor, while historic Chalone Vineyards is a long drive up into the mountains near the Pinnacles National Monument.

From there, it’s a short trip into Salinas, where there’s a second Taste of Monterey winetasting salon and shop, plus the National Steinbeck Museum. Like the Aquarium, it’s a vital stop for any visitor, and it places the author and his works into their rightful place in the county as well as our memory.

From there, it’s only 25 minutes back to Monterey — or about two hours to Napa.

The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association has excellent material and maps online at www.montereywines.org and available all over the county.

Likewise, don’t miss the Literary and Film Map from Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.montereyinfo.org).

I guarantee you’ll be reading Steinbeck again — while you sip your Monterey wine.

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