Pinot Perfection; Monterey County, California

Pinot Perfection; Monterey County, California

Think Napa County and you think Napa wine (even if you cannot afford to drink Napa wine). To think Monterey County you need only sidle over to your refrigerator or cupboard to access a wealth of agricultural products: lettuce and salad greens are the biggies, but you also consume Monterey strawberries, broccoli, artichokes, spinach, bok choy, onions, peas, tomatoes, avocadoes, walnuts. Well, now that you have stuffed yourself (with some exceptionally healthy food items, I might stress), it's time to wash it all down with Monterrey wines. We're talking about cool climate wines that cry out for notice based on their sheer quality and inherent interest in a market swollen by the big names and big wines of the north. My theory is that the American market (as it grows ever more sophisticated) will find—somehow and someway—the wines that count. I'm happy myself to be a bit ahead of the curve. After all, it means I pay less for great juice.

Relatively large, Monterey County subsumes nine unique appellations: Monterey, Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe, San Lucas, San Antonio Valley, and Hames Valley. Though dozens of wine grape varieties flourish through the region, the big two, largely because of the cool climate, are Chardonnay (by far the leader) and Pinot Noir (a true style-setter in an age when Pinot Noir is being put to the test all over the world).

If the Chardonnay/Pinot (instead of the usual Chardonnay/Cabernet) combination rings a bell, that bell is likely to be located in France, in Burgundy, the original home of both these world grape varieties. Monterey is extremely varied, and despite its fertile lettuce-loving plantations, the county offers numerous nooks and crannies whose climate mirrors that of Burgundy (without being as iffy in terms of rainfall). Drying winds and cooling fogs off Monterey Bay do the work of ensuring extra-long growing seasons, while the underground aquifer of the Salinas River provides exceptionally pure water, when needed, in what is basically a rain-challenged climate.

The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association put together an event on a wet May afternoon in Manhattan (at the impressive Manhattan Penthouse on lower Fifth Avenue at 14th Street) they titled “Pinot Perfection,” moderated by Executive Director Rhonda Motil. Prior to and after the seated tasting and panel discussion we had free reign with the wines of a number of area producers and varietals, Rieslings and Chardonnays included. I tasted the Jekel Vineyards 2007 Riesling, which brought the lovely aromatics (peach, orange blossom) I'd recently enjoyed at a restaurant in Jekel's 2006 vintage. Lockwood Vineyards, Estancia, and Figge Cellars also had offerings, though these producers were not among the panel presenters.

Monterey has often been used as an object lesson in grape/territory association; when California went Cabernet crazy a while back millions of dollars were lost on Cabernet Sauvignon that saw insufficient heat in the region to ripen (though a few warm pockets in the county do produce credible Cabernet, and we tasted some excellent offerings from Galante Vineyards). Cool-climate, combined with other topographical and climatic aspects of the Monterey region, provided an abiding theme for the event: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and a stray Sauvignon Blanc from presenter San Saba.

The seated tasting was all 2006 Pinot; the four presenters were about as passionate about their product as I've seen. The major non-vinous theme is the fact that Monterey wines fight an uphill battle to carve out recognition; in the Pinot realm they face the daunting specter of the Sideways-swollen region in Santa Barbara County to their immediate south, while in the critical Chardonnay area they compete against an entire world of wine. The statement remained unsaid, but ultimately I understood that, PR having some upward limits, the wines would ultimately speak for themselves. The fact is, the Sideways phenomenon generated great quantities of iffy (and Syrah-enhanced) Pinot.

These Monterey Pinots, all 100% Pinot Noir and each carefully conceived, were another story entirely. Carmel Road Winery's Estate Pinot Noir, Monterrey appellation, combines four vineyards for their 30,000 case production. The $20 wine, we all agreed, is extremely food-friendly (spaghetti was the no-nonsense choice for accompaniment, according to presenter Jim Pickworth, the winery's General Manager), with healthy acidity, a nose of black cherry, blackberry, plum and prune, redcurrant and baking spice (cinnamon and nutmeg, with vanilla) on the palate, some minerality, all very nicely balanced into a lovely warm finish (I quote my own notes) with well-used touches of oak. The wine is barrel-aged seven months in French oak, 21% new. We keep hearing the notion that lightly chilled Pinot can be a serviceable “fish wine,” an idea that earned positive support from the assembly.

Moving upwards in price, the $29 San Saba Vineyards Monterrey appellation Pinot, aged nine months in 50% new oak, represents new (young vines) plantings of four Dijon clones (115, 667, 777, and Pommard 4 for you techies). San Saba produces a modest 600 cases. Claire Martin, the winery's Managing Director, characterized the wine as having a “feminine” style, a classical cherry nose with spice. I discovered forward (though honest) acidity, a tangy finish, a playful and seductive nature (though I wrote this after the “feminine” remark, which undoubtedly destroyed any possible shred of objectivity, but vive la difference I say). The Pinot is estate-grown, and carefully vinified (hand-harvesting, hand-sorting and general babying at all levels of creation, kind of like my own personal upbringing).

Steve Lohr from J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, presented the winery's inaugural Monterey Pinot, an 1,100 case run of $40 wine under the Arroyo Seco appellation. The wine's nose featured raspberry, strawberry, cherry, pomegranate and spice with medium tannins and some dried mountain herb on the finish. Steve explained that he uses four clones grown on two rootstocks allowing him to avail himself of the best blend of these eight possible combinations. The key, however, is the reach of the fog off Monterey Bay; it “increases hang time for rich, elegant flavors,” (his language, but I agree with the adjective “elegant.”) The fog isn't the whole story, however. The winds that funnel down (southward) from the coast slow down photosynthesis. The sandy soil drains quickly, giving the “luxury of adding just enough water” resulting in “more fruit at a lower price.”

Steve later distracted me from my Pinot purpose by pouring his 2006 White Riesling (sharp and delightfully direct) and then the 2006 Late Harvest Riesling that featured botrytis (the flavor of which I often crave in my dreams). I also tasted J. Lohr's 2006 Estate Valdiguié, a fruity French varietal sometimes called (confusingly) the “Napa Gamay.” Valdiguié is a varietal in peril, but has the potential to make some yummy wine along the lines of a better Beaujolais. I sense some good congruence between the varietal and American tastes and want to know more.

Brad Martin, Sales and Marketing Director for Morgan Winery, presented the $62 Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Double L is the only certified organic vineyard in the appellation. The 26 acres of 11-year-old Pinot vines benefit from 12 clones and 6 rootstocks, and they produced probably the most complex Pinot of the session. The nose brings solid cherry, chocolate laced with vanilla, redcurrant and cream, similar on the palate but with some added smokiness, with a good cherry tang on the finish. This is a big powerful wine with grip and firm acidity that Brad stresses could age. The wine is finished in a combination of medium and medium plus toast Burgundy barrels, half new, and aged an average of eleven months. Brad gave the group an excellent survey on the climatic strengths of the Santa Lucia Highlands and its faithful similarity to Burgundy (at least in its highlight, since Burgundy itself differs from field to field, sometimes from row to row.) I live in a town with a lot of French-speaking people (Larchmont, NY) and just yesterday I had a good browse through the Burgundy section of a French-owned wine-shop. Ouch! The idea of Burgundy-style wine produced in the dollar zone has enormous appeal.

The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association seems to show a real talent for communicating their enthusiasm for the region, its grapes and its dedicated winemakers. As mentioned several times in the panel discussion, Monterey wines, despite their excellence, have to fight an uphill battle for consumer attention and retailer shelf-space. As I've already written, good wine eventually finds its own market level, but so as not to take any chances, the Association maintains a website that I think is one of the best I've seen in terms of clarity, usability, and plain value of information. The maps are superb. If you access the site ( make sure you have broadband, however, because you'll be enjoying a good amount of excellent video. Afterwards, if your local wine shop lacks a Monterey section, you'll have to make a pest out of yourself; be strong.

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Pinot Noir chooses its region and not the other way around.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard

Morgan Winery's Double L Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Carmel Road Winery

Carmel Road Winemaker Ivan Giotenov.

San Saba Vineyards

Some of San Saba Vineyards' line of wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

Founder Jerry Lohr conducts a tour of the winery.

Manhattan Penthouse

The author did not have his camera with him on this occasion, so you need to imagine the Manhattan Penthouse filled with Monterey wines and a convivial group of their fans. The piano in the background saw some action.

Monterey County

Monterey County offers a large array of wines primarily from cool-climate grapes.

Monterey wineries represented at Pinot Perfection:

Carmel Road Winery
Figge Cellars
Galante Vineyards
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
Jekel Vineyards
Lockwood Vineyards & Winery
Morgan Winery

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