Pop, Jazz, Squid—and Wine?

This entry could just have easily been titled Everything I Know About Monterey I Learned in the Fifth Grade. First and foremost, for anyone over 35, like Your West Coast Oenophile, Monterey has long meant the seminal Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, the first true rock mega-concert that propelled the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin and numerous other legendary musical acts. Music purist would probably defer to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, now in its 53rd year—though many will cite Clint Eastwood traipsing through the woods at Big Sur with Donna Mills as their favorite scene from the 1971 film Play Misty for Me, I relish the clip of the late, great Cannonball Adderley playing at the Festival.

Growing up in a Neapolitan household, one of the more esoteric dishes I enjoyed in my youth was calamari (few people today realize that many of today’s popular menu items were long shunned as “peasant food” outside of ethnic circles). Of course, the preferred source of this delicacy was Monterey squid, even if we could only obtain it frozen on the East Coast. Wine from Monterey, however, was a far different matter.

At first, there were the big jug wines like Almaden. Other bulk producers followed, planting extensive vineyards or leasing other large tracts to furnish themselves with a substantial source of cheap varietal gapes—in one memorable incident from the early 1980s, Ernest Gallo, at his craven-hearted best, flew over the 10,000 acres he had under contract in Monterey and pronounced the grapes undesirable, leaving growers scrambling to find an alternate buyer. Then came the proliferation of “Coastal Cellars.” Several of the industry’s most revered labels, having ceded control to their new corporate conglomerate, came out with “affordable” lines of their wines, capitalizing on their long-established reputation in Napa and elsewhere, but markedly inferior to their primary bottlings—a ill-conceived effort to make wines from a prestigious label “accessible,” that only served to erode brand value and recognition.

Amid all this clutter, Monterey’s AVAs have long encompassed premium winemaking, so in quest to engage more of these wineries for Sostevinobile, I traveled south to the 18th Annual Winemakers’ Celebration in Monterey’s Custom House Plaza last weekend. Had the purpose of my two-hour drive been to escape the gloom and overcast of San Francisco for much-needed æstival warmth, this was not the trek to make. Nonetheless, a fresh setting with new people to meet and wines to sample mitigated for the lack of sunshine. Event promoters had set up ample white tents at strategic corners of this bi-level plaza to house the 40 wineries pouring a wide array of their varietals and blends. I tried to visit with each, starting, as previously document, with those labels I had not previously contacted and striving to save enough time to cover the rest

Consequently, I started out by heading to the table for Line Shack, a winery I had just recently encountered at P.S. I Love You. On hand, owner/winemaker John Baletto and his wife Daphne poured a striking array of wines grown in Monterey County, starting with a seductive 2009 Roussanne San Antonio Valley and an equally appealing 2008 Chardonnay Monterey County. I bypassed resampling their Petite Sirah in favor of the 2008 Syrah San Antonio Valley and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon San Antonio Valley John blended in Paso Robles style, with enough Syrah to round it out rather deftly. On the other hand, Lockwood Vineyard from Monterey was a new discovery, featuring an austere 2008 Malbec and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon rounded out with Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.

From Soledad, Manzoni Estate Vineyard made a strong first impression with a quartet of their wines, particularly their 2007 Pinot Noir Private Reserve. I also found the 2008 Pinot Gris and 2007 Syrah enormously appealing, along with a 2007 Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Contrasting Chardonnays marked Mercy Vineyards, an artisan winery from Pebble Beach. I rated the 2008 Chardonnay Zabala Vineyard a cut above the nonetheless compelling 2008 Chardonnay Arroyo Seco and equal to their 2008 Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco, while the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Arroyo Seco did not disappoint.

I don’t recall seeing La Rochelle on my recent swing through the Livermore Valley; then again, given the well-publicized zealotry of the local highway patrol, my eyes were probably fixed on my speedometer as I drove by. Though this winery resides in a different AVA, it sources its many of its grapes from numerous appellations in Monterey to produce both the 2009 Pinot Gris Mark’s Vineyard, Arroyo Seco and the 2007 Pinot Noir Monterey. On the other hand, Marin’s Vineyard only sounds like it is situated in another locale. This nascent San Antonio Valley winery produced a splendid 2008 Viognier, as well as their signature 2007 Syrah.

Other non-local based enterprises that grow and source significant amount of grapes from Monterey included Napa’s Delicato Family Vineyards, whose Sr. Brand Manager Christine Lilienthal served up some impressive banter, along with three of their Monterey labels. Loredona boasts itself as Delicato’s Anything But Chardonnay label, amply demonstrated by their 2009 Riesling, the 2009 Pinot Grigio and a pre-release sample of their enchanting 2009 Malvasia Bianca. Although Irony is one of their Napa labels, the 2008 Monterey Pinot Noir came from their San Benabe Vineyard (reputed the world’s largest single vineyard), as did the grapes in their Fog Head 2005 Blow Sand Syrah. Meanwhile, Wente Vineyards, the Goliath of Livermore Valley, might seem an interloper here but actually maintains extensive vineyards in Arroyo Seco, exemplified by their 2007 Reliz Creek Pinot Noir and the approachable 2008 Riva Ranch Chardonnay.

Given the number of nearby retreats like Esalen, Ventana Inn, and Carmel Valley Ranch, it comes as little surprise that Bernadus is both a resort and a winery. Nearly a decade ago, I enjoyed my first comprehensive tasting from the various Monterey AVAs at their Taste of Carmel Valley, so was more than please this afternoon to revisit their 2006 Monterey County Pinot Noir and the always wonderful 2005 Estate Marinus, a traditional Bordelaise blend, on behalf of Sostevinobile. On a much more modest scale, Mesa del Sol Vineyards offers a quiet cottage amid a 14 acre estate with trout pond and a vineyard that produces their 2005 Syrah and the highly likable 2006 Sangiovese.

I suspect many of the smaller ventures on hand this afternoon do not see tremendous distribution outside the Central Coast region, so, of course, it is a particular pleasure to give them wider exposure here. Though I found Snosrap, their semordnilaps label, a bit jejune, I nonetheless reveled in the wines Parsonage Village Vineyards from Carmel Valley featured, starting with the 2008 Snosrap Cyrano Chardonnay and the 2007 Estate Syrah. The 2007 Bordelaise blended Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, while the quite drinkable 2007 Snosrap Merlot, blended with 25% Syrah, proved most gnillepmoc. A most aptly named Carmel winery, Mission Trail Vineyard, paid tribute to the historical planting of vineyards at California’s Franciscan missions 230 years ago with a superb 2005 Garnacha, along with a satisfactory 2006 Tempranillo. While I also found their 2007 Malbec and 2007 Syrah quite appealing, the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc left much to be desired.

I had corresponded earlier this year with Otter Cove on behalf of the wine auction for Asia Society Northern California, but had not previously sampled their wines. Like Mission Trail, I found varying degrees of quality, ranging from a superb 2006 Chardonnay to a disappointing 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands. in between, I was most impressed with their 2007 Off-dry Riesling Santa Lucia Highlands while cottoning to both the 2006 Gewürztraminer and the 2007 Syrah. Acclaimed musical composer Alan Silvestri orchestrated a harmonious trio of vintages for his eponymous winery: the 2005 Syrah Carmel Valley, the 2006 Pinot Noir Carmel Valley, and the tributary 2007 Bella Sandra Chardonnay. Meanwhile, the compelling rodeo theme of Galante’s labels underscored a gritty, no-nonsense approach that characterized both their 2007 Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon and the rich 2006 Galante Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Carmel Valley.

Galante operates a tasting room in tony Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood presides, as does Cima Collina, a quaint, artisan operation. Their 2009 Tondrē Riesling favored a slightly sweet approach, while their 2007 Chula Viña Chardonnay seemed quite redolent of its unfiltered process. Most intriguing, however, was the 2005 Hilltop Red, a skilled blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. Another familiar name, Carmel Valley’s Château Julien, offered a decidedly mellow 2009 Barrel Selected Pinot Grigio alongside its sibling 2008 Barrel Selected Chardonnay and a superb 2006 Private Reserve Merlot.

The night before I attended the Monterey Winemakers Celebration, I stopped off for a bite at St. Helena’s Farmstead, following a grueling day on the fundraising trail for Sostevinobile. Along with my entrée, I enjoyed a chilled glass of the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc San Saba Vineyard from Soledad’s Wrath Wines. Readers here know how I raved about discovering this winery at January’s Santa Lucia Highlands tasting, so I was pleased to get a leg up on my Monterey sojourn. Faced with an array of their wines, once again, I was smitten, first with the 2009 Chardonnay Ex Anima, followed by the rosé-style 2009 Pinot Noir Saignée San Saba Vineyard and culminating with their extraordinary 2007 Pinot Noir San Saba Vineyard. Today’s serendipity, however, came from Carmel Valley’s unassuming Joyce Vineyards. Dentist-turned-winemaker Frank Joyce crafted exceptional 2008 Chardonnay Black Mountain Vineyard and 2008 Pinot Noir Black Mountain Vineyard, as well as his notable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Pedregal Vineyard and a spectacular 2007 Merlot. According to their Website, Joyce also produces something called Pudding Wine—I have no idea what this might be, but based on the virtuosity, I’d be willing to gamble on a bottle of the 2007 vintage.

Perhaps this Pudding Wine will prove to be akin the 2008 Ekem, a whimsical homonym for the revered Sauternes, that De Tierra produces from its Musque Clone Sauvignon Blanc. This organic endeavor produces several noteworthy reds, including the 2005 Monterey Syrah, the 2006 Silacci Pinot Noir, and their 2006 Estate Merlot, while excelling on the white front with both their 2007 Monterey Chardonnay and the exceptional 2008 Tin Man Chardonnay. In the same vein, Heller Estate Organic Vineyards impressed me with their 2008 Cuvée, a Meritage blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, the 2007 Chenin Blanc, and their current offering of the 2002 Merlot (Heller clearly relishes Merlot, also producing a 2007 Merlot Rosé, a 2006 Merlot Blanc (!), and even a 2005 Sparkling Merlot).

Still having a bit of a sweet bug, I indulged in a taste of the 2008 Vinho Doce, a Port-style wine blended from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, and Tinto Roriz (aka Tempranillo), fortified with Tempranillo brandy, from Pierce Ranch Vineyards, a winery whose selections I have enjoyed on numerous other occasions. I’d also sampled a plethora of wine from Hahn/Lucienne over the years at various Pinot Noir events, so I opted for their other selections, like the 2009 Rosé, a compelling 2001 Blush Sparkling, the easy-to-drink 2005 Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Chardonnay Monterey, an extremely good 2005 Viognier, and the memorable 2007 SLH Estate Pinot Gris Santa Lucia Highlands. I followed by revising Ray Franscioni’s Puma Road, trying their amiable 2007 Pinot Gris Black Mountain Vineyard, an equally likable 2007 Pinot Noir Black Mountain Vineyard, his 2008 Chardonnay Black Mountain Vineyard, and the 2005 Cache Paicines, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

A winery I would have sworn I tried before was Scheid Vineyards from Monterey’s own Cannery Row, so tasting their wines turned out to be a nice discovery. Today’s well-balanced quartet was comprised of the 2007 Chardonnay, a 2008 Syrah Rosé, the 2007 Pinot Noir they atypically rounded out with 1% each of Syrah and Petite Sirah, and their 2007 Syrah, a 100% varietal expression (the latter two wines both won Gold Medals at the 2010 New World International Wine Competition named for my late friend, wine writer Jerry D. Mead). I was also surprised I hadn’t previously tried Graff Family Vineyards, the wine-producing extension of the Woodward-Graff Foundation. This Rhône-focused venture excelled with straight varietal expressions in their 2007 Grenache and 2007 Mourvèdre, while flourishing on the white side with a 2007 Viognier and a superb 2007 Pinot Blanc. Unifying the two halves was their proprietary 2007 Consensus, a deft blend of Mourvèdre, Viognier and Syrah.

Graff is a bit of an anomaly, in that their winemaking facilities are in Sonoma. Similarly, Carmel Road Winery grows its grapes in Monterey but trucks them to Santa Rosa for vinification. This virtual winery, created by Jackson Family Wines, nonetheless distinguished itself with their 2009 Pinot Gris, the well-balanced pair of the 2008 Monterey Chardonnay and the slightly preferable 2006 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay, and the starkly contrasting 2008 Monterey Pinot Noir and the 2006 Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir, a clearly superior wine. Chalone, on the other hand, was a pre-established operation Diageo purchased in 20o4, also seemed to maintain its quality and autonomy, though I only managed to sample the 2008 Pinot Blanc.

Perhaps if event promoters had furnished more than a meager five Porta-Potties for this large crowd (and interspersed them throughout at different points in the plaza instead of the corner furthest from the wine tables), I might have had enough time to visit with Crū, Estancia, Michaud, Morgan, Pelerin, Pessagno, and TondrēThat I missed their tables is a testament to the favorable encounters Sostevinobile has already enjoyed with their wines and their owners

All-in-all, the Monterey Winemakers Celebration wasa highly successful showcase for this distinctive wineregion. Even the conspicuously A.W.O.L. sun managed to make a late appearance for the final hour of the festivities! As I left, I felt there was but one glaring omission to an elsewise splendid event:

Where was the calamari?

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