Carmel-by-the-Sea is an enchanting, walkable village idyllically situated right on the Pacific Ocean. You can park your car and spend many pleasant hours meandering around, peeking into alluring boutiques, art galleries, cafes, and wine tasting rooms. We had not visited Carmel in many years and were pleasantly surprised to find that it has not changed much and still retains its quaint European feel and charming ambiance.
Carmel and nearby Monterey are full of wonderful opportunities for exploring, relaxing, eating and drinking. There is so much to see and do that it’s hard to know where to start. That’s why I was glad we were on a well-organized tour of wine and food writers. Our itinerary was so diverse and well-planned that I think it might work for other visitors who only have a few days to spend in this enthralling destination, especially if you like good food and wine, which was the focus of our tour. Keep in mind, however, that these suggestions represent just a sampling of the many wonderful options available in the area.
Where to stay?
There are many excellent accommodations in the area, but we were glad we stayed at the historic Hofsas House, located within easy walking distance of the beach and the many shops and restaurants in the village. This family-owned boutique hotel is friendly and welcoming. The Theis family now owns and operates the hotel, carrying on the traditions of Donna and Fred Hofsas, who founded it more than 60 years ago. We loved the Bavarian décor in the lobby and in our cozy room with a fireplace and also appreciated the heated swimming pool and complimentary continental breakfast. All the rooms have Dutch doors opening to refreshing breezes from the Pacific and many of the rooms have ocean views. We were so happy to learn that the hotel is dog friendly and we plan to visit again soon with our dogs. The Hofsas House offers several packages, including a Wine & Cheese package, a Get Artsy package, a hiking package and dog package called Tail Wagging. The staff was so helpful in giving us advice about what to do in Carmel and the surrounding area. For details go to the Hofsas House website or call 831-624-2745
Where to drink?
Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea Passport:
You can enjoy many of the wineries in the area without leaving the village of Carmel or even getting in your car. Just purchase a Carmel Wine Walk-by-the-Sea Passport, which allows you to visit and taste at nine of fourteen tasting rooms. You can purchase this passport for $65 through the Carmel Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center (located on San Carlos between 5th and 6th) or online on the Chamber’s website. We sampled some exceptional wines at three of these tasting rooms.
Scott Caraccioli welcomed us to his family-run Caraccioli Cellars, which specializes in sparkling wines and we tried two of them: a refreshing, lemony Brut Cuvée with tropical aromas and a crisp Brut Rosé with apple and vanilla tastes. We also sampled some distinctive Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. These wines have been described as “old world” with a focus on preserving the essential flavors of the fruit so we felt as if we were tasting a bit of the region’s rich grape growing history.
The owner of Silvestri Vineyards, Alan Silvestri, is best known for composing music for films, such as “Back to the Future II and III,” “Night at the Museum” and “Forest Gump.” Tracks from some of his films play in the background as you sip wine in this welcoming Carmel tasting room. Silvestri is also gaining a reputation for producing superb wines since the winery’s first release came out in 2003. Among others, we tasted the 2013 Silvestri Pinot Gris Ala, a dry citrusy wine with peach flavors; the 2013 Silvestri Pinot Noir with earthy, berry tastes; and the elegant 2013 Silvestri Vineyards Barbera, the only Barbera produced in the area, which attracted us with its beautiful deep cherry color and strong fruit and berry flavors.
Wrath Wines is pleasantly located on the lower level of Carmel Plaza, an appealing shopping area full of boutiques, galleries and restaurants. The personable winemaker, Sabrine Rodems, poured wines for us and described her winemaking approaches. Since the weather in the Santa Lucia Highlands is consistently so perfect for winemaking, she likes to experiment with all kinds of other variables such as the timing of picking or the concentration of clusters or blending different clones of the same grape. Some of the outstanding wines we tasted here were Ex Anima 2014 Chardonnay with fresh tastes of stone and tropical fruit; Fermata 2013 Chardonnay, a rich and textured wine with vanilla aromas; Ex Anima 2013 Pinot Noir, a spicy, bright, accessible Pinot; and the 2013 115/667 Pinot Noir, which brings together two clones to create a tangy, complex wine with tastes of rich cherry and herbs. (Ex Anima means “from the soul” in Latin and Fermata means “halted” in Italian.)
We tasted many more special wines at Wrath and really enjoyed the tasting room experience. The wines we tasted paired nicely with some delectable cheeses from The Cheese Shop, which is conveniently located right next door and offers an enticing selection of more than 200 artisanal cheeses from around the world
Hahn Family Wines
A wine-focused trip to the Monterey area is not complete without venturing to the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands, which includes 46 estate wineries on more than 6000 acres. The area has an ideal climate for growing grapes with moderate temperatures, morning fog, ocean breezes and sunshine, all of which work well together to nurture the temperamental Pinot Noir grape. Hahn Family Wines has 650 acres of vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (American Viticultural Area) and produces some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays you will ever taste. The micro-climates in four different Hahn vineyards result in distinctly different wines. We particularly enjoyed tasting several outstanding Pinot Noirs, including a fruity, rich 2013 Lucienne “Smith Vineyard” and Hahn’s 2013 SLH Pinot Noir, with its intense flavors of berries and mocha. We also loved a crisp, refreshing 2014 Hahn Pinot Gris; a creamy, floral 2013 SLH Chardonnay; and a full-bodied 2013 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon with bold berry tastes. I highly recommend making a reservation for an ATV tour of the Hahn estate so you can grasp its inspiring beauty and scope.
Originally built in 1928 and only about 12 miles from Carmel, Holman Ranch was a magical stop on our itinerary, and included an inviting winery. This private retreat in northeastern Carmel Valley offers a unique, picturesque setting with breathtaking views of the Santa Lucia Mountains. This off-the-beaten-path getaway is perfect for classy but rustic private events, such as weddings or corporate gatherings. The 400-acre estate includes a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces for customized events plus guests can stay in the comfortable, rustically furnished guest suites that are only available to guests attending events at the Ranch. The centerpiece of the property is the original, recently restored, mission-style Hacienda with its terracotta roof, vaulted ceilings, oak beams, and majestic Carmel stone walls. The casually elegant décor and furnishings are from the original ranch days. Art and posters from the Old West remind you of the rich history that has transpired within these walls over the decades with many celebrity visitors.
The winery at Holman Ranch, called The Caves, is located on 21 scenic acres of rolling hills. The wines produced are 100 percent from estate-grown grapes and include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. We particularly enjoyed the 2013 Jarman Pinot Noir with its blueberry and cinnamon tastes and the 2011 Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir with its deep ruby color, black cherry aromas and nice earthy, berry flavors. The winery is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Ranch’s Jarman Tasting Room is also located nearby on Carmel Valley Road and is open from noon to 5 p.m. daily or by appointment. The Jarman label is named after Jarman Lowder who with her husband, Tom, purchased the Holman Ranch several years ago. The ranch is now managed by their daughter, Hunter, and her husband, Nick Elliott.
Where to eat:
5th Ave Deli
This small shop is full of enticing soups, salads, sandwiches and breakfast items for you to take with you as you explore the nearby beaches, parks and trails. Drinks, including wine and champagne, are also available for your gourmet picnic. I recommend the Tarragon Chicken Salad or you can customize your own sandwiches with just about any meat, cheese or condiment you desire. I even saw braunschweiger on the menu. (If you don’t know what that is, you just might have to try it.)
Restaurant 1833, named after the year this historic adobe mansion was built, is a welcoming, exquisite restaurant in nearby Monterey, only about ten minutes from Carmel. Ghost stories abound about this allegedly haunted site and many staff members will attest to occasional paranormal appearances. The meandering dining rooms and lounges on two levels, all with low lighting and flickering candles, enhance the spooky ambiance. We sat in Hattie’s Room named after the sneaky ghost who supposedly adds salt to diners’ dishes. Block salt candleholders sit on every table to keep Hattie away. (Although all our dishes were outstanding, one member of our group did say his entrée was a bit too salty.)
But the visiting ghosts can’t keep the food from being exceptional. The focus is on seasonal, locally sourced, fresh ingredients, which award-winning Chef Jason Franey uses to create innovative dishes. But first try a cocktail from the creative libations menu. How about the American Trilogy with Sazerac Rye, Laird’s Applejack, Angostura, orange bitters, brown sugar and orange zest? I loved this cocktail, but it is just one of many tempting craft cocktail choices. At our table some of the delicious entrees we ordered included pan-seared salmon with mussels, clams, artichoke and dill; Jidori chicken breast served with yellow corn polenta and sautéed escarole; beef short ribs that had been slowly cooking for 48 hours; and the classic chateau sirloin. Appetizers and desserts were equally appealing. Then after dinner (or before), you can gather at one of the romantic fire pits in the front courtyard and sip a cup of coffee or glass of wine under stunning, gigantic trees, including a majestic 150-year-old oak tree.
Anton and Michel
This lovely upscale dining spot is open and airy with beautiful views through floor to ceiling windows overlooking a courtyard with flowing fountains. You might want to start your evening in the inviting lounge where you can order craft cocktails and appetizers by the fireplace. We ordered some tasty items from the small bites menu, such as shrimp spring rolls, wild mushroom risotto, and grilled lamb sliders. The entree menu was also appealing with such special items as spiced pork tenderloin, prime New York strip steak, maple leaf duck and some delectable fish dishes, such as panko-encrusted sand dabs. If you want a gourmet meal in a tranquil, relaxing setting, I highly recommend Anton and Michel.
Recently purchased and remodeled by the owners of Holman Ranch, Will’s Fargo Steakhouse & Bar is a logical stop if you are visiting the Ranch. The building and country ranch atmosphere hark back to the 1920s when it was a roadhouse. This reminded me of an iconic upper Midwest supper club, where the food is always satisfying and abundant, but Will’s Fargo also offers some creative touches in its dishes. We had a wonderful meal here, beginning with escargot with garlic-herb butter and a fresh shrimp cocktail with a tangy cocktail sauce. This was followed by one of the restaurants’s signatuare dishes, a mouth-watering, thick French onion soup topped with gruyere cheese. I chose grilled salmon with parmesan cheese sauce for my entrée and it was delicious. The dessert of warm chocolate truffle cake was as good as it looked. Of course, all these courses were accompanied by lovely Jarman wines.
We tasted a lot of outstanding food and wine during our brief visit to Carmel. But there is so much more to sip and savor. That’s why we’ll be going back soon.