Monterey County, renowned for its rugged natural beauty, is nirvana for the wine tourist. Without the hustle and bustle of superstar regions Napa and Sonoma, Monterey’s low key and laid back wine scene has slowly evolved, but is now poised for explosive growth. Vistas of vineyards, with almost 50,000 acres planted, and 30 wine grape varietals grown, keep 82 wineries busy. And if you pour it, they will come. Wine Enthusiast has recognized Monterey wine country as one of the world’s top ten wine destinations, California’s premier sweet spot where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shine bright. With so much to offer, from outdoor adventures, sightseeing, world class golf courses, and art, in addition to excellent food and wine, Monterey County is incredible bang for your buck, and should be on your must visit soon list.
“Carmel-by-the-Sea”, the quaint European-style hamlet that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, offers something for everyone. Rated as a top 10 US travel destination, Carmel’s compact town center, one mile square, is a cornucopia of shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, spas and salons, restaurants and cafes, and hotels. No street lights, parking meters, or numbered addresses confine its bohemian nature. This “village in the forest”, surrounded by pine trees and a white sand beach is free form and enchanting. You’ll want to spend at least three days here, making it the hub for many wine adventures.
The Hofsas House, family owned for over 60 years, offers relaxation in a retreat setting. The Theis family, who operate the hotel, continue a tradition of hospitality handed down by the original founders, Donna and Fred Hofsas. Grandchildren Carrie and Scott, along with their mother Doris, work hard to ensure travelers feel right at home, weaving modern conveniences into a tapestry of European charm. The Bavarian motif is a nod to the Hofsas’ German roots, welcoming guests with artist Maxine Albro’s mural across from the office, along the driveway. This pink, Bavarian themed hotel, offers many amenities, from a heated swimming pool and dry saunas, to complimentary continental breakfast and free WiFi. Thirty-eight spacious rooms, all uniquely decorated, are cozy, many with fireplaces to stay toasty by. The Pacific Ocean adds to the ambience, Dutch doors on all the rooms can be opened, ushering in the cool ocean breezes. Because the hotel is on a hillside overlooking the Pacific, many rooms on the backside have great ocean views, framed by the village pine trees. For the rooms without their own balcony, outdoor decks encourage guests to linger, over morning breakfast or sunset wine and cheese. Family and dog friendly, larger suites are available, comfortably furnished, many with a kitchenette. The Hofsas House offers several packages, from romance to golf, including a popular Carmel Beach Fire and S’Mores Bundle, and perks for additional nights. Located just three blocks from the center of town, the Hofsas House is a good jumping off point for touring all of Monterey County. Their staff helps guests navigate the myriad choices, arranging everything from sightseeing, wine tasting, or just leisurely strolling the village streets, with a map in hand. Hofsas House is a popular choice for visitors, many who come again and again, to enjoy this home away from home.
For the wine tourist, the beauty of staying in the village of Carmel is convenience, and not having to worry about a designated driver. Fourteen Monterey County wineries have tasting rooms within easy walking distance of most of the village hotels. The Carmel Wine Walk-by-the-Sea Passport is the perfect introduction, it is your ticket to tasting wines at your choice of 9 of the 14 tasting rooms that are open daily. You can purchase it for $65 from the Carmel Chamber of Commerce, or, as in my case, the Hofsas House concierge can arrange to have the passport waiting for you upon check-in. The Wine Walk passport doesn’t expire, so no rush, you can linger with a glass, and return again to pick up where you left off. An additional perk, some local restaurants waive corkage on bottles purchased at a Carmel Wine Walk tasting room, but there is a limit of one bottle per visit.
This Wine Walk famously stars Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, mostly from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Caraccioli Cellars is unique, producing sparkling wines as well as still, setting themselves apart from the crowd. Scott Caraccioli says they have “a complete commitment to making bubbles”, painstakingly crafting their Brut Cuvée and Brut Rosé, controlling the process from beginning to end, starting with only estate grown fruit as of 2015. “It really showcases the place and the year through sparkling wine” Scott observes, “that’s really the majority of our production, and the majority of our focus”. Winemaker Michel Salgues works to keep the quality high, with extended aging, on the lees and in bottle. Both wines sparkle with a cascading stream of tiny bubbles, the Brut Cuvée is aromatic with Meyer lemon, pineapple, and brioche; the Brut Rosé redolent of citrus and ripe apple, laced with a subtle yeastiness, and both wines linger on the finish. The still wines are good, especially the Chardonnay, the 2011 vintage is aromatic, with lemon, pear, pineapple, and hints of butterscotch, it’s creamy, with good acidity, and a round finish, very nice!
Wrath Wines, tucked into the lower level of the Carmel Plaza, also specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, yet is a study in clones. At Wrath, three separate collections of wines are made, the Ex Anima, Winemaker Series, and Single Vineyard Series. Winemaker Sabrine Rodems crafts the wines like a chef, she has numerous clones, single vineyards, and several winemaking techniques, like whole cluster and malolactic fermentation, to choose from. Clones become the spice rack, blending different clones of the same grape makes for a more complex wine. Because Mother Nature is kind to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, near perfect grape growing weather happens every year, allowing ripe, concentrated, well balanced wines to be made on a consistent basis. When the usual challenges to winemaking aren’t an issue, it frees the winemaker to tinker. According to Sabrine, it’s the experimentation that is exciting, finding out what works and what doesn’t. “You have to have an open mind, look outside your assumptions, think beyond what you think is right. How can you understand farming completely unless you go to all the corners of the square? In the vineyard, we crank it to the right, and see how the vineyard behaves, then crank it to the left, and see how the vineyard behaves, early pick, late pick, high concentration of whole clusters, low concentration of whole clusters, and everything in between, that is the key to figuring out what your vineyard’s about”. It’s a real education to taste through the Pinot clones, from Pommard 4, Swan, 828, 115, 667, 777, you start to discover which ones appeal to your individual palate. For example, two very good wines that are as different as cherry and earth; the 115/667 Pinot is very cherry, spicy, and with a touch of wild herbs, whereas the Pommard 4/777 is earthy and spicy, less fruity. Both are delicious, yet different.
continued in Part 2