Vol. 7 No.2. Apr '99
Journal and tasting notes from a two day tour of Santa Cruz and Monterey County.
Sat, April 17, 1999
Since I hadn't been able to get to very many of the Santa Cruz wineries the last time through this area (November '98), it was nice to have another chance to visit again so soon. Plus, I was also able to visit some wineries in Monterey County, as well. As timing would have it, my visit to Santa Cruz Mtns also coincided with "Passport Day," a day when many Santa Cruz wineries that are not usually open to the public are open for tasting.
Leaving from Monterey about Noon, I'd hoped to hit 4-5 wineries, which was probably a little ambitious in the "...you can't get here from there" appellation of the Santa Cruz Mtns. Headed up Hwy 1 to 17 and then over 9, where I worked my way through lovely Saratoga and into the mountains.
Arrived at Cinnabar at 1:20 after a 10-15 minute drive up a dirt & gravel one-lane road. Passed lots of people coming down, along with one very angry driver of a cherry '66 Mustang convertible who had apparently been eating everybody's dust on his way down. (Well, come on. He takes a drive up and down a dirt road -- and he doesn't want to get dirty? Gimme a break.) Nice modern facility, with the tasting being done inside the winery. Large patio area in back, with a terrific view looking West across a beautiful wooded valley. I decided to buy a Passport here at Cinnabar. But, they must have been holding an open house today, because it didn't seem to matter to them whether or not I had one. Three genial staffers pouring 3 wines. And, for a change, I was offered that seldom-heard refrain, "Would you like to re-taste anything." Well, duh! Out at 1:50.
Arrived at Cooper-Garrod at 2:15. Moderate sized crowd. Family member Doris Cooper poured 5 wines and chatted about the historical background of the winery. What used to be an apricot farm is now a working ranch and horse boarding stable, in addition to being a winery. The place is reminiscent of Rancho Sisquoc winery, with its stables and Western appearance. And, I was a little worried that the, shall we say...natural odors from the horses might inhibit or otherwise taint one's wine appreciation, but it didn't seem to be a problem (the stables are probably downwind). This family operation has an annual production of less than 3,000 cases. Inquired about visiting Mt. Eden, which was just down the street. But, was told that they are appointment only, and are apparently not part of the SCM Winegrowers Assn anymore (or, they're silent members). Out at 2:45.
Arrived at Savanna Chanel at 3:00. Formerly know as Mariani Winery, this is a large, kind of touristy-looking tasting room obviously geared to visits from larger crowds, with two pouring areas handling the 6 wines being poured. $3 for tasting, or N/C with the Passport. Good sized crowd here, but everything ran smoothly. Accessories and condiments abound, and the heavily merchandised room is clearly intended to deliver sales. Apparently Savanna and Chanel are two daughters of the proprietor(s) (shades of JanKris). As I was leaving, I inquired about how long it would taketo get to Ahlgren, and was informed that they were closed for the day due to an emergency. Out at 3:25.
Arrived at David Bruce at 4:20 after what seemed like a lengthy race against motorcycles through the Santa Cruz Mtns. The place was hopping, and the tasting room was surprisingly small. But, they're building a new winery/tasting room closer to the Hwy that is just about ready for occupancy, and the staff can hardly wait. The two ladies doing the pouring of 4 wines N/C were fast and efficient. Everything was humming along all right, when a patron asked if they were pouring the something-or-other Pinot. One pourer replied that this was a Passport Day, and they don't pour other than what is out. "We get slammed on Passport Day, so we don't bring out any other wines." As if it were obvious, she wondered aloud, "...why would anybody come to a winery on Passport Day, when we're open every other day of the year?" Hmmm. I thought about several possible replies to her rhetorical question: "...well, maybe because they're from out of the area and don't know any better." Or, "...because your appellation's brochures are two years behind and don't have accurate info..." (I was MAILED these a month before) " Or, how about "...because intended visits didn't materialize, since some wineries were unexpectedly closed." I would have debated the issue, but that would've been like teasing a tiger. I figure I'll just visit again on a more tranquil day. Out at 4:40.
Arrived at Byington at 4:45 to a nearly full parking lot, and a mass of picnickers. This is a large place that also seems equipped to handle lots of tourists and special bookings (a wedding party arrived at 5:00). The busy tasting room was being handled by two staff who maintained quite well through the crush of people. I decided to skip the white wines and just do the two reds being offered, which turned out to be "imports." Apparently, they do have some limited release "Reserve" wines from the SCM appellation, which were available on a per-taste basis, but I didn't try them. Out at 5:05.
Arrived back in Monterey about 6:15, and 166 miles. Totals for the day: 5 wineries; 18 wines.
Sun, April 18, 1999
Left Monterey at 11:00 to cover parts of the Santa Lucia Highlands and Carmel Valley areas of the Monterey County appellation. The Santa Lucia Highlands are on the West side of the Salinas Valley, to the West of the Salinas River; the Arroyo Seco is close to the Valley floor on the West as well. While not headed there today, across the Valley on the East side are the Gabilan Mtns, and home of the newly established Chalone sub-appellation in Monterey County. The Carmel Valley is sort of a box canyon at the Northernmost end of the appellation, and located just South of Carmel and Monterey.
Arrived at Cloninger at 11:40. This is the first stop on the River Road wine trail. Several people already there, so the small tasting room was a little crowded. Congenial fellow pouring 4 wines. Nice view out of the window of the vineyards to the East. Not much memorable here, except that most of the wines had a tendency toward an oxidized quality. Since the bottles being used for tasting were about half-full (some might say half-empty), it seemed safe to say that they had been opened at least the day before. The winery promos indicate lots of details about Burgundian winemaking techniques, excellent vineyards, etc., but from what I tasted, somehow the whole effort seems to fall short. Out at Noon.
Arrived at Hahn Estates - Smith & Hook at 12:15. Ended up running into some of the same crowd from the last stop. Large and spacious, the very well appointed room has a large deck and patio looking East across the Salinas Valley, with a beautiful view from a several hundred feet up into the Santa Lucia Highlands. Two ladies pouring from a wide selection of Hahn Estates and Smith & Hook wines. This stop took a little longer than normal, due both to the large selection of wines being poured and the number of tasters. Browsed a bit while waiting for people to break away from the tasting bar. The Hahn Estate wines are conceived to be more a more accessible and ready-to-drink line, while the Smith & Hook line is meant for a bit of aging. The Hahn line was indeed more accessible, and usually not as complex. The Smith & Hook's seem to have lost a lot of the "veggie" quality from years past, and had nice concentration. Enjoyable stop. Out at 1:10.
Arrived at Paraiso Springs at 1:15. Roughly the last winery at the south end of River Road trail. I was looking forward to this visit, since I'd heard that the Pinot was supposed to be something of a jewel. Nicely appointed medium-sized room, with some of the same crowd traveling together arriving before me. Very friendly and informative lady doing the pouring of 4 wines, with a fifth wine added by our very gracious pourer at an [anonymous] taster's request. (Well hey, I came for the Pinot, and it wasn't sitting out.) Both of the Pinot Blanc's were surprisingly good, and the Syrah and Pinot were very nice as well. When the staff member noticed my keen interest and note-taking, I explained my credo (with forlorn face) "...there's a huge number of wineries in California, and I feel it's my duty to taste the wines of each of them. Yes, it's a tough job, but someone has to do it." Out at 1:50.
Driving back out of the Salinas Valley, and over into the Carmel Valley via Laureles Grade, arrived at Bernardus tasting room at 2:45. Located in Carmel Valley Village, the building serves as offices and tasting room for the winery. Very busy medium-sized room, with an energetic, very informative, and congenial fellow doing the pouring of 8 wines, N/C. He fielded lots of basic questions, while demonstrating patience and well thought-out answers. Very nice wines here, if a bit pricey. But, what isn't these days. The Pinot was a particularly good rendition of Bien Nacido PN - but, $42 worth...? Out at 3:20.
Arrived at Talbott at 3:25. Just down the street, Talbott has a small quaint tasting room next to Georis, which happens to confine their hours to Thurs-Sat. It seemedthat several family members were serving the wines. Vineyards are all out in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Very friendly place, with very nice wines. Lots of Talbott accessory items for sale as well. Out at 3:55.
Arrived at Durney at 4:00. Just 50 yards down the street, Durney maintains a small tasting room in town. Friendly fellow pouring 8 wines N/C. Was hoping to "re-discover" this winery, as I'd tried their wines some years ago, but not had any of them recently. Unfortunately, they weren't as good as I hoped. Don't know if this was a case of palate fatigue on my part, or the wines had been opened too long, or what. Out at 4:25.
Arrived at Chateau Julien at 4:35. In contrast to the published opening times, the winery was apparently having an art show and serving wine on their large patio, but was closing earlier than normal. However, the very gracious lady doing the pouring encouraged me to get a glass from inside and return. It was worthwhile. I'm not sure what is usually being poured in the tasting room, but the accent today was Italian varietals, or more properly Cal-Ital wines. I found a sleeper in the winery's second label, Garland Ranch; their Pinot Noir was a great buy at $9. Out at 5:05.
Very satisfactory day, with more than a few surprises and some disappointments. Totals for the day: 7 wineries, 40 wines, and 113 miles.
Santa Cruz: Accurate information on the Santa Cruz Mts Passport Program appears tough to come by. Initial info I received indicated that Mt. Eden was a member, and stated that winery open houses are held 3 times per year. But, from what I learned, Mt. Eden, as well as a few others, are apparently not members anymore, and the open houses are held 4 times per year. Unfortunately, Mt. Eden and Ahlgren were two of the ones I'd hoped to visit, but both were now off the itinerary (Ahlgren was closed due to a family emergency - hopefully nothing serious).
Very nice visits at Cooper-Garrod and at Cinnabar. Savannah Chanel had a very good Zin, which I haven't seen before from this appellation. The David Bruce visit was a bit of a disappointment. But, I'm sure this had as much to due with the selections being poured, as with my high expectations of the place. It was a shame not to have been able to visit Alhgren and Mt. Eden. But, that just leaves me more reasons to return again soon.
Monterey: I'd been interested in visiting some of the Monterey County wineries for awhile now. But, I became more interested than ever, after being taken to task for expressing what was considered to be an "out-dated" viewpoint regarding the area's red wine quality. (My original opinions had been based on experiences with Monterey County red wines from the decade past. Many of these wines from the '80s had been substantially vegetal in nose and even in taste. Descriptors such as green bean, beet, olive, green pea, cabbage, etc, were more the rule than the exception.) But, things had now changed, I was told.
So, I was interested in plowing into the local reds to see what may have occurred in the past 10 years. Certainly, one of the things that's happened is an increased acceptance of terroir-induced qualities -- such that previously demeaning terms such as "vegetal" have been replaced with more agreeable terms like "herbal." But, more than this, both wine growing AND wine making have improved. And, it appears that reds, at least some of the red varieties, may indeed have a future here. However, there were mixed results.
To this taster, much of the previous vegetal/herbal qualities were indeed gone (or hiding). Unfortunately, it appears that other problems may have cropped up in their place, because I found several wines that had a maderized, oxidized, or otherwise burned-out taste. Further, the mouthfeel was nearly fruitless in several cases, with some wines seemingly nothing more than flavored water. White varietals, on the other hand do quite well hereabouts. And, I found several excellent examples of Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Blanc, Semillon, Marssanne, and even a Viognier.
Very nice visits at Hahn/Smith & Hook and Paraiso Springs. Paraiso is making some really good wines, including a pair of excellent Pinot Blancs. All the visits in the Carmel Valley were very enjoyable, with Bernardus a standout, followed closely by Talbott. I'm mystified as to why the Durney wines didn't perform better. This will certainly need to be a re-visit next time through.