Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Although Franciscan missionaries in the 17OOs found what is known today as Monterey County to be ideal for viticulture, it was only in the 196Os that the US wine industry seriously entered the area. Urban sprawl increasingly forced wine producers to look further and further south of San Francisco for plantable areas. In 196O, Professor AJ Winkler of University of California at Davis gave the green light. Using his Degree-Day system of measuring climates by heat units, he identified the alluvial terraces west of Salinas River in Monterey County as a promising area for new vineyards.
The time was ripe for expansion. With the rapid growth of a sophisticated middle class, which had a growing interest in high quality cuisine, particularly French cuisine, per capita consumption of wine in the US grew at a brisk pace every year during the 197Os. Projections issued by investment houses encouraged investors. Until 1975, a loophole in tax laws allowed investors to write off investments-at-risk. Those dollars poured into Monterey County during the 196Os and early 197Os. Important investors of the 196Os were Wente, Mirassou and Paul Masson. Bill Jekel (Jekel Vineyards), Jerry Lohr (J. Lohr) and Doug Meador (Ventana Vineyards) entered in 1972.
Planting projects reflected an agribusiness mentality. The San Bernabe vineyard covered a vast 8OOO acres, making it the largest contiguous vineyard in the world. Vineyards were, and still are, referred to as “grapefields”. Vine rows were spaced wide apart to allow for large tractors of the day. The low vine density, under 9OO vines per acre, was expected to yield 12 to 15 tons of grapes per acre. Trellissing systems allowed sprawling canopies that shaded the fruit. Overhead irrigation poured water onto the vines encouraging excess vegetation and fruit. By the 197Os, Monterey County wines developed a reputation for tasting like vegetable soup. The same technologies had worked in Napa and Sonoma County and the Central Valley. Why not Monterey County?
When J. Lohr planted 28O acres of wine grapes in what is now the Arroyo Seco AVA, UC Davis advised him, “You can grow anything here you please.” After planting all the popular varieties, Lohr found out that they ripened slower than expected. The climate was colder than UC Davis assumed. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc did poorly. Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay Noir, Napa Gamay, and Pinot Blanc fared better.
Despite the negative wine reviews and fewer investment dollars, the persistent, like Jerry Lohr, stayed. Stephen Pessagno, of Pessagno Winery, recognizes Bill Jekel, whom he worked for, as “his finest mentor”. Jekel brought in viticultural consultant Richard Smart in 1988 and 1989 to assess how vines could ripen grapes that would make better wine. Jekel, as Robert Mondavi had done, held blind tastings pitting his wines against the famous Bordeaux growths. British wine writers issued what they they believed was an insurmountable challenge, to make a great Cabernet Sauvignon and a great Riesling out of the same vineyard. Jekel’s retort was, “I just did it.”
Reggie Hammond, who manages Ventana Vineyards, gives credit to Doug Meador for giving producers an idea of how to adapt vines to Monterey County conditions. “He taught me everything I know. I worked for him for ten years.” He described to me how Meador adapted vertical shoot positioning – the trellising style – most often used now in the county. Meador tightened up vine spacing and reduced irrigation. Meador has just written a book about how he tackled the challenges he faced. It is titled The New Viticulture and was published in 2OO8 by Ellem Publishing, Inc. (www.ellempublishing.com), ISBN 978-O-6152347-4-8.
The Winkler Degree-Day system failed to correctly assess the climate of Monterey County because it overlooked the effect of high winds. On the underside of vine leaves there are valves called stomata which regulate the water loss from the vine.
Winds at 12 to 15 miles per hour and higher cause these stomata to close, even when temperatures are ideal for photosynthesis. Depending on wind speed and how dry the wind is, photosynthesis slows down and can completely come to a halt thus slowing down maturation of the grapes.
During summer days, warm air rises over the Central Valley and the southern end of Salinas Valley pulling cool moist air in from Monterey Bay. In the morning and evening, cool moist fog moves in gently. By the afternoon however, the hot sun burns off moisture. The once gentle breeze becomes a ferocious wind, moving at speeds as high as 25 miles per hour. The air moves southeast along the Salinas Valley. It slows down at King City, more than halfway down the valley, where it deposits the sand that is the principle topsoil component of the San Bernabe AVA to the south. As a result of this wind, San Bernabe registers as many degree days as Napa Valley, but it needs a month longer to ripen vines. One has to go further south into the San Lucas AVA to predictably ripen Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wind careens in the Salinas Valley like a pinball. Protected areas can be adjacent to windy ones. The eastern side of the valley tends to get stronger winds than the western side. Jekel’s Sanctuary Vineyard, in the Arroyo Seco AVA, is in a depression which the wind misses. It is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot while the vineyards around it are best suited for maturing Chardonnay. The Arroyo Seco AVA comprises a wing of land that moves west up a narrow valley. This area too gets good wind protection. Warmer climate varieties do well there. The San Antonio Valley AVA and Cachagua Valley (a valley enclosed by hills within the Carmel Valley AVA) are two other areas that are insulated from these winds.
Proximity to the cool ocean breezes reduces diurnal temperature variation. The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, which lies close to Monterey Bay, has a 2O° fahrenheit diurnal variation on average while inland valleys, such as Hames Valley and San Antonio, log in variations twice as great. Cool climate-loving Pinot Noir finds its ideal home in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The preservation of heat-sensitive aromatic precursors in white grapeskins is essential for quality white wine. This makes the predictably cool Santa Lucia Highlands and the eastern side of the Arroyo Seco perfect for white varieties, particularly Chardonnay, which accounts for 4O% of Monterey County vine acreage. Cabernet Sauvignon and most other red varieties need more daytime heat (and less wind exposure) to ripen, yet also benefit from cold evening temperatures which preserve grape acidity. San Antonio, San Lucas, Hames Valley, and Cachagua Valley are fine spots for these red varieties.
Usually higher elevations translate into cooler temperatures. Chalone at 2OOO feet looks down onto the Salinas Valley. The fog usually reaches 15OO feet, well below Chalone’s vineyards. The brilliant, all day sunshine, which baths the grapes at Chalone and nearby Michaud, makes this area ripen its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay well before most of the vineyards on the Salinas Valley floor below. Here and at Monterey County’s southernmost AVA, Hames Valley, sunburn of the grapes can be a problem. Attention to row direction and trellising techniques which shade the grapes are essential in such areas.
In my recent trip to Monterey County, wine producers rarely mentioned vineyard exposition as a factor. However, a look at a topographic map of France shows that that country’s most famous vineyards tend to face east not west. Eastern exposure takes advantage of the light of the morning sun, which hits the leaves when they are at lower temperatures. Acids and aromatic precursors are better preserved. Soil temperature rises fast because of the high angle of incidence of the morning rays against the slopes. The nearly continuous southeast exposure of the Santa Lucia Highlands endows this AVA, known by the acronym SLH, with perfect exposition. When I look at the SLH AVA from Highway 1O1, I can’t help but remember the most famous wine slope of all, the Cote de Nuits in France’s Burgundy.
The one condition in Monterey County that is remarkably consistent from end to end is the free-draining capacity of the soils. In the Salinas Valley, the soils are deep sedimentary deposits of loam, sand and silts. The Santa Lucia Highlands soils are noted for their high percentage of loam in the topsoil. Near river beds such as at Arroyo Seco, large round stones predominate. Locals call them “Greenfield potatoes” after a local town known for its spuds. Shale and sandstone are commonly found in San Antonio. The Chalone AVA has a distinctive soil, a mix of limestone and manganese-laced granitic sand. Patches of clay exist within the larger Monterey AVA. DeTierra Vineyard, nestled in a small canyon carved into the Santa Lucia range, is one of the sites that I visited that was clayey. Merlot does best in clay. Sure enough, that is what is planted at DeTierra.
During the growing season, rain is a rarity everywhere in Monterey County. About 12 inches fall during the winter. The dry growing season makes irrigation a necessity nearly everywhere. The west side of Salinas Valley has excellent underground water reserves, while the eastern side has very little. Chalone Vineyards on the eastern side pipes water up the Gavilan mountain range from the valley below. It sells this water to the handful of growers working in the Chalone AVA.
During the 197Os and 198Os, the relationship between farmers and wineries was described to me as being adversarial. They came from different cultures and found themselves at opposite sides of the bargaining table when it came to selling and buying grapes. Today some of the best and most enthusiastic wine producers come from the ranks of agribusiness. Monterey County is the US’s most important cool climate vegetable area. It is called America’s Salad Bowl. Gary Franscioni, known for his meticulous farming, and Gary Pisoni, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the world of wine, both come from local family grower dynasties. Both families have their own vineyard projects and both families make wine, Franscioni under the name Roar Wines and Pisoni under Pisoni Vineyards and Winery and Lucia Vineyards. Many of the best local and California wineries buy grapes from these two families. Both families make exceptional wines under their own brands. The two Garys have even joined together in a joint project, Garys’ Vineyard. This sheltered vineyard on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands yields highly sought after grapes.
Seventy percent of Monterey grape juice quietly leaves Monterey County in tanker trucks to be used by wineries in other areas of California. What Monterey County seems to lack is a thriving winery community that matches its viticultural scale and that publically wins the credit for the wonderful fruit it produces. While Monterey and Sonoma County have roughly the same vineyard acreage (about 45,OOO acres), Sonoma County has over 2OO bonded wineries, while Monterey is only home to 3O. Unfortunately, there has been increasingly vocal resistance to winery development. Most of this resistance has come from residents of Monterey County not involved in agriculture or wine production. Besides winery structures, tasting rooms have been blocked. Tasting rooms (cellar doors) would help small boutique wineries establish local clientele and allow the margins that would help them sustain loan repayments. A visible, thriving winery community would help stem the tide caused by tankers going north, usually to Napa and Sonoma counties. On the positive side, the Santa Lucia Highlands has made great strides to establish itself as a premier wine producing area. I visited a meeting of its winery and grower association, The Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands (santaluciahighlands.com), which has done an impressive job of defining itself and getting out its message. Yet Monterey County hardly competes as a wine tourist destination with the likes of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. With most of its juice leaving the county and without a face to greet its clientele, Monterey County is a great viticultural area in search of an image.
In June, 2OO9, I visited Monterey County to research this article. I tasted many wines. These caught my attention.
Paraiso Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO7
DFV Irony, Pinot Noir, Monterey County, 2OO6 (mostly San Bernabe fruit)
Hahn Chardonnay, SLH Estates, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO6
DeTierra Tondre Grapefield, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO5
DeTierra Tondre Grapefield, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO6
DeTierra Silacci, Pinot Noir, Monterey AVA, 2OO5
DeTierra Silacci, Pinot Noir, Monterey AVA, 2OO6
Cima Collina Chula Vina, Chardonnay, Monterey AVA, 2OO7
Cima Collina Hilltop Ranch, Pinot Noir, Monterey AVA, 2OO5
Michaud Pinot Noir,Chalone AVA, 2OO4
Galante Rancho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmel Valley AVA, 2OO6
Galante Red Rose Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmel Valley AVA, 2OO7
Galante Merlot, Carmel Valley AVA, 2OO7
J Lohr October Night, Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO6
J Lohr Arroyo Vista, Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO7
Talbott Sleepy Hollow, Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO5
Talbott Diamond T, Chardonnay, Monterey County, 2OO5
Talbott Sleepy Hollow, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO6
Talbott Case, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO5
Ventana Grenache, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO7
Ventana Rubystone, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO7 (6O% Grenache, 4O% Syrah)
Bernardus Ingrid’s Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Carmel Valley AVA, 2OO5
Bernardus Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO5
Carmel Road Clark Ranch, “Placentia”, Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO7
Carmel Road Clark Ranch, Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO7
Jekel Merlot, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO6 (Sanctuary Vineyard)
Jekel Cabernet Sauvignon, Arroyo Seco AVA, 2OO6 (Sanctuary Vineyard)
Morgan Double L Vineyard, Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO7
Morgan Garys’ Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO6
Morgan Double L Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Pinot Noir, 2OO7
Pessagno Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO7
Pessagno Intrinity, Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, 2OO6
Line Shack Petite Sirah, San Antonio Valley AVA, 2OO7
Chalone Estate Chardonnay, Chalone AVA, 2OO7
Chalone Estate Pinot Noir, Chalone AVA, 2OO7