On The Vine
New and noteworthy on the county wine scene
Thursday, February 6, 2003
Mention the term wine country to folks across this fair land, even the ones who live around here, and they''ll speak of trips to Napa or Sonoma with adventures up and down the Silverado Trail and Highway 29. They''ll wax reverently about the giants of the California wine industry, men like Robert Mondavi, Jess Jackson, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Chuck Wagner...and why not? These men, and others like them, descended from turn-of-the-last-century visionaries-or just plain fortunates -usually immigrants caught up in the area''s beauty and its reminders of their own lost homelands.
This was grape country, anyone could see that, so they came, they saw, they planted. For decades, the Napans made wine and sold wine, even through the great plague called Prohibition, but it was all plonk. It took half a century before stalwarts such as John Daniel and Andre Tchelistcheff began to bend the will of wine country toward their own vision of profoundly-made wines that could compete with the best in the world.
It took the famous Paris tasting of 1976 to convince more than a handful of experts anywhere that California wines had arrived. From there, progress came a little swifter and along with clever marketing and strategic promotion, combined with improved vineyard and winemaking practices, wine country became synonymous with Napa and, by association, Sonoma.
It takes time for wine settlers to learn the lay of the land. Early arrivals, armed only with dreams, backbone and sometimes knowledge about another place, plant vines, usually types they are familiar with or the industry "experts" advise, then patiently wait the required five to seven years until the grapes are ready to start metamorphosing into elixir. Dentist Frank Joyce, owner/winemaker for Chateau Christina in Carmel Valley, who divides his time between installing caps and punching down caps, says of the dilemma, "It''s a whole experiment from when you plant until it''s in the barrel for two years. Then two years in the bottle-it can be ten years. And if you''re wrong..."
The early Monterey County wine warriors were wrong often. Stiff ocean breezes and chilling fog roll down the length of the Monterey County growing region, trapped between the Santa Lucia mountains and the Gavilans. Each day, like a temperature-crushing tsunami, Pacific Ocean weather swarms over the region.
"When Monterey was planted it was America''s first cold-climate viticulture area," related Doug Meador, who first planted his Ventana Vineyard in 1972. "American knowledge of viticulture was empirically created in warm climate. We all did what the Davis (Cal State) professors told us to do. We didn''t have a bunch of children of winegrowers to staff everything, we had lettuce farmers. Rather than bail out, we had to develop a whole new viticulture."
In the beginning, following old warm climate techniques, the wines were vegetal and unappealing. Over the years, the tenacity of dedicated growers like Meador, Rich Smith of Paraiso Springs and Bill Jekel of Jekel Vineyards, built upon the groundwork laid by the originals: Paul Masson, the Wentes and the Mirassous.
Insiders began to notice. Stealthily, so as not to tarnish the crown of North-region supremacy, the aforementioned giants of California wine began importing Monterey County grapes to blend with their own (a wine may include up to 15 percent of its grapes from someplace other than the region listed on the bottle). The late Chuck Wagner, who raised Napa''s Caymus Vineyards to the pinnacle of California Cabernet, created Mer Soleil, a Monterey County Chardonnay, with which to flaunt his winery''s status. It became one of the most prized Chardonnays anywhere. Robert Mondavi as well as the Gallos have longterm contracts with growers here, and Jess Jackson created his own answer to the highly regarded Mer Soleil with Carmel Road, another great Monterey County Chardonnay. Of course, Chalone had been making great Chardonnays, and Talbott was already established among the cognoscenti.
Monterey became known for the gorgeous passion fruit and pineapple flavors in its Chardonnay. As local growers and vintners further understood the nuances about Monterey''s microclimates and soil conditions, producer after producer started to elevate the quality of their wines. It became nearly impossible to find a bad glass of Monterey County Chardonnay and now, Monterey Chardonnay rules at every price point, in every style.
Monterey''s cool climate also produces outstanding Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. Doug Meador has been supplying Thomas Fogarty of the Santa Cruz Mountains with Gewurztraminer since Fogarty became a standard bearer of the varietal. Also, for about ten to twelve bucks you can purchase any of a half dozen lovely Rieslings made by Monterey producers. Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are solid players, although market demands dictate only minor involvement. Sauvignon Blancs from many Monterey producers have proven to be hot, inexpensive winners.
But what about the big guns-Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir? Here in Monterey County, grape jockeys are quickly discovering which red varietals are best suited to which area.
Frank Joyce, of Chateau Christina, along with Jack Galante of Galante Vineyards, Ridge Watson and the Joullian gang, Bernardus, Georis and a few others are distinguishing Carmel Valley as a uniquely Bordeaux-like area for Cabernet. Pinot Noir is flourishing in many spots throughout the region, as is Syrah. A couple of small, select areas are proving to be hot spots for Merlot and Doug Meador, who experiments with more grape varieties than anyone, suggests that the great Spanish grape Tempranillo, as well as a few Portugese varietals, will flourish here in the years to come.
Chalone routinely made great Pinot Noirs-its ''74 was a classic. Usually, Pinot Noir works where Chardonnay works. Also, some interesting Cabernets surfaced from Smith and Hook up in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Durney Vineyards (Heller Estates) out in Carmel Valley and the old Monterey Peninsula Winery''s Doctor''s Reserve. Careful growers were discovering pockets of land ideally suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec.
Bill Parsons, partner in the new Parsonage Village Vineyard out in Carmel Valley, has planted seven acres, half to Bordeaux varietals and half to Syrah. The winery''s first release, 2000 Meritage and 2000 Syrah are both wonderful examples of the area''s possibilities. "We are about one half mile east of Carmel Valley Village and have a unique little climate sort of by itself, which took me a while to figure out," said Parsons. "I felt like it really heated up out there-another uptick on a hot day-balanced by the fog bank. Nighttime cooling temperatures in the low-mid 40''s shuts the vines down overnight and retains the color and acid with really long hang time." He went on to talk about long chain Carbon compounds and some other imponderables but you get the idea-these guys are finding exactly what works and where.
Syrah, that wonderfully expressive Rhone Valley varietal so important in today''s wine market, has taken to Monterey County in a big way. For the last few years Paraiso Springs has consistently knocked out one of the best Syrahs for the money in all of California. Doug Meador''s Meador Estate Syrah was chosen by Cal State Davis as exemplifying the most varietally correct Syrah in California- quite an honor.
Robert Mondavi said that Monterey County will create Pinot Noirs as good as anywhere in California and that has already begun to prove prophetic. Pinot Noir fruit from Gary Pisoni''s vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands has consistently commanded high prices and great critical acclaim when produced by over a dozen different wineries around the state. His own label, only recently created, burst from the gate as one of the most desirable Pinots anywhere.
We''re about a half century behind Napa in our experience, but we''ve made up a lot of ground. At this time, Monterey County is poised to take its rightful place among the top wine-producing regions in America, and we''ve only just begun to understand what the region is all about.