Pour It On
Thursday, August 17, 2006
This would be where my journalistic credibility takes the short bus out of town. No, not that truth-obsessed, syntax-possessed kind of journalistic credibility—the credibility where I tell people that journalism is a life committed to harsh deadlines and stress, an affliction made possible only by a passion—and certainly no walk through wine country.
Because on a recent summer Saturday I was on a short bus out of town, and I did go on a walk through the wine country of Carmel Valley, and it was awfully nice. And I was at work. And that’s as credible as it gets.
But it’s not all Sangiovese and sunshine on Monterey Salinas Transit’s Grapevine Express: There is patience required. But in the end it’s not much more than a palate-cleansing cracker before the bigger servings of education and sheer epicurean indulgence.
Three itinerant wine trail types and I jumped the Express from the Transit Center in downtown Monterey. It was on time (10:32am) and we were comfortably shuttled in its 16-passenger cabin through a pair of stops at the Barnyard to the Mid Valley Center, home of the Baja Cantina. The sky was a flawless, hard-to-criticize sort of sapphire in Monterey, but here the air felt soaked with summer—and ideal for a splash of 11am wine.
The education began there. Former local baseball standout Frank Melicia, a family partner with Parsonage, fielded our many questions smoothly. His tasting room next to the Wagon Wheel breakfast hub (where one of our tasters wisely laid a sturdy foundation for the day ahead) is a partnership with its valley neighbors, fellow small-scale family vineyard Böeté. He poured four Parsonage wines for us ($5), including a standout 2003 Estate Syrah ($36/bottle) that won a vertical face-off with the ‘02 for its spicy, full flavor. The more affordable 2003 Snosrap Cyrano Red Table Wine ($24), with a bouquet up to the name and an easygoing expression on the tongue, also impressed.
A pair of Böeté samples explained why it’s a favorite of Carmel’s Bouchée restaurant—the 2002 Estate Reserve Cabernet Franc ($40) begged for an expertly-cooked red meat.
After we plundered the center’s A&B Gourmet Deli for mild cheese and crackers that made for great bus stop sundries, the shuttle swooped us up promptly at 11:53am, and we were de-boarding at Chateau Julien’s scenic grounds shortly. As we approached the striking faux castle façade set against the scenic green Santa Lucia mountains, a couple we had visited with on the first leg gave us a moment of shuttle foreshadowing: we watched as their cries to the focused driver went unheeded, and he motored down Carmel Valley Road without them. They had to double back and spend more time at CJ.
Which could be worse—the place is gorgeous and caters well to visitors. Tastings are $5 in the main salon or free on the complimentary tour, which leaves at 12:30pm and 2pm. For us, that allowed time to sip a sweet Gewürztraminer ($16) on a sunny garden-surrounded patio.
The tour quickly revealed itself as a must-do. It’s cool in more ways than one to walk into a barrel room the size of a football field and learn about $900 oak barrels, yeast solids, and traces of vanilla from an eager guide, and just as enjoyable to wander through warm, dry vineyards pausing to admire soil qualities and grafting techniques, or to explore new shining technologies used to juice grapes. It’s that much nicer to do it while sampling six different wines en route (it goes Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah and Port). Wine, it turns out, tastes that much better when you can visually trace its history from drip irrigation and dirt to barrels and bottles.
But while the sun felt wonderful in the vineyards with a Sangiovese in hand, it wasn’t as pleasant alongside Carmel Valley Road, where we waited a solid 20 minutes for a sheepishly tardy Grapevine Express driver to show.
In the Village—where eight different venues mark another mandatory stop—we pointed towards Heller, which looked packed. Next-door Talbott, with a modest tasting bar and a shaded patio, offered a less crowded alternative.
Sarah Case Talbott herself poured and proved a sweet and informative study in wine knowledge and family history. In a lively tasting room, she detailed the stories behind the various labels and the standout Chardonnays (the ones we got to, a 2005 Kali Hart, $13.50/bottle, had a wild and light crispness to it, while the 2002 Sleepy Hollow, $40, was a complex character with rich, toasty tones). Part way in, we put the seven-wine tasting ($7, with four Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs) on pause to heed what one MST clerk said after I expressed surprise at the number of stops. “You better eat something,” she giggled.
The next-door Corkscrew Bistro was a shady oasis of plants, rustic props and pebbled grounds, with a dynamite menu of earthy fusion-style lunch fare. Smooth, smoky hummus, a shrimp-stuffed chile relleno, gourmet hamburger and a BLT with basil ailoi took more than half an hour to arrive but disappeared in a flash of rotating plates.
Duly fortified, we returned to Talbott to discover a rising sea of tasters and decided to move toward Bernardus, where the ambiance was notably stiffer. And while the wines were predictably dynamic, the interaction wasn’t. We bravely persevered, however, even coming away with a solid value in a Bernardus 2002 Cornelia Pinot Noir ($14).
From there we passed on the other Village hubs—though the new and enticingly decorated Paradise Wine Bar nearly had us in its tractor beam—and retreated to the shuttle stop at Pilot and Del Fino. The sun played golden games in the scenic hills that surrounded us, and the wait was fleeting. The trip back was also swift, though memories of pastoral backdrops and palate magic have lingered much longer. In so lingering, they indirectly demand that we reinvent this Indian summer field trip of dreams again soon.