Liquidity Love Fest
Varietals are the spice of life at the Monterey Wine Fest.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
The word “epic” gets overused and abused. But the Monterey Bay Aquarium is an epic place to taste grape juice.
Shapely concrete spaces calm and inspire. Every tasting table enjoys a backdrop of monkey-faced eels or seven-gill sharks. Aquatic conversation pieces ensure dialogue flows with moon-jelly-esque effortlessness.
It goes beyond that, though, according Monterey County Conventions and Visitors Bureau’s Celeste White, which helps make June 10-12’s Monterey Wine Festival remarkable.
“One thing that separates MWF from the festivals in other regions is that the first night has the backdrop of the National Marine Sanctuary,” she says. “The bay is the reason for the climate that creates the great wines we have here, in places like the Santa Lucia Highlands.”
The festival’s Thursday gala, Friday new release party and Saturday chowder cook-off gather 80-plus award-winning wineries from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma and Napa counties, Oregon, Washington and as far off as Australia. It will be Monterey County, however, that reps most mightily.
That is only appropriate when the host county produces nearly the most grapes of any in the country (Some 175 unique vineyards tend to 40,000 acres of grapes). Monterey County harvested $250 million in grapes a year ago – fruit which ultimately earns millions more as it ferments – and the most Chardonnay anywhere, which bodes well for pairings with chowder cook-off creations by chefs from standout spots like Flaherty’s Fishhouse and Abalonetti Seafood Trattoria. Its borders hold nine different American Viticultural Areas – with family-owned San Bernabe big enough to be one on its own – and enough microclimates to create a wonderful thing industry insiders call a “thermal rainbow,” a range of temperature-driven conditions that allow a striking diversity of varietals to flourish.
Monterey County Vintner and Growers Association Executive Director Rhonda Motil likes to remind people of that as she travels from Los Angeles to New York, selling buyers, trade professionals and wine writers on Monterey County’s best. “Our wines offer something new, something different,” she says. “And we have lots of varietals. We have 42.” (Word arrived last week that MCVGA will get a boost in its efforts as one of only 13 California recipients of the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant for agricultural producers and cooperatives via resources made available through the 2008 Farm Bill. The $276,084 grant will impact promotional campaigns between June 2010 and January 2013.)
That rainbow means a fog-friendly Chardonnay from successful Sheid Vineyards can coexist not far from a heat-hungry Syrah from Parsonage. (Both wineries will pour at MWF; Sheid’s still-new tasting room stands just across Cannery Row from the Aquarium.)
It also allows the fickle Pinot grape to find lots more space to flourish than in most regions, empowering the work of MWF-attending wineries like De Tierra (“They say Cabernet is the king of wines,” winemaker David Coventry says, “but Pinot is the wine of kings”) and Lockwood (whose bargain $19 bottle just scored an 87 from Wine Spectator).
As the festival’s new ownership enters its sophomore season, there are several indicators that a once-shaky ship has be steadied, including the gala backdrop, the wines present and the chowder buzz. That is good news for a young but proud – and increasingly popular – wine-growing region, and a Monterey Wine Festival that, as the oldest continuously running festival of its kind in the United States, deserves a 2010 edition as epic as its oceanside setting.