The wine capital of the county quietly plays home to one of Earth’s biggest vino producers.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
A small wooden billboard on sleepy Alta Street announces little Gonzales and its four-digit population is the wine capital of mighty Monterey County.
Yes, you’d be a corkhead to believe everything you read on South County billboards – sorry Soledad, a giant prison and a blank city profile page on the official website don’t qualify as “happening” – but in this case the sign is accurate, for big reasons.
And I’m not even talking about the big hair, big smiles and big laughs on big-personality Gary Pisoni as he sips big-bodied Pinot Noir in Gonzales’ storied Santa Lucia Highlands, in an appellation that plays home to a big range of superb family vineyards like Boekenoogen and Talbott. I’m talking big like towering wine vats with enough volume to hold four truckloads of grapes – that’s 100 tons, or about 30,000 gallons, enough for each Gonzo resident to have nearly four gallons just from one vat alone (and there are a lot more vats where that came from). Big like semi-truck loads of grapes coming into one Gonzo plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 weeks straight during harvest. Big like a barrel “room” so spacious you can’t see the other end – but you can see how it would be a great place to stage, oh, a massive roller-derby match.
The roller derby is an actual idea from Monterey Bay Derby Dames referee Erik Martella, who’s also executive VP of Central Coast Wineries at Gonzales’ Constellation Brands, one of the three largest wine producers on the planet (the other two are Gallo and Treasury). Gallo does more volume but far less “premium” wines, which are defined as $5 and up – “That’s why we say we’re the world’s leading premium wine company in the world,” says spokesperson Jennifer Hodges.
Constellation enjoys other prolific winemaking hubs, but few on scale with the massive MoCo plant, where conveyors, silos and even more vats send your neck and your awe arching up.
Yet few locals realize they’re even there, tucked right off 101 South.
That’s partly by design, since Constellation wants the focus trained on their 100-some labels, which include Estancia, Blackstone, Robert Mondavi Private Selection, Black Box and Wild Horse. But that low-pro approach is changing for a few big reasons, like the big arsenal of solar panels they’re snipping the ribbon on this Friday, Nov. 9.
The panels are part of a Gonzales Grows Green initiative and a public-private partnership with Chevron and the city itself. Constellation ceded land, which will help generate juice for the city-owned streetlights and a water pumping station, creating a more sustainable public utility model that can be replicated elsewhere. Savings are projected to pour past $4 million.
Still, locals want to see more, as Martella has heard directly. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re such a big company. Why are you not doing more for the community?’” he says. But he believes people simply don’t know the family-owned Constellation name, and are unfamiliar with loyal support lent to CSU Monterey Bay, Monterey Jazz Festival and Gonzales High, among others.
Of course, when it comes to community love, more would be good. That’s not always the case with wine production – I’d rather be drinking small-plot, hand-tended Pisoni than big-batch Blackstone any day that ends in “y.” But most days I can’t afford a $70 Pinot.
“Maybe our wines aren’t the ones you take to Thanksgiving,” Martella says, “but they are great for a night at home.”
I think the drinkable Black Box with Monterey County Chard is one of the better values around at $20 for the equivalent of four bottles, and Rex Goliath is a deal for $6. And it’s Pisoni himself, after all, who says his favorite wine is the one that’s in his glass.
•Monday means L’ Avventura in Cucina at il vecchio (324-4282) – kitchen’s choice of five countryside Italian courses like antipasti, soups, fish, salads and meats for just $20. It sounded like a superb value on paper; on the plate it’s great too – we grazed on arugula-spinach salads, fresh sea bass-broth calamari risotto, rustic beef stew and just-caught rock cod paired with another value, an Italian Prosecco that goes for $20 too. Tuesday nights 5-6:30pm present similarly super values too, with family nights delivering four courses for $15 a head.
• Monterey County Vintners and Growers’ (375-9400) Party in the Hangar ($60 in advance; $95 VIP) hits Monterey Bay Aviation 1-4pm Saturday, Nov. 10, with 40 wineries, 16 restaurants and food trucks.
•Load up a casserole dish with organic Serendipity Farms heirlooms, add peeled cloves of garlic, drizzle liberally with olive oil and roast about 45 minutes, let cool, blend and deploy from there – even as a soup because it’s so damn creamy good, with zero butter. Get a motherlode of heirloom and Early Girl tomatoes 10am-3pm Saturday, Nov. 10, at Serendipity (726-9432) with the “U-pick” bargain of $1.50 a pound (and 30 percent off 30+). Saucy.
• The pork shank terrine with Dungeness crab and Umbrian lentils at Big Sur Food & Wine by Jerry Regester bodes well for the Jordan wine dinner ($95) Friday, Nov. 9, at C Restaurant on Cannery Row (375-4800) – with five reserve wines and four courses – as does the superb brunch on the deck Sunday starring croissant marscapone-stuffed French toast ($13) and sustainable rock shrimp-crab huevos rancheros ($15.75).
• Dory Ford has installed Chef Tom Stutzmen as the pointman at Point Pinos Grill (648-5774), where an ambitious slate of beer and wine dinners continues Friday, Nov. 16, with a four-chef, five-course Pinot Noir dinner ($75) featuring five proud Pinot makers and treats like braised wild boar croquettes, cranberry-ginger-laquered quail and anise – and fennel-spiced T-bone.
• “His lips drink water,” e.e. cummings wrote, “but his heart drinks wine.”