The River Road Wine Trail is a must-do for local grape lovers.

Photo caption: The River Road Wine Trail is a must-do for local grape lovers.

Ilove Monterey County wine. If the names Rosella, Tondré and Sleepy Hollow make you thirsty, you’re with me. But who among us has actually been to the hallowed grounds where the fruits of our desire are cultivated? Can you really be an Elvis fan if you’ve never been to Graceland?

I didn’t think so. In order to remedy this undeniable oversight in my own wine-drinking résumé, a fellow enthusiast and I spent a leisurely Sunday driving along River Road in search of the luscious grapefields of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Our diligence was rewarded with an even better discovery– the River Road Wine Trail.

In addition to the vineyards, River Road is home to several wineries within practical proximity for a delightful day of wine tasting in the Salinas Valley sunshine. Many are small, family-run operations sharing the very soil where their grapes are grown, and there’s nothing more satisfying than sipping Pinot Noir while gazing across rows of vines flush with future vintages.

So after filling the tank with gas and the cooler with hydration and picnic items, we drove out Highway 68 to the River Road exit and headed south along a true backcountry road that winds through the lush scenery and vast agriculture fields of Steinbeck Country.

Our wine tasting experience began at the Marilyn Remark Winery (645 River Road; 11am-5pm Sat-Sun), where Marilyn and her friendly golden retrievers welcomed us to sample several Rhône varietals among the barrels of this boutique winery that produces only 2,000 cases a year. The Grenache and Viognier are standouts among other fine selections that include Roussanne, Marsanne and Petite Sirah.

Three miles farther, River Road (G17) takes a turn to the right, but GPS-less travelers should fear not, as the turn is marked by the first of many signposts (that read Monterey County Wine Trail), each containing directional markers and mileages to guide tasters along the route.

Seven miles after the turn, the Pessagno Winery (1645 River Road; 11am-5pm Fri-Sun) nestles in among wide swaths of produce fields. In the tasting room, Fran waits behind a long bar, ready to pour delicious wines from three tasting menus, including an all Pinot Noir tasting that delivers the best from their Monterey and San Benito County vineyards as well as their flagship Four Boys estate Pinot. Other highlights include the Intrinity Chardonnay and a Griva Vineyard late harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

At the next signpost, we continued straight, over the river and into Gonzales, to the Blackstone Winery (850 S. Alta St., 11am-4pm daily). In striking contrast to our first two stops, the immense, industrial grounds of this major producer include a large tasting room, gift shop and art gallery. Since many Blackstone wines are readily available in stores, we focused on the tasting room-only offerings that compose roughly half of the whopping 27 wines on the menu.

Returning to the signpost at River Road, we immediately found the Manzoni Estate Vineyard (30981 River Road; 11am-5pm Sat-Sun), owned and operated by third-generation farmers and brothers Mark and Mike Manzoni, whose successful growing heritage now includes 10 acres of grapes for their estate wines. With the help of winemaker Steve Pessagno, the Manzonis produce 2,200 cases of well- balanced Chardonnay, Pinot and Syrah that are garnering medals at major wine competitions. Stop in to see why quality wines start with superior growers.

Continuing on, we spotted the next signpost and turned right onto Foothill Road, leading us to San Saba Estate’s beautiful tasting room with large windows overlooking acres of vines (35801 Foothill Road; 11am-5pm daily). Knowledgeable, outgoing Hospitality Manager Brian Overhauser led us through the winery’s estate-grown selections, including a Double Gold Sauvignon Blanc and a refreshingly unoaked Chardonnay under San Saba’s second label, the reasonably priced Bocage.

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Three miles later, the long, rose-lined driveway of Hahn Estates (37700 Foothill Road; 11am-4pm Mon-Fri and 11am-5pm Sat-Sun) leads up the hill to a grand tasting room with panoramic views of the valley. Hahn encompasses over 1,200 acres and produces 450,000 cases of estate-grown wine under three labels: Hahn, Smith & Hook and Cycles Gladiator. Enjoy the Meritage, Malbec and Riesling in addition to the usual SLH varietals. With so many great value wines, a relaxed atmosphere and a spacious outdoor patio, this may be the ideal picnic spot.

Palates growing fuzzy, we next arrived at Paraiso Vineyards, the Santa Lucia Highlands’ founding vineyard (37500 Foothill Road; 11am-4pm Mon-Fri and 11am-5pm Sat-Sun) Not surprisingly, the “Big Three” of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah are featured, and none of the estate wines from this prized location disappoint. Chances are, you’ll depart with a bottle or two of their single vineyard series like the delicious West Terrace Pinot Noir.

Our last stop was the newly opened tasting room of Ventana Vineyards (38740 Los Coches Road, 11am-5pm Sat-Sun). Not yet signposted, take Paraiso Springs Road, turn right onto Arroyo Seco Road, and then left on Los Coches to find it. The slight detour is worth the effort to sample an interesting variety of wines in their rustic tasting room, including Tempranillo, Gewürztraminer and the “Due Amici” Super Tuscan.

There are more wineries on the trail, such as Scheid and the far-flung Chalone, but with happy smiles and slightly purple teeth, we decided that enough was enough. Although we could have backtracked to 68 or popped out to the 101 in Soledad, we chose to continue through the vineyards of Arroyo Seco, eventually winding down the long but stunning Carmel Valley Road toward home, thanking our designated driver all the way.

And now that we’ve tasted some of these fantastic wines– at the source– you can bet we’ll return to the River Road Wine Trail until we’ve tried them all. See you there.

For more about the River Road Wine Trail, visit www.riverroadwinetrail.com

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