Carmel and Monterey (Two Days)

13 Sep

The next major wine area north of Paso is in Monterey County. We’re concentrating on the area near the towns of Carmel and Monterey. Last time we were in this area Carmel and Monterey were booked solid for an Antique Auto Show…if you ever want to stay in this area, reserve way in advance, as there are several shows during the year.

The many excellent wines we’ve be tasting, today included, is an indication of how much great wine there is out there…you just have to find it. When you do, it very likely will be better and lower in price than most of the more famous wines. The key is to find it, as there also is a lot of mediocre (and worse) wines.

Coming from the South there’s the fast way, staying on the 101 and looping, or the slow but shorter way through Carmel Valley. We did the later, a winding and hilly route that often feels like the wilderness. Along the way we “discovered” Sycamore Cellars, not on any lists I’ve seen. It’s pretty new as a winery, having been farmers selling all their grapes to big wineries, like Kendall Jackson and now Hahn….so the Chardonnay from Hahn at Pairings has grapes from Sycamore in it. Sycamore is starting small and trying to work toward larger production and sales, just like other family owned “bootstrap” type of wineries. We love the weathervane on the tasting room. On the way out, the 91 year old grandfather of Matt (the pourer) offered us fresh picked corn on the cob and Matt commented that he tells him to take it easy, but he doesn’t listen – good for him!

Bernarduswas a surprise in a good way. The wines started out good (with good value) and just kept getting better. We tried more than a dozen wines, from crisp Sauvignon Blancs, rich Chardonnays, Smooth and

Philip on the right

luscious Pinot Noirs to the wine that got them started, Marinus, a big red blend that’s a little different every year, to a famous Swan Block Merlot. The winemaker has a background in Burgundy, which explains the restraint in the wines, which combines with delicious California fruit. Phillip poured and explained the wines, bringing out maps to show us the different appellations and how the geography plays into the different wines and varietals. He can really multi-task, and was having fun along the way. Phillip also gave us good recommendations for other wineries to visit and restaurants (see below). In talking about pairings, he mentioned “Forbidden Rice”, with cranberry flavors that goes great with Pinot Noir…you will see this at a Saturday Pairing one of these weeks. We’ll be checking on which Bernardus wines are available in Mass.

Art at Parsonage

Parsonage is a short walk from Bernardus, with some interesting wines, but the thing we liked best was the art. The tasting room is also an art gallery.

Boekenoogen Winesalso is a short walk from Bernardus, and is the other “find of the day”. These wines are well-made…we liked everything in the line-up. We had the good fortune to be in the tasting room with John

John Boekenoogen and Ray

Boekenoogen, the owner who served us the wines and told us the story of Boekenoogen as well as other information about the area and wineries. The fact that they sell out all their wines every year out of the tasting room and to wine club members shows just how good these wines are. This means we can’t get the wines at Pairings, but more power to them. We love to see successes like this. Like many other wineries we visited, they started out selling grapes (1995), then started making small quantities (first label in ’06), which led to the tasting room and success. John told us “the best time to plant grapes is 10 years ago…the second best time is tomorrow”.

Sculpture at Heller

The best thing about the Heller Estate Organic Vineyards was the outdoor sculptures, especially the one in the picture. The wines were OK, but not up to the Bernardus and Boekenoogen or several other wineries in the area.

Philip from Bernardus recommended Mundaka for dinner, which was a hoot. Our waitperson Celeste really got into the pairings of the tapas with wines, and we had a ball….Padron peppers with Cava, Xarello with sardine escabeche, salsa verde and pickled onion rings, two reds (one the Tarima Monastrell at Pairings and the other a Garnacha) with Canelons (truly exceptional chanterelles, toasted hazelnuts and house made ricotta, with pasta like canalonis), along with Bocadillo (slow braised pork slider with balsamic BBQ sauce, chips and pickles), Flores (squash blossom fritters with lemon-verbena caramel) paired with Oloroso sherry and then, because they were out of squash blossoms when we tried to get another order, we had financiers with berries and honey lavender ice cream with more Oloroso Sherry, a truly decadent evening that was a fun and fine meal.

The next day we decided to take a break and go to the Aquarium in Monterey, reputed to be the best in the USA…and we don’t have any argument with that. The museum is amazing…we’d been told that by several people, even before the trip, and loved it. The sea horses and sea dragons are astounding, with little hairs on their backs controlling the motion. One sea dragon looks like a plant, and all of them go through a mating dance that’s sensual and beautiful, and the males give birth! We watched the feeding of the ocean tank, with our own docent describing everything….all kinds of amazing shapes and colors from the sea.

We got our daily exercise walking on a bike/pedestrian path along the water from Monterey to Pacific Grove? and got lunch on a pier….grilled sardines, octopus salad, and roasted pepper bruschetta for $7, refreshing and just what we wanted. Then we drove back out to Carmel Valley road again to go to some wineries we missed yesterday.

Talbotthas excellent chardonnays and several pinot noirs from different


vineyards. Talbott started with ties and clothes, with travel to France and Italy to get cloth, where they got interested in wine making. Gabby gave us a nice presentation with discussion of the wines. Quality wine is key…for instance, the pickers are paid by the hour instead of the volume, so that they do it the way the winemaker wants, culling out bad grapes, etc. It’s going to be hard to pick out the wines from this area to bring into Pairings…it will be a matter of value to price ratio and spots available in the store.

Joullian is another in the Valley that we visited…another surprise…as not only are the wines are good, but they’re distributed in Mass…so another possibility.

We drove back into Carmel to walk around, check out a couple more winery tasting rooms and have dinner.

Galante Vineyards has a series of several varieties of nice wines. Their “kick ass” cab would be a Pairing of the Month, but alas, they’re not available in Mass. While there we heard about a pesto with spinach, which sounds like a good addition….we will have to try to make it. Their BlackJack Cab and Olive Hill Petit Syrah are killers. We commiserated with Conner about the difficulty about shipping (them) and obtaining wine (us).

The Cheese Shop – this is the most famous cheese shop in the area…we stopped in…they’re continuously offering tastings of cheese (a lot like Lori)…they had some interesting presentation techniques, and some bee hive/honey that Lori bought to use back at the store in cheese platters…another possible food addition to the store.

Next door is Wrath, a small boutique winery (less than 500 cases total). Amy presented a series of wines that are truly exceptional. The name “Wrath” comes from a line in the Led Zeppelin song “Going to California”, which you’ll just have to look up. In the middle of the tasting we found out that Wrath is the new name for San Saba, which we’d visited several years ago in the Santa Lucia Highlands, not far from here…but this is a new tasting room in Carmel…very nice.

Christopher’s had been recommended for dinner…and was OK…perhaps a little past its prime. The Cabernet Franc from Boete and the roasted butternut squash ravioli in burnt butter with Sage and roasted walnuts were the highlights…along with an ice cream cone after dinner (for Ray). We strolled down to the beach to watch the sunset, along with many others. It was beautiful…and we got to put our feet in the Pacific for the first time in many years…and had a nice walk along the beach and back to the hotel.


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