Elaine and Scott Harris
California's Monterey County, halfway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, has some of the most fertile vineyard and agricultural land in the United Sates. Approximately 85 vintners and growers call Monterey Wine Country 'Home', something that has been overlooked for some time. Monterey County’s lifestyle and wines are defined by the influence of the ocean and especially of Monterey Bay.
The Monterey Wine Country Great Escape Weekend is one of the premier food and wine events in the country. Held over a weekend in November, it celebrates Monterey Wine Country’s world-class wines and gastronomic delights crafted by nationally-recognized chefs. More than fifty award-winning wineries showcase their wines, reflecting the quality of the region’s nine distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
Day 1: Pastures of Heaven in the Pastures of Heaven
On this visit we were based out of the very beautiful and quirky town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Day one started with a spiritual look at the region as we visited Castle Rock, the area made famous by John Steinbeck in his book Pastures in Heaven. We could not have thought of a better way to start than than with Evan Oaks, owner of Ag Venture Tours and a Steinbeck expert. As Evan read passages from Pastures in Heaven in a pasture with Castle Rock behind him, you could almost feel Steinbeck’s presence with every word. Rhonda Motil, Executive Director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association joined us at this literary landmark as well. She explained how "The Thermal Rainbow of Monterey" is a visual representation of Monterey Bay’s influence creating microclimates throughout Monterey County. The coolest areas are to the north and closest to the ocean, while the warmest areas are to the south and more inland. She also added that 42 different varietals are planted in the county -- Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do well in the north, while Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and other Rhône varietals are better suited to the warmer parts of the county. Forty thousand planted acres make Monterey County their home and have been farmed sustanablity for quite some time.
Day 1: Vineyard Tours and Barrel Tasting at the Aquarium
On Friday, guests could experience a multitude of winery open houses across the county. This unique opportunity gave the guests a chance to experience the quality of Monterey wines, ranging from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and Rhône varietals.
The first stop was Talbott Vineyards, where we visited with the legendary winemaker Dan Karlsen. As Dan spoke to us about his wines, background and winemaking philosophy, we walked and sampled lovely Talbott Chardonnays and Pinot Noir. We worked up quite an appetite after an ATV ride to a hill overlooking the Hahn Vineyard and the Salinas Valley. We were joined at the top by Philip Woodrow of Hahn and vineyard manager Andy Mitchell. From our vantage point, we enjoyed barrel samples of some lovely Pinot Noir as Andy gave us a geography lesson on the valley and the very nearby San Andreas Fault, explaining its influence on the terrior.
For many, this would have been a pretty full day of activities, but the Great Wine Escape Weekend had one more treat: a barrel tasting at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Many legendary wineries and winemakers were present to give the guests a preview of upcoming vintages. Michael Michaud himself was pouring guests a preview of his very nice Pinot Noirs. Other big names like Ventana, Hahn, Estancia and J.Lohr were also there showing what we can expect in the years to come. The great thing about this whole region is that there are some very fine smaller wineries. McIntyre Vineyards impressed many with their Pinot Noirs. Wrath is known for some pretty high-scoring wines and they did not disappoint anyone on this night with some of the best Pinot Noirs we have tasted. Scheid Vineyards, Manzoni Estate, Lockwood Vineyards and Pierce Ranch Vineyards all showed some very fine and diverse wines from different areas of the county.
Day 2: Wine County Boot Camp & a Carmel-by-the-Sea Walking Tour
The second day of this great event focused on a series of "Wine County Boot Camps" that provided a hands-on experience blending and sweating like a winemaker. The Carmel Valley Boot Camp / Wine 101 at Château Julien Wine Estate featured a wine sensory seminar, barrel education and vineyard walk. The Salinas Valley Boot Camp / Vineyard to Table at Scheid Vineyards shared what it takes to farm and grow grapes in Monterey Wine Country and teamed up with Paraiso Vineyards for a hands-on Wine Blending Seminar.
Having been in the vineyards the previous day we decided to spend some time in the very quaint city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Over breakfast at IL Fornaio we were joined by Kris O’Conner from the Central Coast Vineyard Team who discussed their acclaimed SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification program that certifies sustainable and organic vineyards.
Carmel–by-the-Sea was designed to be a walking town, and who better than to join us for a tour than Monta Potter, Executive Director of the Carmel Chamber of Commerce. Carmel is also home to some lovely tasting rooms as well, and it did not take much prodding to make a stop at the Galante Vineyard tasting room where we were joined by Jack and Dawn Galante. Tasting the Galante 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (only a 580 case production) provided a refreshing break from our walk. A gracious host, Jack tasted us on his Pinot Noir, several very nice Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrah and his very special 2007 Grand Champion blend of Malbec, Petit Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon of which he only produces 378 (6-pack) cases.
Day 2: Taste the County in 175 Sips & Winemaker Dinners
We made our way back to Monterey to join attendees for the main event of the weekend, Taste the County in 175 Sips. Many of the area's hidden gems were on hand right next to legends like Phil Woodward of Graff Family Vineyards and Michael Michaud from his namesake vineyard Michaud. We made a stops at Wrath, Otter Cove, McIntyre, Delicato and Estancia as well. With that much great wine, you know that great food is not far away. Many of the region's best chefs were in the house, including local favorite Todd Fisher, as well as IL Fornio’s Executive Chef Gabriel Rodriguez and Carmel Valley Ranch Executive Chef Tim Wood.
Afterwards, guests had a choice of over a dozen winemaker dinners held all over the county to tantalize their wine and culinary palates. For us, it was a very special invite-only dinner at the Pacific’s Edge Restaurant at The Highlands Inn on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The five course winemaker dinner created by Executive Chef Matt Bolton set the stage for a memorable evening with a wonderful pairing of exceptional food and wine.
Day 3: Culinary Skills
The final day of The Great Wine Escape weekend focused on culinary skills. A culinary showcase and lunch provided intimate cooking demonstrations presented by The Food Network’s Executive Chef, Robert Bleifer, and Jerry Regester, Executive Chef of The Clement Monterey InterContinental. It was wonderful way to end the 14th Annual Great Wine Escape Weekend and send guests home happy and content.