Carmel Road: A Stellar Example Of Monterey Winemaking

Jess Stonestreet Jackson was a winemaker, entrepreneur, and American wine industry pioneer whose desire to produce superb cold-climate wines led him to Monterey in the 1990s. Carmel Road is the realization of his vision, and it's a testament to his perseverance. His choice of the Salinas River Valley and Arroyo Seco, which is easily reached from both Los Angeles and San Francisco, seems prescient now, but at the time, many winemakers and oenologists believed the Monterey region's cold climate wasn't suited for quality wine production.

Undeterred, Jackson, along with other regional pioneers, instinctively knew that Carmel Road's vineyards in Monterey had the potential to produce superb wine. This picturesque winery's geology, climate, and soil seemed custom made to create cool-climate, Burgundian-style offerings using that famed French region's two most iconic grapes. From the beginning, Carmel Road's raison d'être was to produce world-class pinot noir and chardonnay.

The Origins of an Obsession

Jess's love of these grapes goes back much further than the 1990s. His story as a winemaker began

in 1974 when he and his first wife, Jane Kendall Wadlow Jackson, purchased 80 acres of pear and walnut orchards in Lakeport, California, and replanted the entire farm with vineyards. After about eight years, they decided to make wine, and they founded Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. In 1982, they bottled their first vintage of wine under the Kendall-Jackson name, and from the beginning, the chardonnay was a hit with consumers.

Jess Jackson's work ethic and dedication to quality wine paid off, and the following year, 1983, the family's chardonnay won the first double platinum award ever presented by the American Wine Competition. Jess Jackson wrote in his biographical notes that "When my family and I founded Kendall-Jackson in 1982, we simply wanted to create extraordinary wine from California's best vineyards" — and they did.

Over the next 20 years, the name Kendall-Jackson became synonymous with California chardonnay, and as the eponymous estate's reputation grew, so did its production, making Jess Jackson one of the world's most successful winery owners.

A Visionary Leader

When Jess Jackson purchased that farm back in 1974, his goal was to build a legacy for his family that could be handed down for generations. As he once said: "From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. It is a distinction that is rapidly becoming a rarity in our industry. Our family culture is built on the time-honored principles of hard work, integrity, and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land."

Kendall-Jackson wines proved to be a financial juggernaut that not only made Jess Jackson a wealthy man, but also gave him the financial clout he needed to build a global empire of more than 35 premium wine estates. With the creation of Jackson Family Wines, he wisely used his considerable profits to make fortuitous purchases of wineries, farmland, and vineyard land across California, the United States, France, Italy, Australia, Chile, and South Africa.

Carmel Road Estate

Most good winemakers, including Jess Jackson, believe that great wines are made in the vineyards. His primary goal was to make balanced, terroir-driven wines that speak of place — which their five wines (chardonnay, riesling, Barrymore pinot grigio, pinot noir, and pinot noir Panorama Vineyard — read tasting notes on each wine here eloquently do. In fact, this estate's terroir offers Kris Kato, Carmel Road's winemaker, an embarrassment of riches from which to produce stellar examples of the now-recognizable Monterey style of wine.

Most of Carmel Road's wine is produced from grapes grown on the lower slopes of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucia Mountains, about 300 to 500 feet above the valley, primarily in the Panorama and Clark Ranch Vineyards in Arroyo Seco and the Rincon and Hacienda Vineyard plots nestled in the eastern and western foothills of the Gabilan Mountains and Monterey's Salinas Valley.

The Terroir

Carmel Road's vineyards are planted along the benchlands and foothills, which offer just the right slope and aspect to maximize the grapes' exposure to long days of sun. This positioning helps ameliorate the effects of the cold, thick, moisture-laden fogs that roll in overnight and keeps temperatures from dipping too low when the cold ocean air blows inland from Monterey Bay.

As the sun rises each morning, the fog slowly begins to burn off, and what remains is pushed out of the valley by the ever-present wind. The wind acts as a natural blow-dryer that helps prevent the growth of fungal spores, which thrive in cool, wet climates. Although there are long hours of sunshine, the temperatures stay cool enough to produce the racy acidity that is characteristic of world-class pinot noir, chardonnay, and riesling. By minimizing sugar production and ensuring ripeness and maturity, Kato knows the grapes' acidity levels will be optimal and in balance with the ripe fruit.

Beating the Odds

The Salinas Valley is exposed to ocean fog at night and unsheltered from wind and maritime influences, but Jess Jackson knew that its sunshine-filled days were just the antidote the grapes needed to produce ripe, perfectly matured fruit in this cool-climate region.

Carmel Road's first vintage was released in 1999, and Jackson's steadfast resolve proved it was possible to produce premium, sustainable, terroir-driven wines despite the cold, wind, and fog. Not only did his wines show merit, other top producers' wines proved the Monterey region's wines could rival Napa and Sonoma for top billing. Now, more than 20 years later, Monterey, especially the subregions in and around Salinas Valley, Arroyo Seco, and Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH), are regarded as California's premium cool-climate wine regions.

Panorama Vineyard

The most prestigious vineyard at Carmel Road is the 400-plus-acre Panorama Vineyard in Arroyo Seco AVA. Panorama's terroir is legendary for its ability to make great wine. It is planted almost entirely with pinot noir — with just a few acres devoted to riesling — and, like all of Carmel Road's vineyards, is SIP certified organic. Laid out in vistas that seem to touch the tips of distant lavender-hued mountains and dun-colored horizons, Panorama's tight braids of emerald vines are deceptively uniform.

But upon closer inspection, this stunning, 415-acre vineyard block, the "largest single, high-density planting of pinot noir in America," reveals a multitude of topographic variations. Like a Maxfield Parrish landscape, varying shades of jade, dun, violet, cocoa, and blue undulate up and down the rows of vines like rolling ocean waves, shifting and swaying as they go. With its finely grained, loamy, well-drained soil, arid conditions, densely planted rows, east-west facing aspect, and drying winds, it's easy to see why pinot noir does so well here. Like great artists, great wine develops complexity, depth, and flavor when it must struggle, and Panorama's grapes develop into a rich wine that has character and exhibits layers of complexity.

Jess Jackson strived to live and work by a creed founded on hard work and a zeal for excellence. As he put it: "We grow grapes on our own 15,000 acres of California coastal vineyards. We take the no-compromise, high road approach to quality required to grow our world-class grapes and produce acclaimed award-winning wines." I think you will find his wines have achieved his goals.

Summer Whitford is the D.C. City Guide Editor at The Daily Meal and the DC Wine Examiner. You can follow her on Twitter @FoodandWineDiva.