Monterey Wine Country offers a plethora of events aimed at the wine enthusiast. The Great Wine Escape Weekend takes place the second weekend of November, now in its 12th year. Featuring over 50 Monterey County wineries, the entire weekend includes wine and food integration seminars, guided wine tours, silent auction, and special winemaker dinners by world renowned chefs. The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association plans numerous events throughout the year, making Monterey one of the premier venues for California’s notably favorite vacationing activity, wine hopping.

The renowned Monterey fog wraps Cannery Row in a silky sheet of white. Walking along the oceanside streets, breathing in the fresh salted air, it is easy to get caught up in the aura of the place. There’s history in the atmosphere and the buildings, a mystifying sense of a romantic past still resonating along this famous stretch of road. That mystic feeling has captured the imagination of many. Over the last century, numerous cultures and traditions have mingled together here, with California Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese all sharing a piece of the area’s fertile valleys. The towering figure of John Steinbach called Monterey County home, too, making the area larger than life with his words and enchanting stories that captured the spirit of the farmers and travelers who left their footsteps behind in the rich soil. There is a very unique charm about Monterey, with a quixotic mixture of history, geography, and great personalities.

At The Wineries
Monterey County wineries share a similar charming quality. I make this revelation early on my first morning touring the area. The sky is a mix of clouds and sun, with a crisp, refreshing breeze swirling through the air. Kristin Horton of Chateau Julien has been kind enough to host a tasting for her winery at her childhood home. It’s a picturesque scene, with vines growing on the gently sloping hill in the backyard. Her father even has his own winemaking facility, where barrels are aging his latest homemade creation. Bob Brower, Chateau Julien’s owner, is there to present his wines for everyone.

Chateau Julien is located near the coast within the Monterey A.V.A. Due to their proximity to the Pacific Ocean, nighttime temperatures usually range between 50-55 degrees. The days are mild, with morning fog and cool early evening breezes balancing out any late afternoon heat. These moderate temperatures allow the fruit to mature nicely and reach maximum varietal potential. Winemaker Bill Anderson, who has been with Bob since 1982, has had plenty of time to hone his craft as well as his imagination. As Bob speaks about the winery itís creative philosophy is clear. They are always trying to re-imagine their wine while always keeping quality in the highest esteem. Their Black Nova,(a) an unusual blend of Zinfandel and Syrah, is the latest example of what an ideal climate and their forward thinking can produce.

My next stop is in the Santa Lucia Highlands, high above the fertile Salinas River Valley where miles and miles of produce are grown year after year. The view looking out over the field below, the way the greens, browns, and yellows of the terrain blend together, can remind anyone of just how beautiful the simplicity of nature can be. Fruit grown at this elevated located can enjoy the full effect of warm morning sun before maritime breezes cool the vineyards in the afternoon. Cool weather loving varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir flourish in this area, with fog keeping morning temperatures in the high 40’s to low 50ís, soils that drain exceptionally well, and winds off the Pacific ensuring afternoons are not much warmer than the mid-70’s.

It is from this perch that we are introduced to Mark Manzoni and Steve Pessagno. Respectively, they head the Manzoni and Pessagno wineries, but Steve is the winemaker for both. He shares his winemaking methods with a half-smile, offering how methodically he tastes each barrel in order to narrow down which he will select for his final blend. All that tasting is quite time-consuming, but he manages, somehow. The dedication to his craft is clear. He is constant in his pursuit of lofty goals, striving to think outside the box. His Intrinity Chardonnay (b) is a perfect example of his imagination ñ and his sonís. At only seven, Steveís third son Robert gave impetus to the term, saying that it was like going on forever, trying reach a goal but never quite being able to reach it. The Intrinity Chardonnay will always represent the highest point of winemaking for Steve, employing unusual Burgundian techniques like sur lee aging, weekly stirring, and on fining. His approach earned the 2005 vintage numerous awards and high scores.

Monterey Wineries at Cannery Row

The next morning dawned a bright blue sky with wispy gray clouds dotting the horizon. A ten minute walk down Cannery Row brought me to the Fishhopper restaurant, where brunch and more Monterey County wines awaited. Their patio dining sits right on the ocean, putting the gentle white crests of waves seemingly in armís reach. The soft light brown of the sandy surrounding beaches traces the outline of the view. Fresh figs, mango, rich blue cheese, strawberries and cream, and an assortment of other delicacies are laid out to pair with local wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Head chief, Mo Tabib, deserves high praise for his work. The wines all had a strong sense of place, with unique elements of the A.V.Aís terroir showing through in bold notes of earth and minerals.

A short walk around the corner and I find the InterContinental Hotel, site of the weekendís Grand Finale Tasting. Forty Monterey wineries are pouring, so I could not visit them all, but everyone was warm and more than willing to chat about their wines. Pinot Noirs were the highlights of the afternoon, with Silver Mountain’s 2007 Rose of Pinot Noir, Kendal-Jacksonís 2006 Grand Reserve, Ironyís 2005, and Poppy’s 2007 standing out among those I tasted. Parsonage Estate’s entire offering of wines were also quite noteworthy. The Vineyard’s location in the Carmel Valley is ideal for growing Broadax varietals with cooling ocean breezes, chalky-limestone soils, and above average rainfall for the region. In particular, their 2006 Snosrap Cyrano Red, an imaginative blend of Merlot and Syrah, was an unexpected gem.

With such natural beauty, an ever present sense of history, and some great wines to boot, Monterey County has plenty to offer. The wide variety of micro-climates and soils allow for great growing versatility as well as quality. There are five different tasting rooms located right along Cannery Row, so it is easy to discover the full array of what the region has to contribute to the world of wine. The unique and unusual blends I tried over the weekend are a testament to the great minds at work throughout the county. There are hidden gems awaiting those who search them out. The tasting and the journey are sure to fulfill anyoneís sense of reverie.

Mark your calendar:

February 21, 2009
Explore the world….in your own neighborhood vineyard. Over thirty first-class Monterey County wines will be showcased as you take-off for an exciting evening of wine tasting, international cuisine, live music from Grammy winner Louie Ortega, dancing, and an array of luxury packages that will be auctioned during an unforgettable evening.

November 13-15, 2009
Celebrate the splendor of harvest at Monterey Wine Countryís 11th Annual Great Wine Escape Weekend. The Great Wine Escape features Monterey Countyís world-class wines and gastronomic delights. Guests won’t want to miss the 50 award-winning Monterey brands, with offerings that reflect the diversity of the regionís distinct AVAs.

The Winemakersí Celebration Saturday, August 8, 2009

The 17th Annual Winemakersí Celebration will be held Saturday August 8,2009 from 12-4pm at the Custom House Plaza in downtown Monterey. The Winemakersí Celebration incorporates wine tasting with education, food, music, and fun. In addition to Monterey County wineries pouring their special wines for the day, unique educational wine displays and seminars on blending techniques and organic wine growing will offer attendees an opportunity to explore the process of creating fine wines. An extraordinary silent auction will accompany the dayís festivities, and the areaís finest restaurants will tempt participants with their latest specialties ñ all to a fabulous local band.

Contact the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association for more details. 831.375.9400 or

By Jason Barlow