New Monterey County wine industry measures up quite nicely

By Bill Hogan, Contributor

For many years, most wine connoisseurs considered Monterey County wines as a second rate to the more famous Napa Valley vintage. The production volume and quality was not there, and even the best offerings from the Carmel Valley couldn't measure up.

No longer. Say hello, world, to the new Monterey County wine industry.

Today, Monterey County boasts over 45,000 acres planted, with the most popular varietals being Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, in descending order. Currently, there are over 40 different varietals across the seven main appellations.

Appellations are viticultural areas identified as truly one-of-a-kind winegrowing districts. All Monterey County wine production comes from one of these appellations: Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, San Luca, Hames Valley, Chalone, and Carmel Valley.

Coincidentally, these areas also feature world class golf courses, boutique hotels and some of the finest restaurants in all of California.

My personal recommendation would be to stay in Carmel or Carmel Valley and take short trips out to the wineries, in between, of course, copious amounts of golf.

One of my favorite hotels in Carmel is the historic La Playa Hotel, a beautiful 100-year-old Mediterranean Villa located just steps from the white sand Carmel Beach, yet close enough to all the best Carmel restaurants and famed shopping. Few places in California capture the true old world experience better than La Playa, and yet, the average room rate is still under $200.

If your travel budget is not as limited, consider the world-class experience at The Bernardus Lodge located in the heart of Carmel Valley. Here, the sun always shines and the resort is built around the wine theme with acres of vineyard right on property. The famed restaurant, Marinus, is captained by the excellent chef Cal Stamenov. Your meal here will compare to any fine dining experiences in California.

From La Playa Hotel or The Bernardus Lodge you are just minutes from the small family-owned wineries in sunny Carmel Valley, and the many golf courses of the Monterey Peninsula.

Let's start with the wine, because you can plan your rounds of golf around the all important vineyard visits! Carmel Valley Village, a small "country town" community about 12 miles inland from Carmel, boasts a plethora of excellent tasting rooms featuring the local wines.

Start with Robert Talbott Vineyards, a family owned business (same purveyors of the high quality neck ties) and producer of eight brands (or labels) of wine, from fine Chardonnay's to quality Pinot Noirs. Pound for pound, you can compare Talbott to the best of the great burgundy style wine producers anywhere on the west coast.

Bernardus Vineyards and Winery (same owner as the Bernardus Lodge) is a local favorite, and noted for crisp and fruity Chardonnays, as well as their own famed "Marinus", a "big red" blend that is quickly becoming the rage of the valley.

Joullian, River Ranch, Heller and Durney are four other excellent producers in the region, all with quaint tasting rooms in the heart of the Village. (See for a complete listing of the local Monterey County wine industry).

A short drive the Salinas Valley opens the door of many other fine Monterey County wines, not to mention the farmlands of Steinbeck country and the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas. The best of these producers include Chalone, Hahn, Smith & Hook, Morgan and Lockwood.

My restaurant recommendations? Make sure to include the Marinus Restaurant at Bernardus Lodge, and a visit to provincial Corkscrew Café in Carmel Valley. For a great steak, drop in at Wills Fargo, an old saloon type establishment popular with the local crowd for many years.

In Carmel, my favorite is Bouchee, a high-class newcomer that features a creative California-style menu that is among the finest in the entire state, and their own in-house wine shop and wine bar. Casanova, a old world European favorite, has been a Carmel class-act for many years and now features Vincent Van Gough's table as an added attraction (as if it needed it!).

Monterey is famous for the great fish caught in the bay, and the top restaurants include The Sardine Factory on Cannery Row, and the great Fresh Cream Restaurant near Fisherman's Wharf. Both feature excellent wine lists (Wine Spectator Awards) with a heavy emphasis on the Monterey County varietals. Locals who don't want to break the bank head to The Sandbar and Grill, a waterfront fish house on Fisherman's Wharf Pier Two where the catch of the day was loaded off the fishing boats just down the dock.

Now that you have a place to sleep, eat and drink, how about a round of golf? Besides the four great Pebble Beach Resort courses (where you pretty much have to stay in their expensive rooms to play), there are some 27 other courses in the area.

Among our favorites is Quail Lodge, a walker-friendly semi-private course in Carmel Valley. With the new clubhouse under construction and scheduled for completion in June 2003, there are some special green fee rates here for the time being. Carmel Valley Ranch, just down the road, is hilly and to some, a little tricked up, but nonetheless still a very fun experience because of the panoramic views and abundant wildlife on the course. Both valley courses offer lots of sunshine (beware: the coast can be foggy in the summer!) and lush fairways.

Poppy Hills, one of the three courses used for the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am, is open to the public and offers a prime Del Monte Forest experience just shy of Spyglass Hill. Black Horse and Bayonet, two courses overlooking the ocean in Seaside, host the annual PGA Tour Qualifying and a Nationwide Tour event and both get high grades for value and quality.

If you have some connections, try to arrange a game at Clint Eastwood's private Tehama GC, or the Jack Nicklaus designed Pasadera CC, two newcomers on the Peninsula that are always kept in pristine condition and offering two of the most spectacular clubhouses you'll find anywhere.

If you have some really, really, REALLY good connections, which happen to have affluent bloodlines dating back to the Mayflower, call in a favor and try to get a round at Cypress Point Club or one of the two courses at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Any of these three golf courses will bust your fun meter by the third hole.

What other courses should you consider? We can't name them all, but San Juan Oaks is an excellent Fred Couples design in nearby San Juan Bautista, and Old Del Monte and Pacific Grove Golf Links are high quality, low price favorites in Monterey and Pacific Grove, respectively.

Regardless of your budget, the Monterey Peninsula area of central California offers the right mix of accommodations, wine, restaurants, and golf courses to satisfy any appetite. From distinguished connoisseurs to wanna-be wine snobs in training, Monterey County can measure up to anyone.

Bill Hogan, Contributor

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