California’s Central Coast Wine Country: An Overview

The North Central Coast

Monterey County and those American Viticultural Areas north of it, up to San Francisco Bay, are known as the North Central Coast.

The wineries of the North Central Coast are spread out over a large and diverse area. Several of the most beautiful are hidden away into remote enclaves in the coastal mountains. You would definitely not call this a “tourist route”.

This area includes the following important wine regions:

  • Santa Cruz Mountains
  • Monterey
  • Chalone
  • Mount Harlan
  • Carmel Valley
  • Santa Lucia Highlands

These AVAs range in size from large (Monterey has roughly 40,000 acres/16,187 hectares of grapevines) to small (Chalone has about 300hectares/129 hectares of grapevines).

Let’s take a closer look at each wine region.

  • Santa Cruz Mountains: South of San Francisco, an hour and a half’s drive along California’s popular Highway 101, is the town of Santa Cruz. A University town and a coastal haven, Santa Cruz is, despite its proximity to Silicon Valley, actually as far away as you can get.

For example, the mountain air here is fresh, with a close-to-the-ocean feel about it. Ancient redwood forests are all around. The mountains themselves run right into the rugged formations formed by the San Andreas Fault that lies below them.

The vineyards of Santa Cruz can have widely different mesoclimates. The canyons, hilltops, slopes, knolls, and valleys, plus varying altitudes and variations to the sun, give life to these mesoclimates.

The higher vineyards (some can be 2,000 feet/600 meters in elevation) and those facing the Pacific Ocean, are much cooler than the lower vineyards and those facing east, toward the warmer interior valley.

The Individuality of the Vineyards in Santa Cruz:

The region is known for cool-climate chardonnays and pinot noirs. However, it is also known for warmer varieties such as zinfandels and cabernet sauvignon.

Both the colder and the warmer vines undergo the struggle of growing in the region’s thin, stony mountain soil, giving them that edge over the vines that have it easier.

Farming in Santa Cruz is not easy:

Because vineyards here are not easy to farm, or high-yielding (a yield is a measure of the amount of grapes that is produced per unit surface), most are small-production companies.

The district has over 70 small-production wineries, making wines with major personality. Three wineries with outstanding reputations are:

  1. Ridge Vineyards: Ridge is at the top of most wine collector’s list. Their wines are consistently fantastic, and their cabernet sauvignon is exemplary. It has been described as “powerful yet refined”.

Ridge cabernet sauvignon from the Monte Bello vineyard was first planted in 1855 in the Santa Cruz Mountains and purchased by Ridge in 1959.

Ridge came in first in the thirty-year retrospective of the famous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976! The original event when it took place in 1976, changed the California (and American) wine industry.

The Judgment of Paris Tasting was a blind tasting judged by renowned French Judges who were asked to rank a group of the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundies, along with several unknown California cabernets and chardonnays. When the scores were handed out, to the dismay of the judges, the top ranked red and whites were both California wines! The news quickly spread around the world, changing the culture of wine in the United States.

  1. Mount Eden Vineyards: The estate chardonnays from Mount Eden have an almost cult following. Mount Eden is a small historic wine estate perched at 2,000 feet overlooking Silicon Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation, about 50 miles south of San Francisco.

Founded in 1945, it is recognized as one of the original “boutique” wineries, focusing on small lot pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon. Planted in austere, infertile shale on a cool mountaintop, these low-yielding estate vineyards have consistently produced world-class wines for over half a century.

Mount Eden acquired an additional 55-acre wine estate in the Saratoga foothills, which was christened “Domaine Eden”.

Mount Eden Vineyards also produces non-estate chardonnays from the central coast (Edna Valley). A great success here is the Wolff Vineyard Chardonnay. It is continually recognized in that region.

Jeffery Patterson, since 1981, has guided the winemaking and grape-growing at Mount Eden. His emphasis is on wine growing rather than winemaking, and he is known for an obsession with gentleness and naturalness in the handling of the grapes and the wines.

  1. David Bruce Winery: David Bruce winery has an official mission: “to make the World’s greatest pinot noir”! In pursuit of this goal, the winery has adhered to traditional European winemaking practices that trace their lineage back to the early pioneers of winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Clara Valley.

The winery has earned an International reputation throughout its almost four decades for its dedication to producing the greatest pinot noir.

Mitri Faravashi joined the David Bruce winery in 2004. With a Bachelor’s degree in bio-chemistry with an emphasis on the science of winemaking and fermentation, he has proved to be an excellent winemaker.

David Bruce makes meursault-like chardonnays. They are deep golden, nutty, luscious, creamy and beautifully balanced with fresh, crisp apple flavors and a touch of spice.

The Super-Creative Winery known as Bonny Doon Vineyards is also located here.

Randall Grahm, the owner of Bonny Doon, was a MIT educated intellectual with long hair in the mid-eighties. He founded Bonny Doon after his love for wine took hold of him in a Los Angeles wine shop in the 1970’s. He worked as a sales clerk and also swept the floors. He was fortunate enough to get some financial backing from his family and initially conceived Bonny Doon as a winery devoted to pinot noir.

Rhone varietals, mentioned above, began to peak his interest within ten years of founding Bonny Doon. Syrah, Grenache, marsanne, and roussanne, were among the dozens of wines from dozens of varieties that had been largely overlooked by other California winemakers.

The first vintage of Le Cigare Volant (1984) launched Grahm to fame in California winemaking circles. Le Cigare Volante is a syrah-based red that earned Grahm the named the “Rhone Ranger”.

Le Cigar Volante (the flying cigar) is named after the 1954 law in the Chateauneuf-de-Pape AOC prohibiting flying saucers from traveling over the region’s vineyards. Bonny Doon actually has a flying machine hanging from the ceiling in one of their tasting rooms.

Bonny Doon is known for its idiosyncratic wines and quirky labels. The winery has achieved large scale commercial success with wines such as Big House Red and Cardinal Zin. The vineyard also continues to be known for its unique label artwork.

It was also one of the first premium winemakers to adopt screw caps for its wines in 2001. In 2008 Bonny Doon was a pioneer in using transparent ingredient-labeling on all of its wines.

  • Monterey County: Monterey County is the largest appellation within the northern part of the central coast. There are 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) of vines here, plus many thousands of acres of vegetables in the fertile garden known as the Salinas Valley.

The Salinas Valley is nicknamed the “vegetable capital of the world”, and is also where more than 50% of all broccoli, strawberries, mushrooms, chile peppers, and artichokes in the United States are grown.

The area of Monterey did not actually emerge as a wine region until the 1960’s and 1970’s when extensive urban development in Livermore and Santa Clara caused many wineries to look to other areas for suitable vineyard land.

The rising cost of land in Napa and Sonoma was also a factor.

Monterey was an easily accessible, agricultural coastal region.

Monterey’s Climate

The Southern part of Monterey can be very hot, but the northern part of the county has cold winds that come off the ocean at Monterey Bay.

There is a cold tunnel of winds that can be severe. You can see this in the bowed trees, as well as the lack of growth on their side that faces the ocean.

A small amount of wind can be good for vines by helping to cool them and guard against mildew, but too much wind can cause photosynthesis to shut down, stopping the ripening of the vines.

When you are growing in a region that’s already naturally cool, an added problem that inhibits ripening is not what you want.

The top vintners have to choose their vineyard sites carefully here.

An example of a grape that only partially ripens in the area would be cabernet sauvignon. Monterey’s cabernet’s often have a green tobacco note to them as a result.

Many wineries located outside of Monterey buy grapes from Monterey. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the dominant grapes in the county, especially in the cooler northern part, where wines of real complexity can be made.

Caymus and Morgan are two of the best producers making Monterey wines.

Caymus

Charlie Wagner, the son of Chuck Wagner, of the world-renowned Caymus brand, is the winemaker for Mer Soleil winery in Santa Lucia Highlands. Making both chardonnay and a pinot noir under the Mer Soleil label, he is passionate about how these wines reflect the drama and rugged beauty of the California coast.

Named after his grandfather, Charlie Wagner Sr. – co-founder of Caymus Vineyards – has a long family history dating back to 1857.

Morgan

Organically family and family owned, Morgan winery has a single-minded focus of traditional, minimalist winemaking techniques.

Morgan delivers consistency form bottle to bottle, vintage to vintage by nourishing sustainable, long term relationships with their own vineyard and cellar crew, and the finest French Barrel coopers.

In 1978, Dan Morgan Lee left UC Davis for a full winemaking position at Jekel Vineyard in Monterey County. In 1982, Daniel Morgan Lee and Donna George founded Morgan Winery.

The first red wines were produced in 1986 including pinot noir from what would become the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Santa Lucia Highlands was not established as an official American Viticultural Area until 1991.

In 1996 Dan and Donna purchased bare land in the Santa Lucia Highlands and developed it into the “Double L Vineyard” in reference to their daughters, the “Double Luck Twins”.

In 2002, “Double Luck Vineyards” became the first and only Certified Organic property in the Santa Lucia Highlands. And in 2003, Dan Lee was awarded as “San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year”.

  • Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Mount Harlan, and Carmel Valley

Within Monterey County and its neighboring San Bernito County, are several smaller AVA’s. The most significant are Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Mount Harlan, and Carmel Valley.

  • Santa Lucia Highlands: known as a spectacular place for pinot noir, specifically pinot noirs that are especially rich, bold, in-your-face, delicious pinot noirs. In fact, some fans that also love Burgundy wines cannot believe the richness of these pinot noirs.

There are 6,000+ acres (2,400 hectares) of vineyards here along a southeastern-facing bank of the Santa Lucia Mountain range.

If you drive south through the Salinas Valley, you can see the vineyards up in the crevices 1,000 to 2,000 feet (300 – 600 meters) above the valley below. They are exposed to the cold fog that comes down from the Monterey Bay in the mornings and at night.

Even though this area is close to the ocean, it still only gets no more than 15 inches/38 centimeters of rainfall a year. The sandy-loam soil is well-drained. The decomposed granite soils have been carried down canyons in the hillsides for centuries.

Pisoni Vineyards

The owner of Pisoni Vineyards, Gary Pisoni, is also known as the “Ambassador of the Highlands”. Pisoni’s original five acres (2 hectares) of pinot noir are rumored to have come from a famous domaine in Burgundy France in his suitcase!

Besides Pisoni, there are many small producers making delicious pinot noirs here, as well as wineries located elsewhere using grapes from Santa Lucia Highlands.

ROAR

ROAR is making pinot noirs in this area that are to-die-for that are in high demand. ROAR’s 100% pinot noir is known to be loved by scotch drinkers because of its peat and cranberry flavors. ROAR gets its name from the sound of the Monterey Bay winds roaring through the winery’s vineyards.

In addition to pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah are a stand-out here.

  • Chalone: The Chalone appellation (named for the Native Americans who lived here) is home to Chalone Vineyards.

These vineyards were attractive to growers who believed the chalky limestone soil (a major factor in the best soils of Burgundy) was the common denominator is making phenomenal pinot noir and chardonnay.

Chalone’s pinot noirs are not super fruity, but they are delicate and refined.

Chalone Vineyards was founded by Curtis Tamm, a Burgundian, in 1919. Chalone is the oldest winery still producing in Monterey County.

  • Mount Harlan: The Calera Wine Company was founded in 1975. In the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, Yale-educated Josh Jensen found the limestone he was looking for in the Gavilan mountain range on Mount Harlan.

Calera’s pinot noir’s are named after people that are important to Jensen. Jensen (named for his father), Mills, Reed, Selleck, Ryan and deVilliers – are handcrafted from single vineyards in a pure way. Some are inconsistent but many of the best pinot noirs sometimes are.

  • Carmel Valley: Carmel Valley is named for the beautiful, quaint, tourist town of Carmel and the Carmel Watershed.

There are a small number of wineries spread over this mountainous area, including Bernardus and Massa Estate (formerly Heller Estate).

Most of the better vineyards sit on the warm, east-facing ridges. The primary wines made here are cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Massa Estate

Massa Estate Wines are produced from 100% certified organically grown grapes and are bottled at the Carmel Valley winery. Organic farming, as well as dry farming, has created a natural environment for the production of premium and award winning wines that have received world-wide recognition.

Bernardus

Bernadus is focused on creating wines that “flatter the palate and stimulate the imagination”. Founder Ben Pon appreciated wine as an art form that “transcends the ordinary”. His first dream was to make a red wine equal to the finest from Bordeaux.

Most of the better vineyards in Carmel Valley sit on the warm, east-facing ridges. The primary wines made here are cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

The South Central Coast