Admit that you’re sometimes drawn into a tasting room by the way it looks. When the wine doesn’t live up to those expectations, chalk it up to a life lesson and quit letting your eyes judge.
Dawn’s Dream Winery delivers on both beauty and quality. A fabulously decorated and newly appointed tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea serves the tender wines styled like those in Burgundy. A Chardonnay has the green apple you’d expect but nice tart crisp key lime that is a bit of a surprise. Its plush body has a hint of pepper that feels more like olive oil than butter, leading to a long finish. Three Pinot Noirs follow each with a different personality. The first starts off really floral with flavors of pink grapefruit and pomegranate or red apple. The next is less similar yet has the bright raspberry and strawberry common in Burgundians. Then, cedar and sandalwood round out its tart red flavors and a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sage give it additional layers for pairing. The last Pinot holds back its punch like most from Burgundy. Tight and gripping, the subtle fruit takes a while to emerge and the spice is hard to get but present. This wine takes a while to open but Burgundy wine lovers would appreciate all of them.
Bet you thought those vineyards and wineries on the 101 in Greenfield are pretty new. But Scheid Vineyards has been growing grapes there since 1972. That corridor that parallels the 101 has unique weather patterns with ocean air flowing from the Northwest to Southeast, providing such a variety of micro climates that Scheid can grow over 38 grape varieties. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot thrive near the northern part of the corridor while thicker skinned grapes like Bordeaux varietals prefer the warmer pockets to the south.
A trip to the Scheid tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea shows you just how different juice can be from these different micro climates. Their Chardonnay grown on this region’s riverbed soil has more melon and other tropical fruit flavors. With less tart citrus than most Chardonnays, a hint of olive emerges probably due to the mellow acids. Two Pinot Noirs are showcased for their unique characteristics. The first is traditionally lean, styled like a Burgundy while another was not traditional at all with big fruit and dank ash flavors from charred barrels. Two Bordeaux blends are also very different but still illustrate the variety and complexity from the terroir. Both have lots of cherry flavor but the blend where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates has more eucalyptus and cocoa while the blend with more Petite Verdot is full of spice and herbs like sage, cinnamon, anise, and fennel. There’s definitely something for just about any palate here.
The maverick of wine producers in Carmel-by-the-Sea is no doubt Galante Vineyards because it was not only the first tasting room to open here, it remains one of the few to pour different varietals. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay naturally thrive in any coastal region and Carmel is no exception. But just a few miles east is Carmel Valley where the Galante wine gang grows Rhone varietals like Viognier and Bordeaux varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Their Sauvignon Blanc has a whisper of Viognier, making it a big bold white wine with crisp acidity. Its tropical apricot and lemon meringue bring both acids and sweetness while the long finish brings you back for another glass. Their Viognier has a white floral nose that leads right to Hawaii when you taste its tropical mango, banana, and nectarines body. A slight minerality lends itself to its tropical feel but it remains sweet yet tart.
Their 100% estate and 100% Cabernet Sauvignon shows just how much true grit you can get from this region. This cool climate cab is like a meal in a glass. Just enough bell pepper, eucalyptus, and fireside smoke make the brighter red fruit harmonize with the plum and berry. The cassis is just like sauce that makes the meat succulent. This meaty wine gives you a reason to order a spicy sausage pizza with peppers or bring it to a spicy chipotle barbecue rib party to be the main event.
The people at Figge have vineyard experience all over yet they chose Monterey County to make their boutique hand-crafted wines. They’re also proud to explain why they choose this coastal climate. You may think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive on the Sonoma Coast or other coastal areas in this beautiful state like the Santa Rita Hills, Edna Valley, or Mendocino. But you can taste the difference in Monterey County.
Carmel Valley gets a bit more fog than most coastal regions. This brings out Chardonnay’s citrus grassy qualities yet Figge’s also has a creamy body with a long finish. Another Chardonnay they pour has nice crisp citrus with a banana thickness and the armoa of biscuits baking. Their Pinot Noir from Paraiso has the nice plump red fruit we love from this grape with a hint of green herb and earth. But a much more full bodied Pinot comes from Pelio that has a slight floral aroma with nutty spice and even a brambly flavor. This is a great place to stop for a tour of the county and learn about why grapes adore it.
A nice refreshing change of pace during your Carmel wine tasting is Caraccioli for their amazing bubbles. These are not just sparkling wines, suds, or sweet sparklers. These sparkling wines could not be more French. Not only is the winemaker from France, he gained his fame for making sparkling wines while he was the winemaker for Roederer.
For example, their brut rose may be pink but it’s got pride. Bright fruit of pomegranate and strawberry dominate with layers of yeasty biscuits. A cuvee of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had no skin contact so it looks like a sparkling white wine with the aroma of a nutty cheese. Its crisp green apple and citrus make your mouth water while you’re swirling. Finally, another cuvee just a year older has more almond flavor with lemon curd and mellow tart crispness. All have their own unique personalities yet are all lovely in their traditional style.
Stop by their tasting room on a Friday or Saturday night when they stay open until 10 PM.
Probably the biggest surprise from Monterey County wines is how multifaceted and deliciously versatile their Pinot Noirs have become. Reading about how similar the Santa Rita Hills are to Burgundy, one assumes those are the tops. While they are delightful in their classic style, Monterey County has all its own characteristically succulent Pinots that deviate from the classical with beauty and provocative confidence.
In downtown Carmel, Wrath serves two completely different styles of Chardonnay that are worth comparing. One has tropical fruit of zesty pear and ripe pineapple with a body of banana and vanilla sweetness. The next has apricot and creamy lemon with an aroma of toasted vanilla. You may doubt they are even the same grape.
Wrath’s whole cluster fermented Pinot Noir not only has the standard earth and spice that make Pinot followers light up. It’s also got tremendous cherry, berry, and plum with layers of eucalyptus, cola, and light pepper. A long finish fills your mouth with velvet, reminding you of its brilliance.
For a chance to gaze hungrily at Dirty Harry in the flesh, and you know you want to, head to his restaurant/inn/sheep ranch, known to locals as “The Mission.” Clint Eastwood is often spotted on site and sometimes even plays piano in the restaurant’s piano bar.
The menu runs through the red meat and potato standards. But, if you’re not hungry enough for a prime rib dinner, you could always order this open face prime rib sandwich with true horseradish shavings for the true grit that feels lucky enough.
Prime Rib Sandwich
Tourists from all parts are drawn to the coast like they’ve never seen the color blue before. Whatever language they speak, there’s something about gazing out at the land’s end that makes them stop and sigh. Cool ocean breezes and a mist in the air is also what Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines love to be near. The Albatross Ridge vineyards are the closest vineyards to the coast in Carmel Valley so they naturally grow these grapes with a bounty of flavors that rise from planting grapes in the most suitable environment. In their small tasting room downtown, they pour several of these coastal varietals that grow at different elevations and distances from the ocean so you can taste the flavors that represent a location.
Explore their unfined and unfiltered wines (even if you’re a vegan) for genuine fruit flavor with little manipulation. Theirs is one of the most uniquely different Chardonnays discovered on this journey. It started with a pineapple and creme brulee body but had a whiff of seashells or sea salt minerality. A rose of Pinot Noir is as refreshing as watermelon at a sunny picnic. But their two Pinot Noirs allow you to taste how the volcanic soil near Soledad produces a darker juicer and more meaty wine. Both Pinots have nice crisp acidity that holds its nice plump fruit together. But ripe cherry and black currant fruit flavors in the first Pinot allow for more oak flavor to emerge like vanilla, nutmeg, and caramel. Taste side by side if you really want to be blown away.
Movie and music buffs will love the Silvestri tasting room in Carmel because the owner proprietor made his living making music for many Hollywood movies. His music plays in the tasting room while movie posters flash on screen.
Their white wines are on the sweeter side. A Pinot Blanc has apricot, lime, and nice melon flavor but sweet apple dominates. Their unoaked Chardonnay has a grassy green apple quality which is tart but lemon meringue puts it on the sweet side. A Pinot Noir from Carmel Valley has dark cherry with a bunch of spice and very little earth. Cinnamon and nutmeg occur to you as you feel the slightly smokey essence. Finally, they serve their big boy. A Syrah has big dark heady aromas of plum and berry with licorice and smoke. A tart crisp cranberry acidity rounds out the layers in this wine and balances it. Strength and structure is what you may like about this Syrah.
A little off the beat of Carmel’s steep sidewalks, Rio Grill is worth the drive. Clearly a local hang out, they serve pub food dressed up with just enough pizzazz. These baby back ribs tempt you with a Cayenne potato yam cake. Yet, the best thing on this plate was the coleslaw because it was laced with horseradish.
Half-Rack Barbecued BABY-BACK RIBS with coleslaw and cayenne potato yam cake. 21.50