Wine Country Itinerary: Monterey

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By Robert P. Farmer
Long gone are the days when grapes inspire wrath in Monterey County. These days, the grapes inspire long conversations about oak and tannins and balance and, well, they just inspire long conversations--often over leisurely dinners among friends at great restaurants. Monterey's reputation as an important part of the California Wine Fabric is a given. With nearly 90 vintners in the county producing wines under dozens of labels and selling their grapes to other winemaker's in the state, it's no longer a secret that great wine thrives in one of California's most picturesque regions. Wine tasting in the county has become a popular pursuit. Many wineries among the region's nine official AVAs have onsite tasting rooms--they are typically low-key, relaxed, and friendly. Still others have opened tasting rooms in Carmel Village and in Monterey. Wherever you happen upon them, it's always a happy discovery.
Stop 1: Ventana Vineyards
There are a few "musts" in the Monterey County wine catalog, and Ventana is certainly among them. Part sensory indulgence, part educational experience, this multi-faceted winery offers as many different visitor options as they offer vintages. The beautiful grounds feature an intimate tasting room built in a stone house that dates to the early 1900s. A flowery patio anchored by an outdoor fireplace around which guests are encouraged to sit and enjoy a picnic flanks the house. Next door is the popular Tarpy's Roadhouse, the full-service restaurant renowned for its specialties from the wood-burning grill and, of course, award-winning wine list. Corkage fee is waived for bottles purchased at Ventana.
Tasting Room:  open daily 11am-5pm, 2999 Monterey-Salinas Hwy, 831 372-7415
Tasting Fee:  Free

Stop 2: Chateau Julien
Without a doubt one of Monterey's "Greatest Hits," this beautiful winery is like a slice of French country life nestled among the lush rolling hills of Carmel Valley. This is a destination in itself, as popular with sightseers and corporate event attendees as it is with wine tasters. And not a few brides have graced the gardens on their Big Day. But the wines are far from an afterthought--from the private reserve cabernet sauvignon to the estate vineyard chardonnay, the winery's numerous vintages are each praiseworthy. Among the various venues for tastings at the Chateau is the Great Hall, with a woodburning fireplace and gorgeous views of the valley. Or select a private tasting in the Vintner Salon, which includes a 25th Anniversary commemorative crystal glass.
Tasting Room: Open Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10:30am-5pm and by appointment.
8940 Carmel Valley Road Carmel, 831-624 2600
Tasting Fee:  $5, refundable with wine purchase 

Stop 3: Bernardus
Many people rightly associate Bernardus with the fabulous lodge, but the winery and its award-winning wines are well worth making a trip for that doesn't require an overnight stay. Still, the guests from the lodge help give the tasting room a continuous lively buzz, as they mix with day visitors and everybody sinks into the laid-back, casually elegant atmosphere enhanced by pourings of the sumptuous estate-grown Burgundy and Bordeaux-style varietals, and their always dazzling chardonnay.
Tasting Room: open daily, 11am-5pm., 5 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, 831-659-1900;
Tasting fee: $5 & $10.

Stop 4: Pessagno Winery
One of the staples along Monterey County's River Road Wine Trail, Pessagno produces wines that perfectly embody their appellation--single vineyard wines from Monterey and San Benito highlands. The tasting room is always lively and staffed by folks with ample local knowledge. Selections include current releases, pinot noir-only--including each of the winery's five great pinots, and the premiere tasting, which includes limited-production and library wines and ports.
Tasting Room:Winery open Fri-Sun, 11am-5pm, 1645 River Road, Salinas, 831-675-9463
Tasting Fee: $5, $15 & $25

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