It’s tempting to go to the Monterey-Carmel area and think only of the coastline. Cannery Row, fronting the bay. Pacific Grove, with its ocean-splashed trail and blooming ice plant. Carmel Beach, where dogs and children careen down the sand hill to frolic in the waves, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, where little shops and courtyards and open-window restaurants are spritzed with sea breezes so fresh you can’t help but breathe deeply and vow to do a long hike out at nearby Point Lobos in the morning. It’s easy to ignore what’s inland.
But for once, we didn’t. We started by driving about half an hour east on Highway 68 from Carmel, into the Salinas Valley. The wind whipped between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges, raising miniature dust devils that spun through dry fields lying fallow until the next round of planting. Row after row after row after row of greenery striped by—we couldn’t tell whether it was lettuce or spinach or strawberries or broccoli or maybe something else altogether. We passed a gigantic cut-out mural of a farmer holding a produce box—one of the notable murals by artist John Cerney; it welcomed us to Salinas, the Salad Bowl of the World.
Past the lettuce, past the strawberries and broccoli, soon we were among the wine grapes lining River Road, which runs along the west banks of the Salinas River. Stretching the length of the Santa Lucia Highlands American Viticultural Area, this tasting route includes a number of wineries. Our tour group blasted past all the River Road wineries (to return later) and up a bumpy, rocky, twisty hill to one farthest out: Chalone Vineyard. Because of the winds and the red flag warnings in effect that day, some of farther-out wineries had no power, and we wanted to be sure to see Chalone before it might close for the day.
Chalone is special for several reasons. One, it’s the oldest producing winery in Monterey County, with history going back to 1919. Two, it’s its own AVA: Chalone, named for the indigenous Costanoan Native American tribe. Three, it’s 1,800 feet up above the Gabilan plateau, at the base of Pinnacles National Park (visible from the winery’s peak spots), which means views go on forever and grapes grow in limestone, just like in Burgundy, France. The tasting experience includes plenty of education, and lots of chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as some chenin blanc and syrah.
Back down the hill in the valley, where summer’s hot days create good syrah and cool foggy nights bring on chardonnay and pinot noir, wineries to visit include Odonata (winemaker Denis Hoey is a Sacramento native), Pessagno (where the on-site Highland House vacation rental makes a terrific sleepover option if you want to stay in the valley), Manzoni Estate (small but mighty with only 6 acres of vineyards), Puma Road Winery (here, you can reserve the Silvio Home for a stay), Hahn (for $49, take an ATV tour of the vineyards before a customized tasting) and Scheid (look for the 400-foot wind turbine out in Greenfield).
Several wine touring outfits serve the Salinas Valley, including Ag Venture Tours, which leads half-day “salad bowl” education tours, in addition to win-tasting jaunts; Vino Wine Tours, which specializes in boutique wineries; and Behind the Scenes Wine Tours, run by the Franscioni family that owns Puma Road winery. Also, while you’re in the area, see what’s going on at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca—Sea Otter Classic cycling festival is coming up April 16–19, for instance, and the Trans Am SpeedFest Pony Car race happens May 1–3.
Carmel Valley—with its vineyards, equestrian properties and golf courses—lies about half an hour from Salinas Valley, via a brief but potentially nauseating drive over Laureles Grade. The other way in, picking up Carmel Valley Road from Highway 1 in Carmel, provides a couple of fun stops along the way. Earthbound Farm Organic Farmstand invites visitors to wander among the gardens and rows of veggies, pick bundles of fresh herbs and purchase snacks and made-to-order items at the café. A salad has never tasted fresher.
If you’re up for a driving adventure, consider this: One of only three Land Rover Driving Schools in the country is located at Quail Lodge just off Carmel Valley Road. For $275 for one hour (with longer packages available), you can learn how to navigate backroads with log piles, steep descents and sharp inclines. A qualified instructor guides you through every hazard, and you’ll get some gorgeous views of the Santa Lucia back country while you’re at it.
Also in this vicinity, Folktale Winery (formerly Chateau Julien) is a beautiful, lively place that goes way beyond just a tasting room. Its outdoor patio and grounds provide a convivial space for group tastings and snacks—the kitchen turns out flatbreads and salads and boards loaded with nuts and cheeses, and servers happily line up multitudes of flutes and goblets for wine pairings. Live music and fairy lights add to the charm. Take a walk out to the castle-like event space, which is lined with barrels and when we were there was adorned with Harry Potter décor—it’s magical.
More wine tasting abounds in Carmel Valley Village, where a cluster of tasting rooms makes it easy to winery-hop. It is literally less than a 15-minute walk between Chesebro and Massa Estate, with a dozen or so tasting rooms in between. Pace yourself! At the east end of Carmel Valley Boulevard, a lineup includes Chesebro, Windy Oaks, Parsonage, Rexford and I. Brand, along with the relatively new wine bar, Village Wine & Tap Room. (Yes, you can get a local craft beer, too.) On the west end of the village, near Big Sur Winery, Sangria Wine & Tapas Bar—which opened about a year ago—has a collection of tasty goodies to pair with your drink, including smoked salmon, cheeses and Spanish and Latin American small bites.
The Carmel Valley Wine Trolley makes tasting in this area even easier. Pick it up in Monterey, and learn plenty of history as you ride out to the valley. Tours start at $129 and may include tastings of wine, olive oil and balsamic, and a catered lunch at the trolley stop in Carmel Valley Village.
While you’re in town, check out the Moto Talbott Motorcycle Museum. With a collection of some 150 motorcycles from 16 countries, the place is owned by Robb Talbott, a lifelong motorcyclist and artist. The bikes on display span decades, restored, unrestored, some rare, some iconic, you name it. General admission is $12, and it’s open Thursday through Sunday.
At Garland Ranch Regional Park, stop for a short hike along the Lupine Loop trail, a mile-and-a-half flat and sun-drenched trek that skirts the Carmel River and this time of year should include a waterfall. Lupine Loop is also an on-ramp for other trails in the park that lead into shadier, more wooded areas. Before you go, grab some sandwiches from Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market for a picnic beside the river later.
Spend the night at Bernardus Lodge & Spa, one of the loveliest properties in the area, with Mediterranean-inspired guest rooms and suites that include such luxuries as soaking tubs for two, fireplaces, French oak floors and king-size featherbeds. Bernardus Winery has a tasting room in the area, too, and the award-winning wines are poured at the lodge. Relax by the lap pool, play a round of croquet or a bit of tennis, indulge in a massage or other spa treatment, and dig into a farm-to-table meal at Lucia, where the menu celebrates the region’s bounty.
Another sleepover option: Carmel Valley Ranch, also a luxury property, with several dining options, a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, spa and a full lineup of agritourism options. Suit up and explore a beehive—taste some honey, too. Get down and dirty in the on-site organic culinary garden. Pick up a trail guide and discover that you don’t even need to leave the property to get in a good hike. Best of all, all guest rooms are suites, with fireplaces, private decks and robes and slippers. Reserve one with an outdoor soaking tub, and you’ll never want to leave.