Stellar wines from within the county lines

Not so long ago, Monterey wine meant no-frills,easy-on-the-pocketbook quaffers. A few large wineries dominated thelandscape, and their wines, while serviceable, weren't exactlyexciting.

That has changed. Recently I tasted more than 50 wines madewithin county lines and found some of the most seductive PinotNoirs I've had in a long time, plus a slew of other superb wines."Since the early 1990s, there's been a renaissance here," saysDavid Coventry, winemaker for Morgan Winery. "There are now scoresof small new wineries that are enticing places for innovative youngwinemakers who are raising the bar on quality." Coventry's "R &D Franscioni Vineyard" Pinot Gris is sensational, and his"Metallico" Chardonnay is at the forefront of an exciting new leanstyle of white wine.

Siduri Winery is another star. Adam and Dianna Lee,husband-and-wife owners and co-winemakers, started the winery on ashoestring in 1994. Entirely self-taught, they met in the winedepartment of Neiman Marcus in Dallas, where both worked as clerksuntil a passion for Pinot Noir brought them to California.

The much-heralded Pisoni Winery, which is making some of thecounty's ― indeed, the state's ― most concentratedPinot Noirs, is underscoring the talent in the region.

What is it about this place? Descending from the vast arc ofMonterey Bay southeast to Hames Valley, about 30 miles north ofPaso Robles, Monterey County is big. Much of the land is quitefertile, though, so it's better suited to growing vegetables andfruits than grapevines, which thrive in poorer soils. Such soilsare found on the ridges and slopes of the Coastal Range, where theysupport several smaller, prestigious appellations, including CarmelValley, Chalone, and the tiny Santa Lucia Highlands.

What these top wine regions share ― their secret weapon― is a cool, foggy climate, which means the grapes must hanga long time on the vine before they're ripe. The result is greaterflavor intensity. "Think of it in terms of tomatoes," offersCoventry. "A vine-ripened tomato gets more tomatoey the longer ithangs on the vine."

To borrow his point, Monterey's new high-quality Chardonnays aremore Chardonnay-like than ever, and the Pinots more Noir. It evenseems that the simple quaffers are better than they've everbeen.

PICKS FROM MONTEREY COUNTRY

Hames Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2002 (Hames Valley), $18.Gentle herbal flavors, with aromas of light spearmint and freshlycut grass. A great match for Monterey seafood.

Morgan "R & D Franscioni Vineyard" Pinot Gris 2002(Santa Lucia Highlands), $16. Lip smacking ― crisp and creamyat the same time, with vibrant lemon and melon flavors.

Morgan "Metallico" Chardonnay 2002 (Santa Lucia Highlands),$20. One of the sensational new Chardonnays being made without anyinfluence of new oak. Soaring with vibrant peach and pear flavors― elegant, plush, and pure.

Paraiso Pinot Noir 2000 (Santa Lucia Highlands), $18. Deep,dark, earthy, and satisfying, with juicy blackberry and licoriceflavors. Think game or roasted poultry.

Siduri "Pisoni Vineyard" Pinot Noir 2001 (Santa LuciaHighlands), $50. Pricey but worth it. Absolutely huge flavors and agripping, almost syrupy texture. A variety that's often describedas feminine, this wine is positively masculine; must have redmeat.

Heller Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Carmel Valley), $30.From beautiful old vineyards close to the Ventana Wilderness, thischocolatey Cabernet has cassis and spicy tobacco aromas and flavorsreminiscent of Bordeaux.

Sunset's Wine Club

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