Monterey Bay, California: a region reinvented

Stellar wines from within the county lines
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

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

That has changed. Recently I tasted more than 50 wines made within county lines and found some of the most seductive Pinot Noirs I've had in a long time, plus a slew of other superb wines. "Since the early 1990s, there's been a renaissance here," says David Coventry, winemaker for Morgan Winery. "There are now scores of small new wineries that are enticing places for innovative young winemakers 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 lean style of white wine.

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

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

What is it about this place? Descending from the vast arc of Monterey Bay southeast to Hames Valley, about 30 miles north of Paso Robles, Monterey County is big. Much of the land is quite fertile, though, so it's better suited to growing vegetables and fruits than grapevines, which thrive in poorer soils. Such soils are found on the ridges and slopes of the Coastal Range, where they support several smaller, prestigious appellations, including Carmel Valley, 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 hang a long time on the vine before they're ripe. The result is greater flavor intensity. "Think of it in terms of tomatoes," offers Coventry. "A vine-ripened tomato gets more tomatoey the longer it hangs on the vine."

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

PICKS FROM MONTEREY COUNTRY

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

Morgan "R & D Franscioni Vineyard" Pinot Gris 2002 (Santa Lucia Highlands), $16. Lip smacking ― crisp and creamy at 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 any influence 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 licorice flavors. Think game or roasted poultry.

Siduri "Pisoni Vineyard" Pinot Noir 2001 (Santa Lucia Highlands), $50. Pricey but worth it. Absolutely huge flavors and a gripping, almost syrupy texture. A variety that's often described as feminine, this wine is positively masculine; must have red meat.

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

Sunset's Wine Club