Because the region straddles warm and cool climates, Monterey County vintners grow a tremendous variety of grapes, from fragile fog-loving pinot noir, to hearty heat-loving varietals like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. Unlike in Sonoma and Napa, the village’s tasting rooms aren’t attached to wineries and vineyards: don’t expect to picnic. But because of the tasting rooms’ close proximity to one another, you can walk between them – a big plus if you unwittingly catch a buzz.
The most fun spot (by far) is Georis Winery, where you taste on a hidden garden patio with fountains gurgling beneath flowering trees. Unlike at other tasting rooms, you can sit down here, allowing time to properly evaluate the complex, all-estate-grown merlot blends. And they pour in Riedel stemware, a nice touch. (Tip: The tasting room has a great deal right now on its very-drinkable 2001 Estate Merlot. A case costs $200.) Tastings cost $15 to $20.
If you’re into chardonnay, head directly to Talbott, which produces stellar chards and pinot noirs, all with varying degrees of oakiness. The pinot is generally Burgundian in style—earthier, less fruit-forward than New World pinots. Oenophiles especially like the unfiltered chardonnays. Tastings cost $9 to $17.
Bernardus specializes in a crisp, grapefruit-y sauvignon blanc and the signature Marinus, an elegant and vibrant Bordeaux-style blend that craves food; splurge on the reserve. There’s also a worthwhile California-style pinot noir with bright cherry overtones, made with grapes from venerable Bien Nacido, Santa Barbara County’s premier grower. Tastings cost $5 to $10.
Joullian is the only producer of zinfandel (red, of course) in the valley, and also makes a smoky-delicious brandy and very respectable sauvignon blanc and cabernet, all produced with estate fruit (meaning it comes from their own estate, allowing tighter controls than if they purchased the grapes from another grower). The tasting room is too heavily focused on the gift shop, and the small bar gets crowded, but the brandy and wine merit attention, and tastings are inexpensive – a mere $5, refunded with purchase.
If you’ve never been to an actual winery before, get a crash course on wine-making at lovely Château Julien. The wine is okay (stick to the reds), but the free tour is what’s really great here. Make reservations.