In Monterey, great taste just goes with the territory

Romantic Monterey, a one-of-a-kind appellation, sweeps 90 miles down the coast from Cannery Row in the city, through Carmel by the Sea, Santa Cruz, Pebble Beach, the Carmel Valley, the rolling hills of Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands. 
There are nine officially designated appellations, or AVAs, that have unique characteristics for remarkable flavor, found in bottles branded with the Monterey Wine Country signature. It had been many years since I walked on Monterey vineyard land. The occasion last month was the “Great Wine Escape,” an annual expo of some 50 of the 125 vineyards that dot the land. More than 30 tasting rooms were open daily, pouring their newest releases.
Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, west of the highlands, are the perfect formula for a long, leisurely ripening, with harvests that are some 60 days longer than most in California. Of the 41,000 acres of grapes produced, 17,000 are planted with Chardonnay, largest in the state. Next is Pinot Noir, some of the tastiest west of Burgundy. 
The area produces about 7,000 acres of Pinot and the winemakers are fiercely firm in their conviction that their Pinot is superior to any other on the west coast. Major players who grow and bottle Pinot Noir include Hahn Estates in the Santa Lucia Highlands where the ’09 has just been released and they play the bagpipes at the harvest for good fortune. 
Talbott Winery’s Dan Karlsen is the expressive, self-described “former hippy” and a rabid believer in the excellence of Monterey Pinot Noir, calling it “the wine of kings.” He champions a “vineyard first” approach to winemaking “to obtain a vibrant cool climate appeal, that is all about flavor.” His ’08 Talbott Kali Hart has spicy blueberry and cherry notes with nine months in French Oak.
Chalone is another Pinot Noir favorite of mine. Karlsen was their winemaker from 1998 to 2007, revitalizing their Pinot program. They  have an AVA district named after the winery which sits east of the 101 and Soledad. Estancia is a well-known name that is situated in the Santa Lucia Highlands with a large property in Paso Robles. This property was formerly called Paul Masson in the early 1960s and like most behemoths, made just two kinds of wine:  white and red. Estancia produces 850,000 cases with many supermarkets stocking this value wine. They now offer 12 varietals, from Sauvignon Blanc to a Reserve Meritage.
A  Pinot Noir creating an emerging buzz is Fog Head and its ’08 release which blends grapes from several sites including the highlands of San Bernabe and Arroyo Seco. The maritime influence of seaside fog travels south through the valley and settles at Fog Head developing a slow maturation with concentrated flavors.
The name Galante goes back six generations. Jack Galante’s great grandfather was the founder of the town of Carmel. He later built the Pine Inn and Highlands Inn, still standing as iconic resorts. In 1969 Jack’s parents purchased a 700-acre cattle ranch in the nearby Carmel Valley. Vineyards were planted in 1983, specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon. The Galante Vineyards and Winery came together as a cowboy themed winery in 1994, with premium estate wines. Today Jack and his wife Dawn operate 700 estate acres that range from 700 to 2,200 feet, making them one of the highest vineyards in Monterey County. The growing season is very long, grapes ripen slowly and the crop is thinned to two tons per acre for highest quality. No pesticides or herbicides are used. Cabernet is the traditional grape at Galante (he makes four kinds), but his ’08 Olive Hill Petite Sirah is amazing in its accented texture and the ’07 Grand Champion with Malbec, Petite Sirah and Cabernet is rich and robust. And true to form, Jack can sell you a belt buckle with the same name.
Larger format bottles come with leather tooled labels and the wine club has “gang” members. Learn more about this blessed wine area by accessing the new website at www.montereywines.org.
Wine Bytes
— Il Farro Italian Restaurant in Newport Beach Orange County has a holiday wine dinner event at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14. Featured speaker direct from Italy is Ciro Cirillo, who will pour five Italian wines with a five-course gourmet food menu. Cost is $55. Call for RSVPs at (949) 723-5711. 
— RELM Wine Bar & Bistro in Carlsbad has a complimentary Wine Tasting Event from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 14. First five tastes are courtesy of RELM.  Wine reps are on hand for questions. For more information, call (760) 809-4207.
— Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas is having its year-end wine party from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 17. Call for price and wines at (760) 479-2500.
— Holiday Wine Cellar is presenting The Grand Holiday Tasting from 3 to 6 p.m. Dec. 18. More than 100 wines are presented. The cost is $30 per person. RSVP at (760) 745-1200.
— Have a Newport Christmas with wines and a view of their boat parade at Wine Lab on Dec. 18 and Dec. 19 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., on Newport Harbor Orange County. Five wines and lots of appetizers and artisan cheeses will be offered for $50 each. Call (949) 575-8466 for details.

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