The Other River Road
Travel the Monterey Wine Trail with Winemaker David Coventry
When you hear the phrase “River Road,” your mind almost certainly goes to the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Let us turn your attention to an equally captivating River Road nestled in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County.
If you’ve read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or East of Eden, you may recall his vivid descriptions of the lush and picturesque setting of the Highlands and Salinas Valley. With stunning views and enviable weather, this area has since emerged as a prime location for crafting some of the greatest wines available today.
We sat down with David Coventry, Monterey native and head winemaker for Talbott Vineyards, to uncover what makes Monterey County and, specifically, the Santa Lucia Highlands notable for fine wine operators and your customers.
Join us on along the River Road as Coventry discusses the characteristics that make the Monterey AVA such a phenomenal wine region.
A WORLD-CLASS AVA
Since it was established in 1984, the Monterey AVA has graduated from an up-and-comer to an understated power player that rivals North Coast AVAs. By 2013, Wine Enthusiast had named Monterey County one of the world’s Top 10 wine destinations.1 The number of tasting rooms rocketed from five in 1995 to 65 by early 2017.2
According to the most recent crop report, Monterey County has 45,000 acres dedicated to vineyards – equivalent those under vine in Napa Valley – along with 71 wineries.3
THROUGH THE EYES OF A NATIVE WINEMAKER
Just as people naturally place a high value on living near water, Monterey’s close proximity to the Pacific Ocean affords low humidity, warm days and cool nights—the perfect setting for a winemaker.
“Grapevines like to grow where people like to live,” Coventry said. “The better the view, the better the wine.”
One of the attributes that make Monterey County so ideal for winemaking is the AVA’s rich diversity. “Every aspect, every character, every quality that makes for a really great vineyard exists in Monterey in abundance. There is an opportunity to do every varietal and every style of wine possible within this county,” he said.
Today, Monterey winemakers are producing 42 different grape varietals.4 “It’s like [being] an artist given a blank canvas and all the colors in the world and being asked to paint the best picture that he can,” Coventry said.
Perhaps that rich palette contributes to the thriving culture Coventry described along the River Road Wine Trail. “Monterey is the Wild West of winemaking,” Coventry said. It’s the kind of place wine aficionados can count on conversations with the winemakers themselves.
HITTING THE TRAIL
From Monterey County, Highway 68 travels through a beautiful little valley that connects Monterey to Salinas. After entering Salinas, exit onto River Road and begin what Coventry describes as, “one of the most beautiful drives in the state.” That’s because River Road hugs Santa Lucia Highlands and the lesser-known Sierra de Salinas mountain range.
High above the valley floor on your right, vineyards begin to appear.
Many of the greatest River Road vineyards are scattered across hillsides—which are both difficult to plant and difficult to farm—but yield inherently exceptional grapes. As Coventry puts it, “Making great wine is never a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of necessity.” To the winemakers of Salinas Valley, the challenge that comes with these vineyards is a small price to pay for the quality they afford.
As the first stop, Coventry recommends visiting his good friend Denis Hoey at Odonata Wines.
Next, pass into the Santa Lucia Highlands. Stop by Talbott where, just maybe, you’ll get the chance to taste some wine with Coventry.
Continuing down the road, don’t miss what Coventry describes as, “some of the finest vineyards you could ever imagine.” This includes The Double L Vineyard, Rosella’s Vineyard and Garys’ Vineyard. “These vineyards prove that the area can produce grapes as fine as anywhere.”
At some point, of course, it’s time to stop for lunch. “There is just terrific food everywhere,” Coventry says. Look for the quaint cafés in Carmel and a terrific roadhouse off Highway 68. “And heck,” he adds, “If you're in Gonzales, you’ll find some of the best Mexican food you'll ever have in your life.”
After lunch, head to Puma Road Winery, Smith & Hook Winery and Paraiso Vineyards. They provide a wonderful trio of scenic stops to round out the afternoon.
Based on Coventry’s recommendations, it’s no surprise one of the things that makes this River Road special is its tight-knit winemaking community. As a relatively small group, Coventry says they really look out for each other as, “one big, happy winemaking family” with enough room for everyone to thrive. “We're here to help each other. And besides,” he adds, “I can tell someone exactly how I make my wine, but they don’t have my vineyards so they can’t copy it.”
THE FUTURE OF MONTEREY
For the moment, Monterey remains a bit of a hidden treasure. Just last year in “Our Favorite California Appellation (that No One Knows about),” The Wall Street Journal called Monterey “home to some outstanding Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, Santa Lucia Highlands is an unsung corner of California wine country well worth getting to know.”5
By adding or promoting Monterey and in particular Santa Lucia Highlands AVA fine wines, you invite customers to participate and invest in the exciting story of this region as it unfolds.
A second generation of Monterey AVA winemakers have just recently begun dedicating their lives to the legacy of Monterey vineyards and wineries. And these winemakers are starting to replant the first-generation vines from the 1970s, where it makes sense.
“Now, we have knowledge of what works where,” Coventry said. He expects the new generation of winemakers to replant their vineyards with the right root stock, the right clones and the right varietals in all the right places.
TAPPING INTO THE MONTEREY TRAIL
There’s never been a better time to help customers discover “The Other River Road” – and not just because the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is on the rise. This issue of Wine Dialogues arrives right before our data shows Pinot Noir spike the highest outside the typically strong cooler months where reds thrive.6
We believe this stems from those with a preference for red wine staying true to their colors – simply lightening up for the summer months.
Make the most of this varietal’s seasonality with one or more of these options:
Create a display or flights featuring Pinot Noir from Monterey AVAs (including Santa Lucia Highlands), giving those with a preference for Pinot the opportunity to discover and discuss these wines with your staff.
Host a tasting event for members of your loyalty club—or just for loyal customers. Consider going Live on your Instagram or Facebook page and then archive for later viewing by other customers.
Record and share a video on social and/or in email about the AVA, its wines and wineries to take your customers on a virtual journey before they head to your location. (BONUS: Search for royalty-free images of Monterey you can use to accompany your staff exploration of the AVA on camera.)
“We believe this stems from those with a preference for red wine staying true to their colors – simply lightening up for the summer months.”
Want to learn more about viticulture in the area? Click here to watch a webinar on the subject featuring David Coventry.
1. Wine Enthusiast, “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2013,” January 8, 2013.
2. The Californian (Salinas, California), “Economic Evolution of Monterey Wines,” July 3, 2017.
3. WinesandVines.com, “Monterey County Grows Most Pinot Noir in California,” August 10, 2017.
4. Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association, “42 Varietals,” as of June 2018.
5. The Wall Street Journal, “Our Favorite California Appellation (that No One Knows about),” May 17, 2017.
6. © IRI, Total US MULO, Total Ultra-Premium+ Priced Pinot Noir, Dollar Sales by Week, Calendar Year 2017.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION OR QUESTIONS REGARDING E. & J. GALLO WINERY BRANDS, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL SALES REPRESENTATIVE.