(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on September 19, 2013.)
While tourists are elbowing each other for a view of the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “gridlock” in the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands wine region means seeing another car on the road.
Best known as a designation on some prestigious labels, this undiscovered region “is not a wine Disneyland like up north,” says Dave Muret, executive director of the local vintners association. “Many of the wineries aren’t open to the public but those that are have incredible views and genuine hospitality.”
Where there are great wines and killer vistas, there must be picnics. The whole-hog approach would be lodging at ritzy L’Auberge Carmel and ordering a lavish custom lunch basket assembled by Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Justin Cogley with cuisine that’s tailored to the wines to be tasted that day.
Or simply whip up some of Cogley’s recipes like his Wheat Berry Salad or Peanut Butter-Whiskey Bars and plot out a relaxing day of tasting along the River Road wine trail and the adjacent, lovely Carmel Valley, which faces the other side of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
There are more than a dozen wineries on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands alone that have tasting rooms, with several also offering scenic picnic areas. A starter list is included below. Tasting etiquette calls for buying a bottle when picnicking and calling ahead for larger groups. Several wineries sell snacks — a boon for spontaneous picnickers who want more time to drink up those panoramic views.
The Talbott clan’s silk ties are classy and so are their lush pinot noirs and chardonnays, some from the renowned Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, which Robb Talbott bought in ’94. Both of the winery’s popular tasting rooms have well-groomed patios for picnics, with the newer Carmel Valley location drawing large weekend crowds. This spacious, elegant room also serves as a museum for Talbott’s famous collection of vintage motorcycles and pedal cars and has a bocce court for guests.
Picnic perks: The Carmel Valley location sells cheeses, crackers, cold cuts and other picnic fare.
1380 River Road, Salinas. Open Thursday – Monday, 11-4:30. Second location: 25 Pilot Road, Carmel Valley. Open daily, 11-4:30 and until 5 on weekends. Tasting fees: $10 and $15. www.talbottvineyards.com.
Owned by the Smith family, who were local vineyard pioneers, Paraiso has a comfortable tasting room but it’s the majestic views of the Salinas Valley below that immediately grab attention. The winery makes chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and syrah. Sharing space with wine tasters is a country French boutique selling jewelry, candlesticks and the like. Picnic spots include a patio outside the tasting room, a wisteria-covered arbor and a second patio with a fountain.
Picnic perks: Free samples are offered from an alluring selection of chocolates, while “Cupcake Friday” is held weekly.
38060 Paraiso Springs Road, Soledad. Open weekdays from 11 to 4 and until 5 on weekends. Tasting fee: $5. www.paraisovineyards.com
The spacious tasting room with vaulted ceiling has seating — a rarity for most wineries — and the friendly, laid-back vibe here is enhanced by golden oldies spinning on an actual turntable. Several varietals are offered but Pessagno’s signature is forceful pinots and chardonnays. Picnickers can gaze across the wide green valley from the tables on the stone patio.
Picnic perks: Cheeses, nuts, dried fruit and crackers are sold.
1645 River Road, Salinas. Open 11-4 Monday to Thursday; until 5 on Friday to Sunday. Tasting fee: $5. www.pessagnowines.com/
Surrounded by vineyards below a rise in the highlands, Wrath has handsome, yet utilitarian buildings perched next to a water-lily-filled pond. The soothing sound of water running from a sluice entertains picnickers on the sunny terrace outside the well-appointed tasting room. An alternative is a small, shaded area under willow trees. As at most local wineries, well-crafted pinots and chardonnays are the stars among a few varietals.
Picnic perks: The winery sells a cheese selection paired with quince paste and crackers.
35801 Foothill Road, Soledad. Open Fri-Mon, 11 to 5. Tastings range from $10 to $25. www.wrathwines.com
Opulent and modeled after a European chateau, this winery in Carmel Valley has Napa-style wow factor and is understandably a popular event venue. A wide range of wines are made, including some unusual red blends like a zinfandel-syrah for $98. Fortunately, many less pricey wines are also offered. Picnics take place in a gorgeous cobblestone garden area, on a nearby lawn or in the glass conservatory in bad weather. Tables can be reserved for $15 per person. A highlight is a self-guided tour of the immaculate grounds.
Picnic perks: A cheese plate is sold.
8940 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel. Open weekdays, 8- 5 and weekends, 11-5. Tasting fee: $10. www.chateaujulien.com
Hahn Family Wines
This early player in the region has become a multi-brand operation making a wide array of enjoyable wines at many price points, but pinot noir is the biggest focus. As befits such a large winemaking enterprise, food events, tours and other guest enticements are offered. Picnickers can take advantage of a deck outside the comfortable tasting room with umbrella-shaded tables or a nearby shaded area under trees. Both spots feature breathtaking views across the Salinas Valley that include the distant Pinnacles National Monument.
Picnic perks: Cheeses, charcuterie and crackers sold, plus “Fromage Friday” offers a special cheese selection. Monthly food and wine pairings require advance reservations.
37700 Foothill Road, Soledad. Open Monday to Thursday, 11-5 and until 6 on Friday to Sunday. Tasting fee: $15. www.hahnestates.com