Wineries Cluster in Carmel
Tasting rooms spring up in Central Coast village
Gradually gaining recognition as a source of fine grapes and wines— Burgundian varieties from the Santa Lucia Highlands; Bordeaux and Rhone grapes from the warmer inland valleys—Monterey County attracts millions of international visitors every year. Drawn to a spectacular coastline (think Big Sur and 17-Mile Drive), world class golf resorts (Pebble Beach), historic sites (Cannery Row, Mission Carmel); deep sea fishing, whale watching, a renowned aquarium and musical events including the Monterey Jazz Festival, many tourists return year after year to their favorite haunts.
Relatively few visitors, however, ever venture inland, where some 39,300 acres of grapes feed 83 wineries (per WinesVinesDATA). The hamlet of Carmel Valley Village, accessed by a 12-mile drive through golf, tennis and equestrian resorts, has developed into a winetasting center with a handful of tasting rooms within walking distance.
Tentacles spread west
Slowly, some inland, East County wineries have been reaching out to create a presence in popular coastal communities, starting along touristic Cannery Row in downtown Monterey.
In 2011, Carmel by the Sea (population 3,903, per 2010 census) began making a mark on the wine tasting map. Carmel Valley’s Galante Family Vineyards) led the way and remains Carmel’s longest established tasting room. A couple other efforts have since left the neighborhood.
In January 2011, Caraccioli Cellars became the first of the second wave; under the energetic leadership of Scott Caraccioli, others followed suit. Working together and with Carmel Chamber of Commerce, they developed the Carmel Wine Walk By-the-Sea, complete with a passport for discount tastings and an agreement with co-operating restaurants to waive corkage on bottles from the members.
Caraccioli Cellars primarily grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on 127 acres in the Santa Lucia Highlands near the famed Sleepy Hollow Vineyards along River Road.
The sparkling wine specialist is under the guidance of Michel Salgues, founding winemaker at Mendocino County’s Roederer Estates. Scott Caraccioli told Wines & Vines, “We make all the wine in Carmel Valley.…It’s not really conducive to a lot of visitors.” Hence, the Carmel satellite, now virtually surrounded by other storefront tasting rooms, and benefitting from multitudes of strolling tourists: At roughly 1 square mile, Carmel is famously foot-traffic friendly.
For the first six to nine months, Caraccioli said, most tasters were drop-ins, passers-by who came upon his tasting room by happenstance. “The reason we started the group, working with the Chamber of Commerce CEO, was to make visitors aware we are here,” he said. The vintners wanted to grow the area as a wine attraction.
Thus, the Wine Walk By-the-Sea Passport: Sold only through the chamber’s website and at its centrally located visitor center, the $50 passport offers tastings at each of the seven participating wineries. It never expires, allowing visitors the option spread out their sipping over repeated visits, an important consideration.
“When I ask customers if this is their first visit to Carmel,” Caraccioli noted, “It’s never the first time. Some come from California and Texas three or four times a year.” He observed that this year, “Travel in general is up,” in part, he surmised, because a paucity of snow in the Sierra ski resorts caused winter vacationers from the Central Valley to venture west to the coast.
The best neighborhood
The Wine Walk wineries and associated businesses cluster tightly in a central location on or near Ocean Avenue between Junipero Avenue and Lincoln Street. Commercial storefronts in the area currently lease for about $20-$30 per square foot yearly.
According to Monta Potter, Chamber of Commerce CEO, the passport is working very well. Since it launched in December 2011, she estimated, almost 1,000 have been sold. Perhaps even more importantly, for a town where visitor demographics traditionally trended more toward retirees than younger generations, “Two years ago, there were just two wine tasting places,” she said. Lately, “We’ve observed we’re bringing in a younger crowd. It’s a whole new wine mecca within walking distance to the beach,” a favorite of surfers.
The Monterey-Salinas Transit district Grapevine Express, a public shuttle service that ferries tasters from the hotels and conference center of downtown Monterey to the Carmel Valley tasting rooms, now stops in Carmel, Potter said.
New kid on the block
Manzoni Estate Vineyard is the freshest face on the wine walk: Its tasting room opened June 1 in the space formerly occupied by Cima Collina. Although its name is not yet included, and Manzoni Vineyards tasting room is only open Saturdays and Sundays (Manzoni Cellars in Carmel is open daily from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.), Manzoni has already honored more than a dozen visitors using the Passport, according to Mark Manzoni, owner/wine maker of the 2,000-case winery, also on the River Road in Gonzales.
In six years of slow growth at the winery, Manzoni said, distribution still represents some 60% of his sales, with the rest in his sparsely visited onsite tasting room. He hopes the new venture in Carmel will reverse that percentage. “We came over, checked it out,” he recalled. “About 90% of tourists stay in Monterey and go only to Carmel.”
Sharing a courtyard with Basil’s restaurant, Manzoni hopes to co-operate with special events. According to Caraccioli, the Wine Walk members are also trying to co-ordinate a yearly event to promote the new destination.
The current roster of Passport-enabled wineries includes Figge Cellars; Vino Napoli; Scheid Vineyards and Wrath Wines in addition to Galante, Caraccioli and Manzoni.
For more information about the Monterey County wine industry, visit the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.