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Off the Beaten Path: Exploring the Carmel Valley wine scene

March 27, 2024
‘If you enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, great variety, landscapes filled with wildlife habitat, and room to breathe, you owe yourself a visit to Carmel Valley’

Between the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles is the Carmel Valley. This is an extraordinarily beautiful place. It offers the enormity of the Pacific Ocean seascape, the quaintness of a village setting that has maintained its ethos for a hundred years, and rolling hills and valleys that are home to livestock and grapevines alike.

Carmel-By-The-Sea, a village nestled in the westernmost portion of the valley, sustains its residents and invites visitors. A place that is both modern and respectful of its history. Coming in from the east side of the valley, you could be forgiven for thinking that the landscape is home only to cattle, horses and ranchers. Grasslands for grazing herds, fallow fields regenerating from the previous year’s crops, and the sounds and scents of the movement of creatures across the plains and hillsides. But, as you move further westward, the countryside morphs into neatly transected, rolling hills of grapevines that are now a familiar sight in the Carmel Valley.

Read Also: Off the Beaten Path: New adventures along the Pacific coast

The newness of grape growing here barely spans 50 years, and so defines the idea of new world wines. I visited this place to enjoy the wines in the Carmel Valley, many of which are perhaps not so different from those in old world Europe. Innovation and dedication have led to fascinating creativity in this picturesque valley that was hit by a disaster of epic proportions on August 17, 2020. A fire broke out in Sky Ranch near Cachagua – the fires became known as the Carmel Fire and River Fire. They weren’t completely doused until September 5, 2020, and in that four-week period the smoke that permeated every part of the valley tainted almost every vineyard within it.

Many vintners lost their entire crop. Some were lucky enough to have only minor damage and a few others escaped with no impact. Horses and cattle from the inland areas of the valley had to be evacuated in less than 24 hours and the area was a smoky, ash-laden mess that needed so much care and attention.

Carmel Valley

Carmel Valley Wine Country.

My visit to Carmel was almost four years to the day that the fire hit the area hard. My aim on this trip was to visit the smallest and largest vineyard owners to see how they fared and to understand the unique aspects of the valley that make the wine noteworthy. If you visit the valley there is much more to experience than the village itself, which has a vibrant restaurant scene where many of the area’s local wines feature on the menus. And, while the Hog’s Breath Inn can no longer boast Clint Eastwood as one of its owners, the place is charming and inviting to everyone looking for a respite in the day after a brisk walk down to the beach and a hilly walk back.

There is no end to the options for exploration over a few days in this part of the world. Wherever you choose to stay, whether it is in one of the boutique hotels, or in an owner hosted rental, the entire village is walkable – weather permitting! Pack light and layers and you’ll be ready for all seasons. Because the village is dotted with tasting rooms, you are sure to run into something you would like to try. If you drive out of the village to the south along the Cabrillo Highway and enter the valley along Carmel Valley Road, you’ll travel a winding road that cuts across the entire valley.

Clustered between three and five miles down this road are the tasting rooms for a number of small, family-owned wineries with estate bottlings. There are also larger holdings, still family owned, that switched from ranching to vineyards, and they sell their grapes to other vintners whose estates are too small for the wine production they need. These growers and producers were faced with adversity and as a community they rallied with and for one another. It is evident when you meet them that this is an area where the success of each of the wineries depends on all of the owners and operators.

Carmel Valley

Scheid-labelled wines are made from grapes harvested across various areas of the Carmel Valley.

A few of the locations I visited are included here as a sampling of the different vineyards and wine styles you can enjoy in the Carmel Valley. Styles that personify the will to adapt to changing growing conditions, new tastes, and time-tested grape varieties. They range in size and focus so you can try all that is on offer in the valley. This is not a full spectrum of vineyards, simply a sample. There is a lot to choose from so a plan at the start of your trip will help you home in on the grape varietals and blends that you favour.

In Carmel Village, my first stop was at Scheid. Begun in 1972 by Al Schied, a Wall Street Banker, vineyard property was, and still is, family owned. The Scheid vineyards are the largest grape producers in California, but they sell the vast majority of grapes to other vintners. That’s not to say they don’t keep some grapes for their own production. Indeed, the family has a focus on interns who use the Greenfield grapes to mix and test their ingenuity. Scheid-labelled wines are made from grapes harvested across various areas of the Carmel Valley. The wines are primarily barrel aged, with the exception of their viognier which is produced in steel tanks.

Scheid is “Certified California Sustainable,” with more than 250 owl boxes on their properties, drip irrigation systems that are triggered with moisture sensors, and they are on 100% wind power. If that’s not impressive enough, how about the fact that 100 percent of the grape pomace is composted? The wines include chardonnay, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and pinot noir. There are some blends, too. The wines are fresh and exhibit refined characteristics of each of the classic varietals. The tasting room is bright and airy, there is plenty of assistance to guide you through different tastings, and depending on your location, wines can be purchased and shipped to your home.

Carmel Valley

Wrath Winery.

Inside the Carmel Plaza, a block or so from Scheid, you will find the Wrath winery tasting room. By contrast, Wrath has, by design, small, very small, production and focuses on pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and syrah. Less than one acre is dedicated to falanghina. The estate wines in the Santa Lucia Highlands benefit from morning fog and afternoon winds off the Pacific Ocean.

Other vineyards throughout Monterey County provide grapes for Wrath Wines but the estate bottlings showcase pinot noir on various terroir, especially those from their San Saba Vineyards. The estate practices sustainable farming techniques, uses indigenous yeast and minimal processing and filtration. The tasting room offerings and flights are extensive. A cheese plate to accompany the tasting is highly recommended. Here too, shipping to your home destination is an option depending on the location.

If you venture out of the village and further into the valley, you might consider a real gem at the Boekenoogen Wines tasting room. It is a family name of Dutch origin. A fifth-generation cattle ranch transformed into vineyards that sit in the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) of Monterey County. The process of migration to grape and wine production that began in 1998 has successfully grown into a family owned and operated business.


Boekenoogen Winery.

The SLH is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) above the Salina Valley within the larger Monterey County AVA. The weather patterns in the AVA are distinctly different allowing a wide range of grape varieties to thrive. Boekenoogen wines take advantage of this. The climate and geology of SLH allow Boekenoogen wines to excel at estate chardonnay, viognier, and pinot noir. They also produce smaller volumes of estate marsanne, zinfandel, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon. The Boekenoogen vineyard acreage dedicates approximately 61 acres to pinot noir and 36 acres to chardonnay. This is their focus and they have found grape expressions that are vibrant and soft. There is subtlety and strength in their bottlings which can also be shipped to you, again depending on location.

Next door to Boekenoogen is Parsonage. Small, approachable, family run and brimming with enthusiasm. Mary and Bill started the whole operation and the family followed in their footsteps. Family members are the GM, bookkeeper, and winemaker. The tasting room is unassuming and off the main road. It has a single door entrance and on the wall are pictures that look like quilts, but are, in fact, photographs of the quilts that Mary creates. The quilts themselves appear as labels on their wine bottles and are as intricate as they are colorful.

Parsonage Winery

Parsonage Winery.

The original seven-acre parcel that Mary and Bill purchased in 1998 led to additional acreage that now nets over 1,500 cases of wine each year. Each and every bottle carries a label that reflects who the family are and what they love. They were the first in the valley to plant syrah and this is a standout amongst their wines, as a single varietal and blended with grenache. Pinot noir is also on offer, along with merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Sitting outside on the deck in front of the Parsonage tasting room it feels as if you have moved back to the beginning of wine development in California. The main road is one lane in each direction, there is a general store and a small restaurant next to it, and a dusty parking lot on either side of the road.  There are no valets, or stone facades with grand entrances. Despite a somewhat lost vintage in 2020 due to the devastating fires, the tasting rooms and wineries are filled with smiling faces ready to greet you, and any question is a good one.

There were a handful of wineries that ventured a vintage that had smoke imbued flavour. Others chose to wait for the following growing season. The wines are as good as any of those produced elsewhere in the State and if you enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, great variety, landscapes filled with wildlife habitat, and room to breathe, you owe yourself a visit to Carmel Valley.


– Gillian Marks, PhD. is a contributing editor with VineRoutes


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