by Guest Guru Deborah Passin
I love wine so much I made it my career. On California road trips, I can’t help but seek out some of the state’s more than 100 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). But just as with my wine, I like balance in my vacation. Sure I do plenty of wine tasting, but I also like to explore the environment, culture and people. That means incorporating hikes and great meals and memorable encounters with locals. When all these parts come together, I have the perfect getaway, such as my recent trip to Carmel Valley.
WALTER’S WINES & WOOD-BURNING OVENS
Thirteen miles east from Highway 1 near Carmel is the quiet Carmel Valley Village. From Monterey you can make the easy drive yourself or take the Grapevine 24 Express bus. There are about 15 different tasting rooms within just a couple of miles.
Don’t expect to see any vineyards though. Most of the vines in the AVA (about 80%) are hidden in the Cachagua Valley to the east (Cachagua means “hidden water”). After navigating the daunting roads that climb up to a 1600-foot elevation, I could see why most wineries in the valley aren’t open to the public except a few times a year when they have open houses.
Start your day off at the Georis Tasting Room. These are some of my favorite wines in the valley. Walter Georis’s winemaker, Damien Georis (no relation, but coincidentally comes from Walter’s small home town in Belgium) made wine in Bordeaux for years, so it’s no surprise the wines have a European touch.
Walter believes wholeheartedly that wine should be enjoyed with food and friends. He owns three restaurants in the area and encourages socializing and eating rather than listening to a spiel about the wines. You can order a flight of wine that comes with cheese and freshly baked bread for $20. Instead of standing at the tasting bar, you get to relax at a table in his sunny courtyard.
Have lunch afterwards at Walter Georis’s Corkscrew Café, just across the street from the tasting room. The smell of the wood-burning pizza oven is intoxicating. Walter is also an artist so the restaurant has an artsy, rustic feel that’s warm and inviting. Enjoy a glass of your favorite Georis wine (I love to sip on the Sauvignon Blanc or Rosé on a warm day) and sit outside in the garden. Or take the rare opportunity to try winemaker Damien Georis’s delicious, tiny-production wine made under his own label, Madeleine.
If you plan to stick around all day, you can have lunch at Café Rustica instead and stop by Corkscrew later for Happy Hour. From 4:30 to 6pm you’ll get $5 and $7.50 glasses of wine, half-price pizzas, and chef’s selection of complementary appetizers. It’s a happening spot, so arrive early to get a shot at those appetizers.
After lunch head over to the Jouillian Vineyards tasting room (not to be confused with Chateau Julian winery) in a building reminiscent of an old-world Burgundian stone church. The exterior is built from Arroyo Seco river rock, the beam ceiling from salvaged old-growth redwood, and a tasting bar made from local cypress wood.
I recommend the barrel fermented Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, made Bordeaux style with some Semillon included. Carmel Valley is known more for its red wines, so it’s hard to find wineries that produce estate white wines. Both Jouillian and Georis offer exceptional examples. The Jouillian Zinfandel is also worth a try as it’s the only Zinfandel grown and made in the Carmel Valley.
Your next stop is the Parsonage Tasting Room and Quilt Art Gallery, owned and operated by Bill and Mary Ellen Parsons. Mary Ellen is a self-taught textile artist and displays giclée prints of her award-winning quilts, as well as some quilts themselves. These add color and personality to the intimate tasting room.
At any Carmel Valley winery you go to, ask to taste a Cabernet Sauvignon—it’s the most planted grape in the region and very different from Napa Cabernet. And it will give you the best sense of place in this relatively unknown AVA.
TAPAS & SPA TREATMENTS
Carmel Valley Village is small and quiet, but personally I’m more of a night person so I opt for staying in Monterey or Carmel. There are a few new spots for dining and drinking that shouldn’t be missed. Gabe Georis (yes, another Georis – Walter’s nephew this time) opened 46-seat Mundaka restaurant in 2009, a hip tapas-style restaurant that’s been a game changer for the nightlife in the sleepy town of Carmel.
A DJ starts at 7:00 PM every night, and silent movies project on the interior walls in the dimly lit space made 100% of sustainable, recycled materials. Gabe hired one of the area’s top chefs and sent him on a food tour of Spain before opening. Solo diners might enjoy the small, communal stand-up tapas bar, although bringing friends allows you to try more of their delightful dishes.
On your second night, enjoy a casual dinner in Monterey with a European-inspired locally sourced meal at Montrio Bistro or Italian comfort food at Il Vecchio (also kid-friendly). If you prefer upscale, dine at 1833 inside one of the oldest adobe homes in California (named for the year it was built). Or you can skip the meal and sit at the main bar, which serves more than 80 small batch and single barrel bourbons and an impressive list of other “pain killers” (a reference to the pharmacy that originally resided inside the home).
In the morning have breakfast in Carmel at either La Bicyclette or Carmel Belle. Then go for a leisurely stroll along the small roads by the beach and admire the beautiful homes. If you’re not looking for a full meal and want to hit the road sooner rather than later, go for French pastries at Parker-Lusseau in Monterey.
Don’t leave the area without a visit to Point Lobos State Reserve, only about five miles south of Carmel. Start with the Cypress Grove Loop hike, a less than one-mile trail that meanders through a grove of Monterey cypress trees with spectacular views of seaside cliffs. You’ll hear the sea lions barking in the distance and might encounter a deer or two. Notice the unusual orange, velvety covering on some of the trees, which is actually green algae that’s turned orange from carotene.
If your trip wouldn’t be complete without a little rest and relaxation, pay $39 for a few hours of hyrdo thermal therapy at the Refuge in Carmel. The recommended sequence is “heat up, cool down, relax.” Start off in the mineral pool, sauna or steam bath, then dunk in one of four varied temperature cold plunge pools, and finish by lounging in a two-acre indoor/outdoor relaxation area overlooking the Santa Lucia Preserve. Add on a massage and pay only $99 total.
Insider Tip: For a truly off-the-beaten-path dining experience, skilled drivers can make the one-hour trek from Carmel/Monterey to the Chacagua General Store in the Chacagua Valley. Run by Mike Jones, a chef and caterer sourcing locally farmed food, the Store becomes a restaurant just one night a week: Monday. The place is packed with oenophiles and foodies and local musicians playing. It’s gourmet dining with dishes like “Rabbit 5 Ways” in a no-frills décor at reasonable prices. Be sure to make a reservation a week in advance, don’t rush the drive or the dinner and leave your expectations at home.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on wine tasting getaway adventures throughout California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you. And if you need a great place to stay while exploring Carmel Valley, check out our fantastic hotel deals to the Carmel Mission Inn, Monte Verde Inn, and Casa de Carmel.
And for more insider tips on California activities and tours, California vacation spots, California tourist attractions, California vacation packages, and California inns, B&Bs, lodges, hotels, and restaurants, explore LocalGetaways.com, where you’ll always find best California travel deals.
by Deborah Passin, California wine expert and owner/blogger of BackCountryWines.com