Growing up in Berkeley, I never had any doubt about which direction to head for the wine country: North. I went either to Sonoma County, where years ago I helped my family put in 35 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, or to Napa County, where some wineries have long made tastings into an adult theme park experience.

That’s why I felt disoriented when the Wine Enthusiast magazine named Monterey County one of the top 10 “wine travel destinations” in the world — without mentioning any other location in California.

Clearly the magazine was trying to be provocative. No place in France made the list, and the most familiar wine regions in Italy and Germany were also missing.

The magazine made it clear that it wasn’t just ranking regions based on the flavor of the vino. Here’s why Monterey qualified:

Monterey County is one of California’s premier wine-producing regions, but it also has long been a destination for travelers. It has beautiful scenery, including Big Sur, the 17-Mile Drive and the Pebble Beach golf courses. It has the tourist venues of Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. It has the upscale galleries and bistros of Carmel-by-the-Sea. In short, Monterey has diverse draws for wine-oriented visitors. Glamorous resorts dot the county, featuring world-class cuisine, stellar local wines and full spas that pamper with style. The city of Monterey is only about 100 or so miles from downtown San Francisco, making it an easy detour for a multiday trek.

Pinot noir grapes from Talbott Vineyards (Talbott Vineyards)
Pinot noir grapes from Talbott Vineyards (Talbott Vineyards)

Still, the list caused double takes in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

So as a News Fix blogger, I felt I should conduct an investigation. The first idea I dreamed up, a fact-finding mission to the top wineries throughout the state, didn’t survive the light of day. My duty, a minute-by-minute monitoring of Bay Area news, is really only possible from my desk.

So I did the next best thing: talk to folks on the ground.

Napa may not have quite as many tourist attractions as Monterey, but Allison Simpson, vice president of marketing for Visit Napa Valley, points out that it has about 400 wineries — 150 of them open to the public. By comparison, Monterey has only 71 wineries with 31 tasting rooms.

It’s not so much that Napa grows so much more wine – both have about 45,000 acres of vineyards — but Monterey sends more of its grapes to be bottled elsewhere.

“The Napa Valley is a world-famous, highly regarded wine region for a reason,” said Simpson. “We grow and make great wines and our vintners are renowned for their warm hospitality and that’s what makes it such a great place to come and taste and drink.”

She pointed out that Napa’s microclimates allow it to grow an unusually wide range of grape varieties. Of course, Monterey also lays claim to a long list of varieties. So I called Jon Fredrickson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates a wine industry consultant in Woodside, hoping for an unbiased analysis.

“Monterey has built up a number of interesting growing regions,” he said. “It has nowhere near the number of wineries you would find in Napa or Sonoma. But it’s less well known so you get more attention when you visit.”

He told me that Monterey is too cool for some of the wines that made Napa’s reputation, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Wineries are also spread farther apart in Monterey, so the avid wine taster will have to do more driving between sips.

But a lot of good chardonnay is coming out of Monterey. And when it comes to pinot noir, he said, Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands—in the hills west of the Salinas Valley—can match any in the world, including the Carneros district of southern Sonoma and Napa counties.

And something else distinguishes Santa Lucia Highlands wines, said Fredrickson: “You get a lot of value for your money.”

Click on the pins to find out what wine costs at these three wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands

View Santa Lucia Highlands in a larger map

My ears pricked up at that. The last time I visited Napa wineries, I was stunned to be asked for money up front just for the privilege of tasting in their well-appointed rooms, amid shelves stocked with pricey T-shirts, corkscrews and pâté.

It was a far cry from my youth in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, when tasting rooms were sometimes just tables set up in the barrel rooms, and the wines were poured by the winemakers themselves.

I quickly realized why wineries impose fees for tastings now. Most of the bottles are outside my price range, and this is just about the only way they’re going to get any money out of folks like me.

Click on the pins to find out what wine costs at three wineries in Carneros.

View Carneros in a larger map

So I was curious to see how Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands and Napa’s Carneros stacked up in terms of actual dollars. For a true grape-to-grape comparison, I focused on pinot noirs in the two regions.

I called three Santa Lucia Highlands wineries mentioned by Frederickson: Paraiso Vineyard, Talbott Vineyard and Hahn Winery: Then I contacted three Carneros wineries named by Simpson: Saintsbury, Acacia Vineyard and Etude.

No doubt the comparison falls short of statistical significance, but the numbers seemed to confirm Frederickson’s point.

For example, at Etude winery in Carneros, the cheapest pinot noir is $42 a bottle, and it costs $20 just to get in the door. By contrast, Hahn Winery in Santa Lucia Highlands has a pinot noir for $14 (though not all the grapes in that wine are from that region), and tastings cost $10.

Overall, the least expensive pinot noirs at the three Carneros wineries average $37 a bottle. The Santa Lucia bargain pinot noirs average $20 a bottle.

The same is true of tasting-room fees — an average of $20 for the Carneros wineries versus $8.33 for the Santa Lucia wineries. And two of the three Santa Lucia wineries will waive the fee if you buy a bottle of wine. None of the Carneros wineries do that.

I can’t go back in time, but I may try going south next time I head to the wine country.

Why Monterey Beat Napa as California’s Top ‘Wine Destination’ 7 May,2014Laird Harrison

  • Lisa

    Let me give you a wonderful tip… try wine tasting in Lodi. They charge $3.00 for tasting, usually three vintages are sampled. They have varietals from Italy, Spain and some of the best Old growth Zin that I’ve ever tasted. They are friendly, unaffected and would rather make you comfortable than press you spend everywhere you turn. Lodi has it’s own appellation-now the largest in the world and if a Napa or Sonoma wine is 55% local sourced, best bet the balance of the wine grapes are from Lodi. The wineries are spread over the area, so it’s a pleasant day trip exploring all those different tasting rooms but if you’re serious and want to try very high level wines from over 23 wineries – at one location – go to Estate Crush and ask for Virginia. Tell her Lisa from Pittsburg sent you and you’re looking for a different, more friendly wine experience. Bring a designated driver too and have fun.

    • Laird Harrison

      Great suggestion, Lisa. I’ve bought wines from Lodi, but never visited any wineries there.

  • MikeMeisner

    Interesting perspective on the Monterey vs. Napa wine scene; I hadn’t thought to compare the prices like you did, but would expect something similar as a result. Honestly, the Garnet Monterey Pinot for $15 is pretty amazing, as are quite a lot of the cheaper Pinots from the region (Hahn included). Also, offers a lot of the regional wines under one roof, and is an excellent place to visit and try an array of wines if you go there.

  • larry schaffer

    Interesting piece indeed – and one that got my attention too. There’s no doubt a need for publications like WE to be a bit controversial to get readers to take note of what they are saying. There’s also a need for places like Monterey to get noticed, so my guess is that they ‘worked’ with WE to ensure they knew all that the area has to offer.

    ‘Value’ is obviously a relative term, and you can find plenty of examples of Napa wines being more reasonable than Monterey’s. You pointed out the Santa Lucia Highlands area – it is certainly possible to spend $50-75 and even a bit higher for pinots coming out of that area.

    I would also agree with Lisa about Lodi and the reasonable tasting fees. But the story was more than just on ‘value’ – it was on visiting an area and having a lot more to do than just taste wine.

    That is why I was surprised Santa Barbara County didn’t get recognition. I’m sure it has in the past, but to me, there is no better place to visit, not only for world class wines at reasonable prices, but to enjoy the open spaces the Santa Ynez Valley has to offer, to enjoy the world class cuisine and culture Santa Barbara has to offer, and more.

    Just sayin . . .


  • Kurt

    Lisa: There is more to tasting than $3 tasting fees. Try to find a good restaurant, golf course or shopping in Lodi. Bring everything you need. The Lodi visitor’s bureau is nice, but Lodi is not a destination tasting area. While some of the old vine zins are OK, most of what is produced goes into jug wine as well.

  • Andy

    “And when it comes to pinot noir, he said, Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands—in the hills west of the Salinas Valley—can match any in the world, including the Carneros district of southern Sonoma and Napa counties.” ???? – I think this person forgot about the Russian River Valley and the True Sonoma Coast. Sorry folks – in no way can the Monterey or Carneros area compete with Pinot Noir made from the RR & True SoCoast areas. Don’t take my word for it – do your research.

    • claudia

      Yes they can… need to do some blind tasting, my friend 🙂

    • I will put our SLH Pinot Noirs against RR blind any day of the week.

  • Elizabeth

    Great points about the wine regions of Northern California! A hint is that Carmel Valley in Monterey County hosts 20 tasting rooms with 18 of them in the Village. Park your car, taste wine, shop and eats breakfast lunch and dinner all in blocks of one another.

  • George

    A lot of what comes through in Napa is an air of superiority and the cost of their wines and tasting fees reflect that. They seem to project the feeling that they are the Establishment. Central Coast wineries just don’t project that degree of self-satisfaction except for maybe for a spot or two in Carmel. What it boils down to with me is that it is more fun to roam around across beautiful relatively uncrowded countryside visiting places that don’t take themselves too seriously…and their Rhones are certainly intriguing.

  • On the other side of Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is also a fantastic area for great Pinot Noir at a reasonable price and even closer to us in the South Bay Area. I go to Monterey to play golf, they’ve got a huge edge over Napa in that category. Going to Napa is good if you want a high end dining experience but values are definitely hard to come by. I’m very partial to supporting my local wineries and being a Pinotfile I prefer Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Sonoma area PN over anything from Napa.

  • r. hughes

    try Sonoma county

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