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California’s Monterey County Wines

You can really drink in the scenery of the Salinas Valley.

wine tour, Salinas Valley, Calif.
Photo caption
San Sabo's vintners sample and barrel their 2005 merlot.

"Fortune favors the prepared mind," said wine expert Louis Pasteur. So grab a map and get ready. From California's Highway 68 in Monterey County, turn south onto River Road—a country lane that follows the Salinas River—and plunge into one of the state's newest destinations for wine lovers.

"It's like Napa 30 years ago," says Jon Brosseau, a Lockheed engineer who with his wife, Jan, runs the Inn at the Pinnacles, a gracious bed-and-breakfast on a knoll above the valley. Low-key, in other words. Unspoiled. On a relaxed afternoon—amid vineyards and croplands of startling beauty—you can sample a dozen varieties of wine at half a dozen wineries.

"We're stuck on the rhônes—they're so food friendly," says Joel Burnstein, a former stock trader who teamed up with his sweetheart a few years ago to found Marilyn Remark Wines. In their barnlike barrel room they guide you through roussanne, marsanne, rosé, grenache, petite sirah, and syrah. Farther along the road, Steve Pessagno pours his namesake chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, zinfandel, and port in a homey space hardly bigger than a boudoir. Not far away is the spanking-new winery and tasting room at San Saba Vineyards. There, winemakers Jeff Ritchey and Sabrine Rodems have revamped 70 acres of decades-old vines, spurning cabernet in favor of chardonnay and merlot, a grape that's endured some jabs. "Merlot a beginner's wine?" Rodems says. "No way. You just need to know how to make it exciting." Nearby are Hahn Estates, Paraiso Vineyards, and Chalone Vineyard, all Monterey County stalwarts offering delectable wines and fabulous views to visitors who venture off the valley floor.

Where to stay? If the Brosseaus' six rooms are booked, try Barlocker's Rustling Oaks Ranch, a newly refurbished bed-and-breakfast. Or reserve a posh canvas bungalow at Vision Quest Ranch, a B&B at an animal rescue and training center, where a kangaroo named Elvis hops by at sunset, Josef the lion roars in the night, and Lisa the elephant drops by to bring breakfast. Information: (888) 221-1010,

Photography by Mitch Tobias

This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.