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Carmel Valley Wines

The sunlit valley near Monterey is one of California's most popular wine regions.

  • Carmel Valley vineyard fields, Calif., image
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    Vines and oaks cover the rolling hills of Carmel Valley.
  • Chateau Julien exterior, Carmel Valley, Calif., image
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    The turreted Chateau Julien winery is five miles inland from Highway 1.
  • Horse drawn wine tour, Carmel Valley, Calif., image
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    Visitors can experience Carmel Valley wineries in a horse-drawn cart.
  • Tasting room at Chateau Julien, Carmel Valley, Calif., image
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    The stylish tasting room at Carmel Valley's Chateau Julien glows in bright sun.
  • Wine trolley, Carmel Valley, Calif., image
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    The Wine Trolley heads to Carmel Valley from Monterey each day.

They should call it Caramel Valley, for the buttery light that bathes every view. Just a dozen miles inland from Carmel-by-the-Sea's storybook cottages and fog-swept pines and cypresses, sunny Carmel Valley is grape country, laid back and eucalyptus scented, with plenty of excellent wine.

Not that its vineyards are easy to reach. Unlike the sprawling fields of Napa and Sonoma, most of Carmel Valley’s best vineyards thrive on the surrounding steep hills, along blind curves and narrow roads. Fortunately, there’s a friendly solution: tiny Carmel Valley Village, home to a dozen or so tasting rooms, many with gardens, patios, or galleries. All are within a stroll, short drive, or shuttle from comfortable lodging, good restaurants, and parks with picnic tables and hiking trails.

A fine day of tasting begins at Chateau Julien on Carmel Valley Road, five miles inland from Highway 1 and a short drive from the village in midvalley. The turreted winery, on five acres of grapes, is one of the few in the area where you can tour fields and get an overview of winemaking, grape to bottle.

“There are no dumb questions,” sommelier Shawn Bruce reminds us as he pours sips of a crisp 2009 pinot grigio in the château’s great hall. “We’re looking to help you find wines you like, or you don’t like,” he says, adding that discovering what you dislike—grape varieties that might be too bracing or too rough—can be just as helpful in navigating a wine list as learning what you enjoy.

Happily, the region offers a great range of wines to sample, thanks to its varied topography and microclimates. Grapes for making cabernets, merlots, syrahs, and full-bodied blends thrive in the bright sun of 1,000-foot ridgetops, while the finicky pinot noir and voluptuous chardonnay grapes find cooler homes a little lower.

In Carmel Valley Village, Bernardus Winery serves opulent chards as well as pinots and other reds in a former Bank of America branch. As tasting room manager Stanley Rogalsky pours samples of one of Bernardus’s best—a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc—he urges visitors to use their imagination.

“Picture a little bite of grilled ribeye steak,” he says. “This 2007 Marinus is perfect with that.” How so? Because it has just enough palate-cleansing acidity. “After a sip, the next few bites of what you’re eating will burst with flavor again,” Rogalsky says.

At his winery just down the road, Walter Georis says he too sees good wine as integral to life’s richness. Instead of offering tastes at a bar, he serves five wines with plates of cheese and crostini to be enjoyed at tables in the shade of a gnarled cork oak. Georis, a musician and restaurateur, says his belief in wine as “a catalyst of good conversation about anything, not just wine” is a legacy of his childhood in Belgium. “Every year my parents bought a barre of bordeaux and a barrel of burgundy to share with friends and neighbors,” he says. “It was part of life.”

Around the corner, the Heller Estate winery’s shop and sculpture garden pitches its own vision of the good life—wines made from 120 acres of organically grown grapes. The bungalow tasting room also sells jars of organic crushed tomatoes, marmalades, and lavender oil, all reflecting a farming style that powers machinery with biodiesel and strategically uses plants and helpful insects instead of herbicides and pesticides. On a few weekends between April and June you can bless the next year’s vintage during “ladybug release parties” while enjoying the mountaintop estate and its wines. (Call for reservations.)

Or wander into Heller’s village tasting room to buy a bottle of old-vine chenin blanc to pair with picnic fare from Wild Goose Bakery Café down the street—perhaps minibaguette sandwiches, spinach brioche, or berry pie. Celebrate the sunshine amid Toby Heller’s fanciful bronzes in the garden, or take a walk to admire wildflowers in nearby Garland Park. As valley vintners are quick to tell you, winetasting is about so much more than tasting wine.

Photography by David H. Collier (4); Craig Lovell/Eagle Visions Photography/Alamy (vineyard)

This article was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.