Wine people in California's other counties get a trifle touchy about Napa. "All you hear is Napa this and Napa that. Nobody notices the premium wine-growing counties in the rest of the state," worry some producers in Monterey County. Not at all, I tried to reassure them. Most consumers back East have only a vague idea of the geography of California. They buy on the reputation of a producer or a grape variety, not by county.
Why are they worrying? Napa produces only some 25 percent of the premium wines of California, whereas Monterey has already planted more vineyards and has the available land -- at a more affordable price -- to continue to expand.
They worry because five years ago, even as little as two years ago, most wine drinkers couldn't have cared less about Monterey. It was hardly good news to learn that there was to be more productivity from the folks who delivered your vegetables and wine in the same bottle. That reputation for grassy whites and bell-pepper cabernets has been a tough one to live down.
There was no magic wand to wave over the vines with the command: "Vanish, veggies." It took hard work, back-to-basics, to learn how Monterey's porous soils and dry, cool desert climate required special growing practices. Twenty years is not a long time in a vineyard's scheme of things, and Monterey has only been a factor in post-Prohibition California since the early 1960s, when a few wineries east and south of San Francisco expanded farther south. The families of Wente and Mirassou and the companies of Paul Masson and Almaden gave confidence to the newcomers who followed: Durney, Jekel, Ventana, Monterey Vineyard, Turgeon & Lohr, Monterey Peninsula and, recently, Smith & Hook.
In 10 years Monterey has gone from pioneering to becoming an established region. The next 10 years should see a settling down, in which each of the growing regions will produce the varieties best suited to its conditions: cabernet sauvignon in the warmer south; chenin blanc, pinot blanc and cabernet in the center; and johannisberg riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer and pinot noir in the coolest north.
If the veggies are on the way out (I didn't taste one markedly vegetal or herbal wine on a recent visit), Monterey's most exciting development is still to come: the production of champagne- method sparkling wines of fine quality. To make an unavoidable comparison, they show early signs of being closer in style to those of Champagne than do others of California. Monterey growers can pick their pinot noir and chardonnay at sufficiently high acidity to make traditional sparkling wines. The indefatigable Doug Meador at Ventana is even growing two clones of pinot noir, a large berry for his sparkling wine and a small berry for his still wine, to give the latter a greater skin-to-juice ratio, thus boosting the color and tannins.
Wente is building a champagne cellar at its Arroyo Seco vineyards, and the first production will be released during its centenary celebrations next June. At Monterey Peninsula Winery, Roy Thomas, a dentist with a flair for making unusual wines in his tiny converted-restaurant winery, is aiming for a bone dry "natural" style. And at Ventana, Meador has stacked his '81 blend away, to lie on their yeasts for two years before being disgorged.