When I knew I’d be passing through Monterey County, I thought Cannery Row, not wine. What I discovered was a “wine sleeper.” A grape-growing hotspot waiting for its time in the sun.
After the wilds of Big Sur and a camp dinner of peanut butter and apples, my friend Rachel and I were ready for some real cuisine. So as a detour before our stop at the Ventana Winery Tasting Room, where she had worked for the past year, we searched for a little spot I’d heard of in Carmel.
It took some time on windy country roads to find our destination, the Corkscrew Cafe, but the pay off was worth it.
At first, we unwittingly headed into the art gallery across from the restaurant. “You are interested in the art?” a silver-haired gentleman with a faint European accent asked.
“No, we are starving,” I blurted out.
“Ah, it’s food you want? Corkscrew is right across the way,” he said, pointing us in the right direction.
We entered a sun-dappled courtyard decorated with colorful pastel Mexican papel picado banners, fountains made out of wine bottles, and lovebirds chirping in an aviary. The smell of fresh baked bread wafted from the kitchen as Fado, Portuguese folk music, played in the background.
Our waiter, Seno, greeted us and explained that all the produce is organic and raised by the owner. I perked up. “Would it be possible to speak with the owner if he’s around?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll get him,” he said, then disappeared. After enjoying our salmon Niçoise salad and day boat scallops over sweat-pea risotto, the same man I’d practically barked at earlier came and sat next to us.
“Ah, it’s the hungry ladies,” he said with a laugh. “I’m Walter. Nice to meet you.”
I blushed and began my inquiries.
He explained that the origin of the bistro was a spin-off of the Georis Winery Tasting Room, which he also owned, along with the art gallery we had just snubbed. In addition to the winery and vineyard (established in 1981), he also owns two other high-end restaurants in Carmel — La Bicyclette and Casanova.
My favorite part of his story was how he arrived in America — by selling Birkenstock sandals (remember those?). The icing on the cake was when he mentioned that his old band, aptly named The Sandals, had written the soundtrack to the king of classic surf films The Endless Summer.
I smiled at the serendipity.
We could have soaked up sun in the courtyard all afternoon, but the owner of Ventana Winery was waiting for us in Monterey proper.
Randy Pura greeted us in the historic stone house-turned-tasting-room with two glasses of Rubystone in hand. We sipped on the Grenache-Syrah blend and listened to Randy’s colorful stories of his family tree and the origin of his winery.
Then we got on a different topic: Why hasn’t Monterey made the wine map yet?
“It’s a case of mistaken identity,” Randy explained. “We have all the makings of great wine country — first class soil, climate, water access. But in the ’70s, the area was categorized as a warm climate, so all the wrong varietals were planted. They didn’t ripen properly, and the result was wine that tasted like asparagus. Nobody liked it.”
After that catastrophe, he explained, it had been difficult for Monterey to shake its bad rap, even though the colder climate produces show-stoppers like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Grenache.
But this year, the sleeper got its break when a grape shortage put California winemakers 40 million cases below normal production levels, forcing them to search beyond their usual suppliers. Monterey came through, and is on its way back up, evidenced by the fact that E. & J. Gallo Winery, one of the largest, recently picked up sizable pieces of land in the area.
When we finished our glasses of Rubystone, and Randy left and came back with another bottle.
“This is Le Mistral, our ‘liquid love.’ She’s the Cadillac of Rhone blends.”
With each sip of that complex, yet smooth red, I silently cheered for Monterey County and its future fame.
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Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.