Wine Country to the North

This is the third in a series of three stories centered on traveling to Wine Country in the western United States.

In the previous two stories dealing with Gulf Coasters discovering the joys of Wine Country in California, we delved into areas that would be both strange and wonderful to Southern people like you who live a completely different life than our friends in the Great Northwest. While they make beverages we enjoy and consume, we actually have the advantage, at least to our palates, because of the way we treat and prepare fresh seafood.

But one of the challenges of travel is to fully experience where we are, and leave those beloved touches of home back where we came from. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of fresh produce and seafood in the Northwest to satisfy even the fussiest Third Coast resident. That’s us, by the way.

Let’s begin just a little north from where we left off in Part 2 of this series, and that takes us to the Monterey Bay area. It is here that Big Sur, the classic American coastline we all recognize from automobile commercials, really hits its stride. Riding along California Highway 1, you are transported to a place you never want to leave.

South and east of the town of Monterey is the Salinas Valley. This is truly one of the greatest growing areas for vegetables on Planet Earth. It’s the reason that year-round we can have sweet lettuce, ripe tomatoes, asparagus begging for butter and garlic, garlic, and carrots, among so much more.

Wine Country to the North

Giving form to the Salinas Valley are the Galinas Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia Highlands to the west. Here are some of the finest grape growing regions in all of California. Just about every grape grown in America can thrive here, in particular pinot noir and chardonnay. These plantings benefit from warm days and cool nights, excellent drainage, and the influences from the Pacific.

Santa Lucia Highlands has recently come on very strong. The wines from here have also gained notoriety from the influences of the movie, Sideways, proving it’s better to be in the right place at the right time than the alternative. Visit the wineries of Hahn, Smith & Hook, and Paraiso in Santa Lucia, and Chalone Winery on the other side of the valley. 

You are not far from the completely enjoyable and picturesque towns of Carmel and Monterey. Because you will likely have only one meal in each place, Carmel is a better afternoon meal choice, and, besides you may want to visit the former mayor’s joint. The former mayor being Clint Eastwood, and his place, since sold, is the Hog’s Breath Saloon. Yes, you can do better dining but The Breath is fun, eclectic, and perfect for lunch.  

A little further to the north, just at the entrance to Big Sur, is the Highlands Resort, and their restaurant is Pacific’s Edge. Great views of the ocean through a grove of pine trees, and even at night there’s plenty to enjoy through floor to ceiling windows. You may also choose to stay here. Very luxurious.

As you enter, Monterey, you will notice that the entire community has excellent views of the Pacific. There’s a world-class aquarium here, quite interesting, and in the area are a lot of tourist shops and small cafes. Dress warm, particularly in winter but also in summer. To your advantage, the town is full of tasting rooms from wineries in the area. You don’t have to travel through the countryside to enjoy the wines made here. Just walk the streets of Monterey. As you are walking the streets, you will thank me for the “dress warm” advice.

Let’s move way up the Pacific Coast, a long way up, by some beautiful vistas, through the village of Mendocino, and into Oregon. Here the coastline turns rugged, but just inland is the Willamette Valley. Wines from this area, and the just-south, Umpqua Valley, are really coming into their own.  Rightly so.

The expression of pinot noir and chardonnay in these places rivals what’s now being produced in Burgundy, France.

The community of McMinnville, Oregon, just south of Portland, is Ground Zero for this area’s viticulture, but the smaller towns of Yamhill, Carlton, Newberg and Dundee are the commercial centers of the region’s winemakers. The agricultural land near these very small communities is wall-to-wall plantings.

Wine Country to the North

Most wineries have tasting rooms, and most tastes are free. They are grateful for the visit. Check out Willamette Valley Vineyards, Methven, Tualatin, Amity, Elk Cove, Ponzi, Drouhin, Adelsheim, Beckham, and Beaux Freres, just to name a few.

Ask some of the wine people where they like to dine. Usually those are the best choices, and there is a lot of movement in the restaurant scene in this area because of the recent upsurge in reputation and because these folks are so close to a major metropolitan area, Portland.

Washington State is defined by the giant Chateau St. Michelle winery. Just outside of Seattle, in the western part of Washington, this winery has singlehandedly put the entire state on the map. Yes, there are many wineries in this area, but the marketing clout of CSM, the oldest winery in the state, has brought the Washington story worldwide.   

The winery, which was founded in 1954 and has been through numerous owners, is now owned by a partnership between Piero Antinori from Italy and Germany’s Ernst Loosen, which would explain the excellent Italian varietals now being produced here and the classic Riesling, Eroica

Wine Country to the North

Most of the wine, by volume, produced in Washington State happens in the dry desert that comprises the entire eastern side of the state, from the Cascades to the state line. The wineries are small in production, thanks to some challenging growing conditions. The two main winegrowing areas in this region are Red Mountain near the town of Kennewick, between Walla Walla and Yakima; and to the southern part of the state is the Columbia Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area), the largest AVA in Washington State with a small portion across the state line and into northern Oregon.

This area is on the verge of national and international recognition. It’s a place to visit now rather than later.

A Gulf Coast resident roaming the wine areas of the Great Northwest sounds like an ideal way to spend a week or two. Then come home to the sun.


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