By James Laube, senior editor
Just about any way you stack the facts, Monterey County looms as a potent force in California's ever-expanding wine universe. Unlike its earlier false start, this time around it has tons of good grapes to help erase bad memories.
When Monterey wines first appeared on the radar screen, in the 1970s, there were moments of joy and of agony. Juicy Rieslings and exotic Chardonnays triggered interest, but the reds ranged from curious to unusual to bizarre. Red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel were planted throughout this Central Coast county in the sincere but mistaken belief that these heat-loving varieties would ripen in even the coolest of climes.
Far too many grapes were planted without knowing how they would turn out as wines. Too many reds were marred by green, unripe, herbal, cooked-vegetable and rubber flavors and chewy, overbearing tannins. Ever heard of botrytized Pinot Noir? Monterey had it. Harvests routinely extended into late October and November. No California grapegrower in his right mind wants to pick grapes that late, when the days are short and the weather is so cool.
Predictably, Monterey's reputation took a severe beating. Despite that, some growers and winemakers knew that better days were ahead, and they have persevered. Cabernet and Zinfandel acreage appropriately declined, with warmer sites found for the Cab. What Zinfandel remained was used in lesser blends or, often, relegated to white Zinfandel production.
Instead, Monterey has flourished with Chardonnay. Today there are more than a dozen Chardonnays that deliver the depth, richness and distinctive features that merit attention, including Bernardus, Cronin Ventana Vineyard, Estancia, J. Lohr Riverstone Vineyard, Mer Soleil, Morgan and Talbott. Sauvignon Blancs from Bernardus, Cain and Lockwood are also admirable. Not surprisingly, the growth of Monterey Chardonnay acreage has accelerated, putting Monterey ahead of Sonoma County as the state's largest Chardonnay producer. Most Monterey Chardonnay goes into broader Central Coast or California appellation bottlings, under labels such as Robert Mondavi Coastal or Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve.
Mondavi, which owns 1,500 acres of Monterey vines, is planning to build a winery in the county, joining the two dozen other wineries that already call Monterey home. Kendall-Jackson owns 2,500 acres, mostly Chardonnay, and it too will be looking for those special plots of land. As more unique sites are discovered, higher-quality wines will follow. Demand for Chardonnay grapes should remain strong because the wine is a big seller, and for most wineries it's easier and less expensive to buy grapes than it is to grow them.
Monterey also helped fuel the Merlot boom. Merlot plantings more than tripled in the 1990s, placing Monterey snugly behind Napa and Sonoma counties in total acreage. But most Monterey Merlot is used in blends, and none of the single-vineyard bottlings inspire great hope. Cabernet is in the same boat: It can be good, but it works best in blends.
With the success of Chardonnay, you might expect the other main Burgundian variety, Pinot Noir, to have an outside chance -- and it does. I've tried half a dozen tasty 1997 Pinot Noirs carrying the Pisoni Vineyard designation, giving me, at least, strong circumstantial evidence of the grape's potential.
The wild card may be Syrah -- which is not a widely planted grape in Monterey, with only 200 acres in vines. My source is not a high-profile wine guru, but the levelheaded winemaker for Delicato Vineyards, Tom Smith. Delicato owns America's largest contiguous vineyard, the 8,100-acre San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey, which is planted to 27 different varieties. As Delicato shifts from inexpensive wines to reserve-caliber bottlings, Smith is combing his vineyard for the best grapes. After several years of close inspection, he's come to the conclusion that Syrah has enormous possibilities.
Monterey fumbled its first attempt at red wines, but the timing for Syrah couldn't be better. If it's as good as winemakers such as Smith believe, then Syrah, along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, could give Monterey a sharper focus for wine lovers.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)