Favorites in Monterey County

Carmel BeachPlanning a getaway to Monterey County? There are plenty of reasons to do so, and wine lovers have even more of them. Whether you’re looking for wine, food, or scenery, this is a very appealing destination.  Monterey Wine Country is home to almost 200 vineyards growing a range of 42 varietals in a moderate climate (which is also known for its fog and wind).

Monterey County has both urban and rural wine tasting rooms, outstanding restaurants with award-winning wine lists, and worthwhile shops for wine and/or other food products. Many of the restaurants and food purveyors here are also devoted to worthy causes supporting the community and the environment.

Favorite Wineries in Monterey County

Albatross Ridge – With a winery named after the “Albatross” sailplanes that the owner’s great-grandfather used to launch off the ridges of Carmel Valley, the wines here are crafted from grapes grown on a steep ridge overlooking the Carmel Bay. The goal here is to handle the wines as minimally as possible to preserve and display the varietals’ unique flavors. It’s definitely a family affair here with winery owner Brad Bowlus, his wife Cassia (who manages the tasting room), their son Garrett (the winemaker) and their daughter Brittney (in charge of operations).  Our favorite wines here were the Estate Chardonnay, the Cuvée Vivienne Pinot Noir and the Estate Reserve Pinot Noir.  (Dolores Street, between Ocean and 6th Avenues, Carmel)

Bernardus Winery – Owner Bernardus (Ben) Pon has a dream: to make a red wine equal to the finest from Bordeaux. The Bernardus tasting room was actually the first tasting room opened in the Carmel Valley.  As for us, our favorite wines here include the Griva Sauvignon Blanc, Ingrid’s Vineyard Chardonnay and three Pinot Noirs:  Sierra Mar Vineyard, Soberanes Vineyard and Ingrid’s Vineyard.  We also highly recommend the Signature Marinus.  (5 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, 800-223-2533)

Boekenoogen Vineyard & Winery – This family owned and operated winery is headed by owners John and Susan Boekenoogen and their son Garrett Boekenoogen, the winemaker. John transformed his family’s fifth-generation cattle ranch into a vineyard in 1998.  Their Estate Pinot Noir was named the Best Local Red Wine in Monterey County Weekly’s Readers Poll.  Personally, our favorite wines here include the Santa Lucia Highlands Estate Chardonnay, the Santa Lucia Highlands Estate Pinot Noir, and the “3 Clone” Pinot Noir.  We were also rather impressed by their Bell Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  (24 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, 831-675-3549)

Caraccioli Cellars – Founded in 2006, this winery takes pride in developing wines that deliver an expression true to vintage and site. Michel Salgues (formerly head winemaker at Roederer Estate) leads the production of both still and sparkling wines.  The downtown tasting room offers a stylish and trendy environment to enjoy your flight of tastes, where you can also purchase a cheese and charcuterie plate.  We tend to prefer the sparkling wines here and our favorite was a 2009 Brut Cuvée.  (Dolores Street between Ocean and 7th Avenues, Carmel, 831-622-7722)

Galante Vineyards – The Galante Family has a long history in the Monterey area and the philosophy here is to grow the finest grapes possible and let the fruit express itself in the finished product. The tasting room may be tucked away off of Dolores Street but it’s worth the effort to find it. Our preferred wines here are the Cabernet Sauvignons, particularly the Blackjack Pasture. (Dolores Street, between Ocean and 7th Avenues, Carmel, 831-624-3800)

Georis Winery – Established in 1982, Georis Winery produces wines that reflect the regional terroir and microclimate, crafted through a philosophy that balances respect for classic European winemaking traditions as well as leveraging advantages brought with modern technology. Owner Walter Georis and winemaker Damien Georis may share a common name, and be from the same town in Belgium, but are not actually related. The very pleasant wine tasting experience here is flight-based, in an 1930’s adobe house with an attractive garden setting. (4 Pilot Road, Carmel Valley, 831-659-1050)

Joullian Vineyards & Winery – In order to add complexity and elegance to the wines here, Joullian’s founding winemaker Ridge Watson grows multiple clones of each grape variety at different elevations, exposures and soil types, and then ensures the wines receive extended bottle aging before being released.  The Tasting Room is located in a classic stone building and our favorite wines include the Estate Semillon, Monterey Chardonnay, Reserve Estate Merlot and the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.  (2 Village Drive, Carmel Valley, 831-659-8100)

Scheid Vineyards – The wine labels here reflect the image of a vineyard worker, an homage to the winery’s beginnings as a grape grower, and Scheid sure grows a lot of grapes. In fact, the wine labels are actually color-designated to reflect the 4 primary growing regions of their 10 estate vineyards from which the fruit is sourced. You will find a broad spectrum of wines here, including Riesling, Albariño, Pinot Gris, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Our favorite wines here include the Clone 667, Clone 777, and the Clone Pom Reserve Pinot Noirs, all selections from their Pinot Noir Clone Series which was created to honor the differences that each clone presents. We also recommend the Riesling, Claret Reserve, and the Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir Reserve. (San Carlos Street and 7th Avenue, Carmel, 831-656-9463)

Silvestri Vineyards –  Alan Silvestri is a composer who has scored over 100 films including Forrest GumpThe Avengers and Polar Express.  He and his wife Sandra are long time residents of California’s central coast and in 1997 they founded Silvestri Vineyards.  The winemaking process here tries to balance the use of  traditional methods to allow the expression of the terroir while also taking advantage of modern knowledge about wine fermentation and aging.  Our favorite wines here were the “Ala” Pinot Gris, the Estate Chardonnay and the “Due Bambine” Chardonnay. (7th Avenue between San Carlos and Dolores, Carmel, 831-625-0111) 

Talbott Vineyards – The tasting room here also serves as a museum for founder Robb Talbott’s collection of vintage motorcycles and pedal cars, offering plenty to look at between sips of the estate wines grown in the Sleepy Hollow and Diamond T Vineyards. This is also a good place to bring your lunch as the outdoor patio has tables and seats for picnicking as well as bocce ball courts. Our favorite Chardonnays here include the Kali Hart, the Sleepy Hollow, the Sarah Case and the Diamond T.  We also recommend the Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir. (25 Pilot Road, Carmel Valley, 831-659-3500)

Wrath Wines – Wrath produces site-driven Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc from their estate vineyard and properties in the Santa Lucia Highlands.  The production is small and distribution is limited but they do, luckily, have a tasting room in the Carmel Plaza (right next to The Cheese Shop).  Our favorite wines here are the Ex Anima Sauvignon Blanc, the 115/667 Pinot Noir, and two of their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs:  the McIntyre Vineyard and the San Saba Vineyard.  (Carmel Plaza, Ocean Avenue and Mission Street, ground floor, Carmel, 831-620-1909)

Favorite Food Destinations in Monterey County

Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company – This local coffeehouse chain was established in 1994 to provide superior handcrafted coffee, using the finest Arabica beans, delivered very fresh to discerning customers. CVCRC is the only Certified Organic coffee roasting company on the Monterey Peninsula and is frequently named the Best Coffee Shop in Monterey County Weekly’s Readers Poll well as the Carmel Pine Cone’s Readers Poll.  (three locations in Carmel including The Barnyard, The Crossroads and downtown on Ocean Avenue between Lincoln and Monte Verde Streets).    

Grasing’s – Chef Kurt Grasing’s menu is based on fresh ingredients from California’s Coast and the Central Valley ever since this establishment was opened in March 1998.   Some excellent ways to start your meal would be with the House-made Onion Rings, Four-Onion Tart, or Grilled Artichoke with Crab Salad.  The weekend brunch menu offers plenty of delicious choices.  (6th Street and Mission Avenue, Carmel,  831-624-6562)

La Balena – Delightfully charming owners Emanuele and Anna Bartoloni oversee this “Cucina Tuscana.” The menu here changes on a daily basis according to the local ingredients available and we adored their Burrata and Sea Salt Bruschetta, Heirloom Tomato Caprese Salad, Ziti with Summer Squash, and an outstanding Pollo Fritto.  Don’t skimp on the desserts here either, as the Tiramisu and Spumoni Bomba are both excellent.  La Balena has been named the Best Carmel Restaurant in Readers Polls in both Monterey County Weekly and the Carmel Pine Cone. (Junipero Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, Carmel, 831-250-6295)

La Bicyclette – This casual (and very popular) café features simple and delicious cuisine crafted from local ingredients using old world techniques. Offerings include soup served tableside out of copper saucepans, omelettes, and the “catch du jour.” The menu changes daily but features thin-crust pizzas made in their wood-fired Mugnaini oven. La Bicyclette collaborates with the Carmel Middle School Habitat on teaching local children the importance of living and eating sustainably, and some menu items feature produce grown in the school’s gardens. (Dolores Street at 7th Avenue, Carmel, 831-622-9899)

Lafayette Bakery & Café – This delightful bakery demonstrates the French heritage of both its Master Baker and Pastry Chef through their authentic artisan breads, hand-crafted pastries, baguette sandwiches, cookies and other treats available for sale in the Barnyard Center.  Lafayette was also named as best Bakery in the Carmel Pine Cone’s Readers Poll. (3672 The Barnyard, Suite E22, 831-915-6286)

Parker-Lusseau Pastries and Café – Owners and spouses Anne Parker Johnson and Yann Lusseau have worked as pastry chefs and pastry cooks at some of the best restaurants, patisseries, and hotels throughout the United States and Europe. Starting with the Munras store in 1996, the business has now grown to three locations, two of which are open on Saturday but none of which are open on Sundays. The products here are awesome, and remind us of our trips to Europe. Savory treats include soup, sandwiches, and quiches, and sweet options cover everything from cake to tarts to petit fours to breakfast pastries. (731 Munras Ave, 831-643-0300, 539 Hartnell St, 831-641-9188)

Passionfish – A sustainable seafood restaurant focused on saving our oceans, Passionfish is also the first officially green restaurant in Monterey County. Owned and operated by Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy Walter, the daily-changing menu features outstandingly prepared seafood, slow cooked meats, farm fresh organic greens and delectable house-made desserts. All are complimented with an award-winning wine list which is lovingly curated and well-priced. If you bring your own wine, half of the corkage fee goes to the Tag-A-Giant Foundation whose mission is to support scientific research and conservation of bluefin tuna. (701 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, 831-655-3311)

Wild Plum Café, Bistro & Bakery – Chef and Proprietor Pamela Burns offers an urban bistro that provides fresh, organic, made-with-care food, and a comfortable, hospitable atmosphere to foster community discussion and vitality. The breakfast and lunch menus are both extensive, although the actual breakfast pastry, cakes and tarts offered each morning will depend on the availability of produce and the creativity of the chefs. We have enjoyed this restaurant for both their sit-down-and-eat as well as their order-and-take-with-you options. (731 Munras Avenue, Monterey, 831-646-3109)

Carmel-by-the-Sea also offers several Happy Hour experiences and here are some we can personally recommend:

  • Hog’s Breath Inn – Between 3:30 pm and 5:30 pm (except for Saturdays), you’ll find $5 selected wines by the glass, $5 selected draft beers (including Stella Artois and Lagunitas IPA), and $6 well Gin & Vodka Martinis. Food items include $5 Sweet Potato Fries or Artichoke Dip, and $7 BLT Sliders or Ensenada Fish Tacos.  (San Carlos Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, Carmel, 831-625-1044)
  • Il Fornaio – Between 4 pm and 6 pm (Mon-Fri), you can choose between $6 cocktails such as a Lemon Drop made with Absolut Citron, Raspberry Martini made with Stolichnaya Razberi Vodka, or a Bellini with Maschio Prosecco, and pair those with $6 appetizers including Carpaccio, Calamaretti Fritti, or Fradiavola Pizza. (Pine Inn, Ocean Avenue at Monte Verde Street, Carmel, 831-622-5100) 
  • Terry’s Lounge at Cypress Inn – Between 4:30 pm and 6 pm (Mon-Fri), cocktails are 15% off here with Doris Day movies playing on the television (as Ms. Day is one of the Inn’s co-owners).  There aren’t any food discounts during Happy Hour, but the extensive Bar Menu includes Monterey Bay Calamari, Grilled Brussel Sprouts, Nathan’s Mini Hot Dogs, Chicken & Poblano Quesadilla, Short Rib Sliders and more.  (Cypress Inn, Lincoln Street at 7th Avenue, Carmel, 831-620-7460)

Shopping for Wine (and other things) in Monterey County

The Cheese Shop – Located in the Carmel Plaza since 1975, this purveyor of fine cheese, wine, and gourmet foods is usually crowded with customers and staffed with insanely helpful and friendly people. Cow, sheep, and goat cheeses of all kinds can be found here. (lower level of Carmel Plaza at Ocean and Junipero Avenues, Carmel, 800-828-9463)

Happy Girl Kitchen Company Local food purveyor dedicated to celebrating simple, delicious and farm driven foods through parties, recipe swaps, pop-up dinners, workshops, and this combination storefront/counter. Pickles, tomatoes, jams, marmalades, and honey are just some of the products you should be able to buy here and/or through their website. (173 Central Avenue, Pacific Grove, 831-373-4475)

Nielsen Brothers Market – This popular local grocery store includes a full-service wine shop open seven days a week. Nielsen’s has an eclectic and impressive selection of domestic, imported, and rare wines. You can also sample wines at their wine bar and ask their knowledgeable staff for help. (San Carlos Avenue at 7th Avenue, Carmel, 831-624-6441)

Other Helpful Links

Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association – a non-profit organization representing over 75 vintners and growers in Monterey County.


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