Harvest is in full swing in the Arroyo Seco area of Monterey County, so any celebrations will have to wait. But this year marks the 30th anniversary of Arroyo Seco's federal designation as an American Viticultural Area, the U.S. version of an appellation.
A lot of wine consumers don't know much about Arroyo Seco, which is near Greenfield and adjoins the better-known Santa Lucia Highlands. It's relatively small at 18,000 acres, half of them planted with vines. Historically, much of the harvest ended up in bigger blends, many of them labeled with Central Coast or California appellations. Arroyo Seco, says winemaker Mark Chesebro of Chesebro Wines, was "traditionally a place that provided high-quality chardonnay to cheaper blends."
A lot of fruit is still being used in bigger blends, but the Arroyo Seco appellation is increasingly showing up on wine labels. Wente Vineyards, one of the first to plant in Arroyo Seco, is probably better known as a Livermore Valley winery, but it has a series of wines labeled with their Arroyo Seco origins. J. Lohr also produces several Arroyo Seco wines. And smaller players have started wineries there or are buying fruit from the area and putting Arroyo Seco on the label.
Precise figures aren't available, but chardonnay is the most widely planted grape, and most vintners agree it's the variety that performs best. Pinot noir plantings have increased. "There used to be a lot of merlot; pinot noir has taken its place," Chesebro says. Riesling and sauvignon blanc also have significant plantings.
Vineyards were first established in Arroyo Seco about 50 years ago, when Wente and two Santa Clara Valley-based wineries, Mirassou and Paul Masson, looked to Monterey County to expand.
A lot of the early plantings weren't really appropriate for a cool growing area. Jerry Lohr, for example, planted mostly cabernet sauvignon when he started in Arroyo Seco in the early '70s, says Jeff Meier, Lohr's director of winemaking. It didn't take long before Lohr realized cab and grapes like zinfandel and petit sirah weren't working, and a lot of vines were grafted over to white varieties, such as chardonnay. Pinot noir also didn't perform well, Meier says, probably because of the clones that were planted and the viticultural practices back then. (Lohr did not try pinot noir again until 2003.)
Carolyn Wente, CEO of Wente Vineyards, says her family was luckier. "Eighty percent of what we were producing was white wine," she says, so their vineyard was planted mostly with chardonnay and riesling. They also had success with pinot noir. "We stuck with it through the whole period," she says.
The best news for consumers? The large size of some vineyard operations, the amount of mechanization and Arroyo Seco's current unsung status have kept grape prices down, which translates into good value in the wines. Roger Moitoso of Arroyo Seco Vineyards, a large grower in the area, points out that "they're not only really good wines, they're affordable."
I tasted a number of wines from the area and, as a group, the chardonnays are probably the most impressive. The J. Lohr Riverstone and Jekel Gravelstone are good values at less than $20. For a little more money, there are good bottlings from Mercy, Wente, Blair and Martin Ranch. There are also some excellent sauvignon blancs, especially the Bernardus sauvignon blanc from Griva Vineyard. "There's not a better place for sauvignon blanc," says grower Michael Griva.
Pinot noir is more of a work in progress, although there are some good ones from wineries such as La Rochelle, Mercy and J. Lohr. Widespread pinot plantings are relatively new, and some vintners clearly are still finding their way.
"I think we still have some great things to see from pinot," Griva says.
I asked vintners which grapes might do well in the area. Chesebro is excited about the prospects for albarino; he has a couple of acres of it and produces a delicious version under his label. Others mentioned syrah and grenache, and I've tasted some good Arroyo Seco syrah in the past, although not recently. Chesebro produces an easy-to-drink grenache-syrah blend called Las Arenas.
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For good value in Arroyo Seco chardonnay, look for the 2011 Jekel Gravelstone Chardonnay ($16) or the 2011 J. Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay ($14). The former is fresh and racy, while the latter offers more richness and fleshiness. J. Lohr also makes more expensive chardonnay, like the 2011 October Night Chardonnay ($25), which is very floral, with pretty fruit and some creaminess.
The best Arroyo Seco chardonnays balance richness with nice freshness. One example is the 2012 Blair Chardonnay ($28), with its zippy apple and lemon, some oak and touch of creaminess. The 2012 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay ($22) is also rich yet fresh, with lemon and green apple accented by a creamy, slightly buttery note.
I also liked the 2011 Martin Ranch "J.D. Hurley" Chardonnay ($25), which displays fresh apple and pear, a mineral note and some creaminess, as well as the 2010 Mercy Chardonnay ($22), which is lean and minerally with lemon, green apple and a kiss of oak.
Grower Michael Griva calls sauvignon blanc from his vineyard "one notch friendlier" than New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and a good example is the 2012 Bernardus Griva Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($22), which has pungent pink grapefruit flavors, some herbal notes, a salty minerality and a hint of creaminess. The 2012 Chesebro Sauvignon Blanc ($18) from Cedar Lane Vineyard is also quite good.
One of the best Arroyo Seco pinots I tasted was the 2009 La Rochelle from Mission Ranch Vineyard ($48). La Rochelle winemaker Tom Stutz has a lot of experience with Mission Ranch: He was the longtime winemaker for Mirassou Vineyards, which established the vineyard in the early 1960s. The lively, well-balanced wine displays pretty cherry and raspberry fruit up front, supported by firm structure.
Mercy Wines produces several Arroyo Seco pinots, but my favorite was the one from Zabala Vineyard. The 2010 ($38) is bright and spicy, with raspberry and cherry flavors accented by a subtle leafy note. It's structured without being too coarse or tannic. The 2011 J. Lohr Fog's Reach Pinot Noir ($35) was another standout -- ripe and spicy, with rich raspberry and supple texture.
The rieslings I tasted were on the sweet side, but the 2012 Wente Riverbank Riesling ($18), with its candied lime flavors, has vivid acidity to balance the sweetness.
As for other grape varieties, the 2012 Chesebro Albarino ($18) is fresh and minerally, with fleshy white peach and some citrus. Chesebro also makes a vermentino from Cedar Lane Vineyard; the 2011 ($18) displays citrus, apple and peach and a stony minerality.
One of the grapes that J. Lohr planted early on was thought to be gamay. Turns out it's actually valdiguie, but whatever its name, it performed well and remains in the Lohr lineup. The 2012 Wildflower Valdiguie ($10) is fresh and fruity, with ample berry fruit and nice body.
Vintners and growers have identified some subregions within Arroyo Seco; the one referred to as the Gorge is protected from some of the Salinas Valley's fierce winds and is a little warmer. Sycamore Cellars grows petite sirah successfully there; the 2010 ($24) is inky dark, with ripe berry and very firm tannins.