July 28, 2013

Passport opens Carmel to hassle-free winetasting

Can there be enough vino? Not for us Californians. Though all 50 states have wine production to some degree, we rule – and we take advantage of it.

CARMEL – Can there be enough vino? Not for us Californians. Though all 50 states have wine production to some degree, we rule – and we take advantage of it.

Wine tasting is a way of life. But tippling and traveling can be time-consuming, costly and exhausting, and no one really wants to be the designated driver.

We found a more relaxing option here when we stopped by the visitor center and bought Wine Walk by-the-Sea "passports" for a self-guided walking tour (with map) of 11 tasting rooms in town, representing 10 area wineries and one winery in Napa Valley.

The Wine Walk is much more hassle-free than climbing into a tour bus, hauling into the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains and burning a day winery-hopping.

For one thing, strolling from tasting room to tasting room happily involves exploring Carmel's warrens of shops, mysterious alleyways, hidden courtyards, vine-covered walls, vibrant gardens and fascinating architecture.

For another, lunch in town is all about options, as one-square-mile Carmel bulges with 60-plus restaurants.

Longtime vintner Jack Galante was the first to open a wine-tasting room in Carmel, in 2005, featuring his estate reds from the Carmel Valley. Other wineries soon followed.

"At first there were six of us (vintners) with tasting rooms who developed the Wine Walk concept," said Galante. "It was a way to bring more attention to Carmel as a wine destination and introduce visitors to the growers and wineries."

The program has had a noticeable impact on Carmel, said Galante, who favors jeans and cowboy hats. He's a longtime rancher, the great-grandson of Carmel co-founder J.F. Devendorf. "We're getting a younger demographic, which has always been needed. We even have a nightlife now, and some of the bars have live music."

Helping the cause in January was Wine Enthusiast Magazine's "10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2013," which included Monterey County, the sole California destination.

Our tour was a condensed marathon of walking and sipping over two days. A better plan is to savor a few rooms now and save the others for later, as the passport has no expiration date.

The program is simple: Follow the map and serendipitously walk from room to room, where attendants stamp the passports. Each passport buys flights of three to six tastes at each room.

Though the area is known for its pinot noir and chardonnay, tasting-room varietals change as new releases are introduced and as the wineries rotate their inventories. The flight you get one week may differ from the one you get the next.

Tasting rooms vary from small and homey to large and efficiently professional. Some have deals with neighboring restaurants: Bring in a bottle of wine from the tasting room and the restaurant will waive its corkage fee.

Manzoni, Blair and Shale Canyon are all in the Paseo San Carlos center. Though the evolving Blair and Shale Canyon wineries are independent of each other, they share a room, and there is crossover in their flights.

Vino Napoli owner and restaurateur Rich Pèpe does not own a local winery, but is hands-on involved with every step of the production process for his proprietary estate wines from Antica winery in Napa Valley. His wine-tasting room also serves wines from Monterey County and Italy.

As for munchies, most rooms offer complimentary palate-cleansers such as breadsticks, while others sell intriguing small plates.

For a dash of romance, many couples buy bottles of wine at the tasting rooms for impromptu picnics on the beach. They can add edible provisions from two top choices – the Cheese Shop in Carmel Plaza at Ocean and Junipero avenues (choose from 225 cheeses; 831-625-2272,; and Salumeria Luca on Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues (mortadella, salami, house-made sausage; 831-625-0264,

The tasting rooms are within casual walking distance of each other, but we mapped our journey to get in some steps. The rooms are listed here in the order of our progression.

The passport program isn't a race; take your time, sip slowly and ask questions. And keep in mind what the wise Benjamin Franklin said: "Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance."


Vibe: ranch-themed, with a chair shaped like a giant cowboy boot

Flight: five pours that vary daily, from a list of estate dry-farmed cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, malbec, merlot, pinot noir and two blends

Signature wine: 2006 Black Jack Pasture zinfandel

Munchies: cheese and crackers, and chocolate

Where: Dolores Street and Ocean Avenue, down an alley and through a courtyard

Hours: 1-6 p.m. Sundays- Fridays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays

Information: (831) 624-3800,


Vibe: big mirrors, dimly lit; more like a classy bar than a tasting room

Flight: four pours – limited-production brut cuvée and brut rosé sparklers, and chardonnay and pinot noir

Signature wine: brut rosé (60 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot)

Munchies: cheeses, charcuterie, bruschetta, olives, almonds

Where: Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues

Hours: 2-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sundays

Information: (831) 622-7722,


Vibe: Situated inside the skylit Winfield Gallery, filled with mixed media by local artists. "This is where the palate meets the palette," said vintner Peter Figge.

Flight: two chardonnays, two pinot noirs and a syrah

Signature wine: Pelio chardonnay

Munchies: breadsticks; cheese on weekends

Where: Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues

Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays

Information: (831) 384-4149,


Vibe: A handsome room that gets crowded and echoey; tables of merchandise (cashmere scarves, books, wine glasses) create a commercial feel.

Flight: pinot noir, petite sirah, blended white; varietals change monthly

Signature wine: claret (Bordeaux blend)

Munchies: sliced baguette

Where: San Carlos Street and Seventh Avenue

Hours: noon-7 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; noon-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Information: (831) 626-9463,


Vibe: The small space is dominated by a massive, ornately carved wood bar and wall art; excellent glassware, very comfy chairs.

Flight: chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and fortified port

Signature wine: pinot noir

Munchies: water crackers

Where: San Carlos Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily

Information: (831) 620-6541,

Blair, Shale Canyon

Vibe: Blair and Shale Canyon share a spacious room decorated with oil paintings and antique oak furniture; the bar is vintage redwood.

Flight: Five-taste flight; choose from an evolving list of chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet-syrah blend, merlot, pinot gris, petite sirah.

Signature wines: Blair – Del Fina's pinot noir; Shale Canyon – cabernet franc

Munchies: breadsticks

Where: San Carlos Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily

Information: (831) 625-9463,;

Vino Napoli

Vibe: This spacious, well- appointed space is more like an Italian restaurant than a tasting room.

Flight: chardonnay, sangiovese-malbec blend, cabernet sauvignon blend

Signature wine: Vesuvio cabernet sauvignon blend

Munchies: 12-item tasting menu, from cheese and calamari to smoked salmon and carpaccio

Where: corner of Dolores Street and Seventh Avenue

Hours: 3-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 2-10 p.m. weekends

Information: (831) 626-7373,


Vibe: comfortable and expertly decorated, with low tables and chairs and a long bar

Flight: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah

Signature wine: San Saba pinot noir

Munchies: cheese plate

Where: Junipero and Ocean avenues, in Carmel Plaza

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays

Information: (831) 620-1909,

De Tierra

Vibe: hip music, granite bar, stone floor, giant chalkboard "tasting menu" in a former privately owned bank

Flight: chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot gris, merlot, syrah

Signature wine: pinot noir

Munchies: bread, with olive oil for dipping

Where: Mission Street and Fifth Avenue

Hours: 2-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

Information: (831) 754-3176,


Note: The new Silvestri tasting room opened after our Wine Walk weekend. This information is from a winery spokeswoman.

Vibe: "A lot of wood in a cozy space with a homey feel."

Flight: Choose four pours from six wines: pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir rosé, pinot noir and syrah.

Signature wine: 2009 pinot noir

Munchies: crackers or breadsticks

Where: Seventh Avenue between Dolores and San Carlos streets

Hours: noon-7 p.m. daily

Information: (831) 625-0111,


Wine Walk by-the-Sea passports are sold for $65 at the Carmel Visitor Center, on San Carlos Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues; (831) 624-2522. Or buy them online at Each passport is good for a flight of wines at 11 tasting rooms in downtown Carmel. The passport has no expiration date.

For more wine tasting: More than 20 wineries and tasting rooms can be found along Carmel Valley Road. They include East End Wine Row, a group of six rooms in Carmel Valley Village. Take southbound Highway 1 out of Carmel and turn left on Carmel Valley Road.


For a crash course on California wine:

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

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