Travel: Come to Monterey County for the wine, stay for the views

Monterey County should have a motto: “Pour it, and they will come.”

It would fit, as visitors have discovered it as one of California’s most respected wine-producing regions, with vineyards sprawling from the Salinas Valley into the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges.

Certainly helping its image as a wine destination was its inclusion in Wine Enthusiast magazine’s “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2013,” the sole California pick. In a more hands-on way is Wine Walk by-the-Sea, a self-guided walking tour of a dozen tasting rooms in Carmel.

“From a tourism perspective, (the Monterey area) has everything you won’t find in Napa Valley, Sonoma or (nearby) Paso Robles (with 179 wineries) – a dramatic coastline, sports, golf courses, the aquarium and Big Sur, to name a few,” said Kim Stemler, director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association.

“We weren’t known solely for our wine in the past, but that’s changing as wine becomes more associated with all the tourist activities. (Visibility) is part of it. There are now 50 tasting rooms throughout the county, (mostly) in Carmel, Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and along historic River Road in Arroyo Seco.”

Add the Vendange Inn & Suites in Carmel to the wine-centric mix. In a unique program, the property has partnered with 13 local winemakers who sponsor themed rooms and suites that reflect their wineries’ personalities. In a symbiotic relationship, the wineries have brought the feel of their tasting rooms into the inn.

“We gave them a blank canvas to decorate the rooms as if they were their own,” said the Vendange’s Brian Lee, co-owner with brother Jon.

For instance, the Galante Room has a cowboy theme that includes a ceramic cowboy boot as a wine caddy. That’s because vintner Jack Galante also operates a working cattle ranch. In the McIntyre Room, a century-old segment of grapevine decorates the wall above the bed. Over here is a wine barrel-head clock, over there a lamp made from a magnum bottle. The Twisted Roots Room is accented with wood-and-iron wine-display racks and artwork custom-made from wine barrels.

In other rooms are wine barrels made into tabletops and snack bars, original artwork telling the wineries’ stories, grapevine wreaths, color photos of vineyards printed on canvas, themed throws on chaise lounges and beds, and more.

Wine racks full of the wineries’ signature reds and whites are in all the rooms, with the bottles for sale. So are coasters and gift baskets. Five more rooms are waiting for other wineries to move in.

In 2011, the Lee brothers bought a dilapidated hotel and transformed it into the Vendange, a French word meaning “grape harvest.” They finished the bathrooms with stone and Spanish marble, and brought in top-of-the-line beds, linens, duvets and down pillows. They landscaped the grounds, built a fire pit, remade the lobby, added complimentary continental breakfast and started hosting weekend wine tastings.

“We wanted to do a theme, but we wanted it to be modern and not antiquey, like so many other places in Carmel,” said Brian Lee. “We live in wine country, so we chose a wine theme. We wanted to work with the wineries because they make very good wines and we support local businesses. It seemed natural to partner with them. It’s a win-win situation: They get the exposure (and references), and we get the theme.”

Can hotel guests meet the winemakers as part of the package?

“We’ll be talking with the winemakers to see if they have the time to do that,” he said. “For now, we can call the tasting rooms and ask if the winemakers are there, or give guests vouchers for free tastings.”

We stayed in the Galante Room, so it made sense to arrange a chat with vinter Jack Galante at his tasting room in downtown Carmel.

Galante is a longtime rancher and vintner, the great-grandson of Carmel co-founder J.F. Devendorf. He was the first to open a wine-tasting room in Carmel, in 2005, featuring estate reds and whites from the Carmel Valley. He encouraged other vintners to do the same, and helped pioneer Wine Walk by-the-Sea “as a way to bring more attention to Carmel as a wine destination.”

On this day, Galante was running late because he’d been branding cattle that morning on his 700-acre ranch and “they don’t always do what you want ’em to.”

Galante produces 3,500 cases of estate wine annually from 25 acres, with 120 more acres available for planting. He also bottles 1,500 cases of wine for Dawn’s Dream, his wife’s winery, but Dawn Galante sources most of her grapes from other Monterey County vineyards. By coincidence, this was the same day Dawn Galante held the grand opening of her wine-tasting room nearby. She sponsors the Dawn’s Dream Room at the Vendange.

“We’ve had quite a few people stop by and say, ‘Oh, we’re staying in your hotel room,’ ” Galante said. “(The Lee Brothers) were very proactive. They recognized that Monterey County is one of the largest grape-growing regions in the U.S. and wanted to be part of it.

“Nearly everybody (in the area) recognizes wine tourism as a growing trend,” Galante said. “Visitors want to eat and drink locally, it’s what the travel experience is all about. I’m encouraged by all the activity in the tasting rooms and by the wine programs at hotels and restaurants. I see the city (of Carmel) itself saying, ‘It’s all about enjoyment and helping the local economy,’ despite the small percentage (of politicians and locals) who say, ‘It’s just more drinking.’ ”

Though traffic-crazed Napa Valley (with 500-plus wine operations) and sprawling Sonoma County (400-plus) are the darlings of California’s multibillion-dollar wine-tourism industry, Monterey County vintners work with 40 grape varieties at 80 wineries in nine American Viticultural Areas (designated wine grape-growing regions) with annual sales of $280 million. Their reds, whites and sparklers are reaching trophy status among vino-savvy travelers.

As Monterey County’s wine-consciousness continues to rise, more restaurants than ever are stocking local wines, hotels are hosting special tastings and dinners featuring area winemakers, and tasting rooms are never slow. In short, everybody’s buzzed in more ways than one.

“We have nightly wine tastings of local wines and weekly wine tastings that feature wines from a single vintner. Usually, there’s a winemaker on hand,” said Mary Crowe, general manager of the grand dame La Playa in Carmel, a renovated showplace overlooking the ocean. “We have an almost completely local wine list at the bar, where we offer flights and by-the-glass. (Also) we’re doing a program of paella parties that pair local wines with that (seafood dish).”

Hotel guests and the casually curious who stop by for a sip are happily surprised to discover so many local wines, Crowe said.

“It makes a lot of sense,” she said. “(Monterey County) is authentic vineyard to table and farm to fork. I can’t think of another area in California that has such a variety of wines and bounties of produce and seafood. It makes the trip here so worthwhile.”