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, with only about 18,000 total acres, of which about half are planted with vines. A lot of the grapes historically have left Monterey County and were used in bigger blends, many of which were labeled with Central Coast or California appellations. Arroyo Seco, says winemaker Mark Chesebro of Chesebro Wines, was “traditionally a place that provides 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. J. Lohr. 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 is next; riesling and sauvignon blanc also have significant plantings.
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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 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 petite sirah weren’t working, and a lot of vines were grafted over to white varieties like chardonnay.
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.
The best news for consumers? The large size of some vineyard operations, amount of mechanization and Arroyo Seco’s unsung status have kept grape prices down, which translates into good value in the wines.
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.
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.
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Justin 2010 Isosceles ($70) Yes, it’s a splurge, but this Bordeaux-style red blend from Paso Robles is lively, full-bodied and well-balanced, with concentrated red and black fruit, notes of roasted coffee and hard spices and firm yet approachable tannins.