A dream getaway for any fan of both literature and wine, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County is the world that John Steinbeck introduced to many of us. From the rich, fertile valleys the Joad family set out to find in The Grapes of Wrath to the entire backdrop of East of Eden, Salinas Valley will place you right inside a chapter of classic literature — while introducing you to a new and exciting California pinot noir and chardonnay.
From Los Angeles, the Santa Lucia Highlands wine region is straight up the 101, past everything you know in the Central Coast wine world. You’ll know you’re in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (American Viticultural Area) when you think you’re driving into a windstorm; then watch for Highway 68 so you can cut across the Salinas Valley, and you’re on your way to the city of Monterey.
Starting on the shore and working your way into wine country, the first stop is Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, a small area of Monterey made famous by the author in his 1945 novel of the same name. Originally called Ocean View Avenue, the officially renamed “Cannery Row” is a collection of shops, dozens of eateries and hotels in the restored canning district. A historic walking tour allows visitors to meet the former residents through monuments dedicated to those who lived and died in Cannery Row, complete with staged housing conditions that immigrant workers would have faced while living in the area 75 years ago.
These days, the street buzzes with energy from the world-class aquarium and the famous Fisherman’s Wharf just a short walk out of the main district and around the harbor. Four different whale-watching tours launch from the wharf and run about $45 per person for a 2½-hour tour.
About a 45-minute drive into the Salinas Valley is the Santa Lucia wine region. In East of Eden, Steinbeck describes the Salinas Valley as “a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains.” The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is situated in the higher-elevation foothills on the west side looking down into the rich, fertile green of the valley below. Cool mornings might call for a heavy jacket, but as the day presses on and the temperature heats up, a strong wind will begin to howl through the valley, thanks to the scorching temperatures of Paso Robles to the south.
Paso Robles is California’s hottest wine region, and as the hot air rises throughout the day, suction is created that pulls in ocean air from Monterey Bay. As the ocean breeze picks up speed and barrels through the valley, it cools down the grapes, giving the chardonnay and pinot noir exactly what they love: warmth and sunshine for ripening followed by cool temperatures to retain acidity. The cool breeze also manages to pull moisture out of the vines through the leaves, creating higher concentration in the fruit, thus imparting the signature style and qualities of the SLH wine region. The combination creates an extended growing season while retaining high acidity, giving the wines from this region the ability to both age and gain complexity in the cellar.
Hahn Winery in Soledad offers a good vantage point to look down at the stretches of highway and witness the winds of the Salinas Valley.
Known for its pinot noir and chardonnay under the Lucienne label ($50) and the same varietals under the SLH label ($25 to $35), Hahn Winery is a great place to kick things off. Its tasting room is one of the only ones open seven days a week ($15 for a flight of five wines), and it also offers walking tours of the vineyards (daily at noon for $25 per person) and private ATV tours of the higher-elevation vineyards ($45 per person, at 1:30 p.m. daily and including a tour of the barrel room).
A favorite is the 2013 Lucienne pinot noir from Hahn’s Smith Vineyard. Dark ruby in color, with notes of black plum and dark cherry humming below dried red flowers and a touch of anise on the nose, the wine has a palate that's soft, with dark berries, warm earthy gravel and an enticing balance of mushroom and dense forest.
The River Road Trail is a great place to plan your tour through the Santa Lucia Highlands wine region, but it’s important to remember that SLH today is a lot like what Napa was 25 years ago or Santa Ynez was 15 years ago. Most of the wineries’ tasting rooms are open only on the weekends, and several are by appointment, so be sure to plan your trip.
After a day of wine tasting and exploring SLH, Restaurant 1833 in downtown Monterey is a good option — particularly in October. The restaurant is in a house believed to be haunted, where the past residents are said to still reside.
Built in 1833, the house was purchased four years later by James Stokes, who passed himself off as a successful doctor and surgeon — and whose patients suffered an unusually high fatality rate. Stokes took his own life via poison after his wife died in an upstairs bedroom. It’s reported that Stokes' spirit torments staff members by pushing them, while female voices, footsteps and breaking glass can be heard in his wife’s room. Socialite Hattie Gragg resided in the house until her death in 1948. Staff members say that Gragg hangs around the bar, rearranges glassware, flicks lights on and off, sometimes plays the piano and often sits next you on a sofa in the lounge.
On the return to Los Angeles, allow yourself extra time to travel — because your Monterey experience ends right where Big Sur begins. A leisurely drive down Highway 1 will begin just below Monterey in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where you’ll find tasting rooms for Morgan and McIntyre. McIntyre pinots are worth the stop. Violets and red fruit are alive on the nose, mingling with earth and sage, while wild cherry notes intertwine with a spicy and rich texture full of crushed dried flowers, earth and mushroom on the palate. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the McIntyre wines in Los Angeles, so be sure to grab a bottle.
Right across the street is the Morgan tasting room. More commonly found in L.A. than McIntyre, the certified organic vineyard and winery are still worth the stop, especially for the 2013 Double L vineyard chardonnay. With only 700 cases produced, this bottling proves that drinking a California chardonnay doesn’t have to be like sucking butter through a 2-by-4. Delicate vanilla (from 30 percent new oak) circles aromas of pineapple and mango on the nose, but the acidity on the palate allows the wine to remain bright and stony, thus holding the tropical notes in check.
About two and a half hours south of Carmel is Cayucos, a one-street town worth a pit stop for the smoked meat and fish tacos at Ruddell’s Smokehouse. Across the street from the beach, the small sandwich shop is about the size of a kiosk, so you'll be dining at plastic tables on the sidewalk — but looking out over the ocean. It’s the perfect way to recharge for the final leg of the drive back to L.A.