Just 24km south of Monterey Bay, the Santa Lucia Highlands is one of America’s top regions for cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A legacy of multi-generational farming, an authentic commitment to sustainability and winemakers who readily combine technology and tradition to craft expressive, single-vineyard wines have propelled the appellation’s prestigious reputation.
The region is comprised of 2,600ha of vines – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which thrive in a marine climate blanketed by cool, foggy mornings followed by warm afternoon winds. It’s this unique weather pattern rolling down the Salinas Valley from Monterey Bay that gives the Santa Lucia Highlands one of the longest grape growing seasons in California, allowing for ideal ripening conditions and mature flavour development.
Monterey Bay wineries to visit
The Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards are an hour’s drive outside of Monterey Bay, so many producers cater to customers by offering their wines in convenient tasting rooms in Monterey, Carmel and Carmel Valley.
As winemaking pioneers of the Santa Lucia Highlands and the formidable force behind the appellation’s designation in the early 1990s, Swiss-born Nicolaus (Nicky) and Gaby Hahn were instrumental in turning the loam and granite hillsides of the east-facing slopes of Santa Lucia Highlands into world-class vineyards. Starting with Bordeaux varieties and later realising the cool-climate region was better suited to Burgundy’s best, they grafted Hahn’s 260ha over to mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the late 1990s. Today, the Hahn family remains the largest vineyard owner and producer in the region. A visit to the estate allows guests options for walking and driving tours of the vineyards along with several distinct wine-tasting experiences. Hahn’s tasting room overlooks the stunning Salinas Valley and offers the Brut Rosé vintage sparkling, the estate-grown, single-vineyard Lucienne line of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, a gutsy GSM blend, as well as the small-production Orchestral, a field blend of 20 Pinot Noir clones from a 2ha plot.
- Address: 37700 Foothill Road, Soledad, CA 93960
- Estate tasting room: open 7 days’ a week, 11am-5pm. Reservations required for groups of 6 or more
- Carmel tasting room: open 7 days’ a week, 12pm-6pm. Reservations required for groups of 4 or more
Founded in 1993 by Rob and Diana Jensen in their Silicon Valley garage, Testarossa (Italian for ‘red head’) launched with 300 bottles of wine. Today it produces 30,000 cases and enjoys a reputation for small-lot, single-vineyard, cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from some of California’s top growers in Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Chalone and more, which contributes to the quality and consistency of these highly collectible wines. Testarossa’s dog-friendly Carmel Valley tasting room offers indoor or patio seating, hosts ongoing wine education classes and features tastings of both their single-vineyard and appellation bottles.
- Address: 300 College Avenue, Los Gatos, CA 95030
- Testarossa Los Gatos tasting room: open 7 days a week from 11am-5pm
- Carmel Valley tasting room: Sunday-Friday 12pm- 5 pm, Saturday, 11am-6 pm
As an accomplished winemaker and grape grower who’s had a hand in cultivating more than 20% of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Steve McIntyre is a trailblazer. Instrumental in bringing SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification to the region, the 32ha of his own McIntyre Vineyards was unsurprisingly one of the first to be certified. He makes a Pinot Noir rosé from 45-year-old vineyards, a concentrated Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir from some of the region’s oldest own-rooted vines, and small-lot, hand-harvested, block bottlings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to highlight the appellation’s best terroirs. You can taste these and other wines at the family-run McIntyre Tasting Studio in Carmel.
- Tasting studio visits: 169 Crossroads Blvd, Carmel, Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm, closed Monday. By appointment only
While focused on cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the award-winning Morgan Winery also produces serious Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah from Monterey County’s diverse microclimates. Morgan’s acclaimed 20ha Double L Vineyard, tucked into the northernmost end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, was the region’s first certified organic vineyard and gives rise to the winery’s flagship Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. From flights of library wines to current releases, and even a few regionally rare varieties like Albariño and Tempranillo, guests can enjoy them all at the Taste Morgan visitor centre in Carmel.
- Address: 204 Crossroads Boulevard, Carmel
- Open: daily from 11am-6pm
Like several estates off the winding Foothill Road in Soledad, Wrath hosts two tasting venues: one at its Santa Lucia Highlands winery, on 29ha of land dedicated to limited-production, site-specific wines, and another tasting room closer to the coast in Carmel. Its Single Vineyard series offer the most intrigue, with Grenache and Syrah making their mark alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in specific site designations, while the Winemaker series spotlights distinct clonal blends and including the southern Italian white grape Falanghina, which is fermented and aged in dolium (very large earthenware amphorae similar to Georgian kvevri) while forgoing filtration and fining.
- Address: 35801 Foothill Road, Soledad
- Winery tasting room: Friday-Sunday 11am-6pm and Monday 11am-5pm
- Carmel tasting room: Sunday-Thursday 11am-6pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-7pm
Best Monterey Bay restaurants and wine bars
Set in a historic firehouse, Montrio Bistro is just minutes from the bay in downtown Monterey. Known for fresh, seasonally inspired dishes made from sustainable ingredients, chef Tony Baker’s 48-hour bacon, heirloom tomato salad and king salmon are nothing short of legendary.
- Address: 414 Calle Principal, Monterey, CA 93940
- Open: daily from 4.30pm
- Happy hour: from 4.30-6.30pm every day
With a wall of windows providing panoramic ocean views of the bay, the Taste of Monterey is a must-see stop along Cannery Row. It features more than 95 wines from across Monterey County including themed wine flights offered with a variety of small plate and charcuterie board pairings. Expect friendly, knowledgeable service, reasonable prices and one of the better selections of wine and accessories, gourmet gifts and snazzy souvenirs.
- Address: 700 Cannery Row, Ste. KK, Monterey, CA 93940
- Open: Sunday-Thursday 11am-6pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-8pm. Food served daily from 11.30am
On Cannery Row, the Wine Experience showcases an impressive selection of Monterey County wines to taste and partner with a creative small bite menu, priding itself on giving guests an authentic glimpse of the winemaking process through hands-on blending sessions. Whether you’re with a group or going solo, visitors have the unique opportunity to make their own wine blend using locally sourced juice.
- Address: 381 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
- Open: Monday-Friday 2pm-9pm, Tuesday 3pm-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 12pm-9pm
A popular stop less than a kilometre from Carmel Beach, Trio Carmel showcases the perfect wine country trifecta of wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar from California and around the world. The venue offers wine tastings from four local wineries – Pelerin, Odonata, Mesa Del Sol and I Brand & Family wines – as well as high-end olive oil and balsamic vinegar pairings.
- Address: Dolores between Ocean & 7th Carmel, CA 93921
- Open: Sunday-Thursday 11am-5pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-6pm
A five-minute walk from Trio Carmel takes you to La Balena, where a cozy dining room gives way to intimate patio seating. This is where Florence-born chef Emanuele Bartolini serves authentic Tuscan cuisine – including handmade pasta – created with the freshest, local ingredients. A specialty is the pollo fritto, an Arborio rice-crusted fried organic chicken from nearby Fogline Farm.
- Address: Junipero between 5th & 6th, Carmel-by-the-sea, CA
- Open: Tuesday-Sunday 12-3.30pm and 5pm-10pm
Other Monterey County activities
Boasting sun and sea, Monterey County has it all. Whether it’s surfing, sailing, scuba diving, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking or whale watching, there are more than a dozen beaches that welcome adventure and relaxation. For land-lovers, there’s the always scenic 27km drive in Pebble Beach, showcasing the coastline, the Del Monte Forest and of course the country’s most famous public golf course.
And known for its commitment to marine research and conservation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the waterfront promenade of Cannery Row hosts more than 500 species of sea life, with engaging exhibits and behind-the-scenes tours.