Exploring Monterey County

Exploring Monterey County

When thinking of Monterey, people likely picture rugged terrain, beaches, and surfing. But Monterey County is also one of the premier winegrowing regions in America, particularly known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production. Situated along the Pacific Coast, from south of San Francisco to just north of Los Angeles, it is sandwiched between San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz and anchored by the Santa Lucia Range, with most of the county in the Salinas Valley.

The Salinas Valley is a river valley oriented in a northwest-southeast direction and split by the Santa Lucia Range and the ocean. This directional anomaly affects the amount of precipitation in the area and results in Monterey having an arid or semiarid climate despite its proximity to the ocean.

Monterey County’s distinctive topographical characteristics don’t end there. Because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Monterey stays relatively cool, but these cooling effects dissipate precipitously as one moves farther from the water. This “thermal rainbow,” as it’s called, exists because of an underwater canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in size. The canyon contributes to the dramatic temperature swings that occur in the county.

Heavy fog and extreme winds are also key characteristics of the region. Winds moving over the ocean in the early morning increase in speed, rapidly cooling and then shifting in direction. The mountains trap the wind to heat interior areas of the county.

Monterey’s Ancient Geology

In the Jurassic period, some 165 million years ago, shifting tectonic plates began to break away and collide into one another on what would become the continent of North America. That activity created the coastline of Monterey. The continued shifting of oceanic plates created subduction zones that intermingled various types of rock material to form the diverse soils of the area. Franciscan complex soils and alluvial fans, with both igneous and sedimentary rocks, such as shale, sandstone, and gneiss, compose most soil in Monterey.

The AVAs of Monterey County

Central Coast

Monterey’s 10 AVAs are within the greater Central Coast AVA, established in 1985. The Central Coast encompasses a large swath of California, from just south of San Francisco Bay all the way to Santa Barbara County in the south. The AVA spans the length of six counties, extends nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers), has over 25 nested appellations, and is home to more than 600 wineries. Of its nearly 7 million acres (nearly 3 million hectares), approximately 90,000 acres (36,500 hectares) are planted to vine.

As in much of California’s wine industry, Spanish missionaries planted the first grapes in the area, beginning in the 1700s. Although Mission grapes were the first to be cultivated, today, Burgundian varieties thrive in the cooler parts of the north, and Rhône and Bordeaux varieties grow best in the warmer parts of the south.

Because of the San Andreas Fault, which cuts through most of the AVA, myriad soil types abound. Limestone and calcareous soils are common, especially in places such as Paso Robles, because of plate tectonics and ancient seabeds that dried up. But there are eight predominant soil types; most are varieties of loam, and there are also granitic soils.


Monterey AVA, designated in 1984, is the county’s largest AVA. With about 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) under vine, it covers a vast area, with four nested AVAs within its confines. Its territory extends from north of Monterey Bay down to Paso Robles. What differentiates this appellation is its proximity to the ocean and Monterey Bay, which provide breezes that keep the area relatively cool. In the south, closer to Paso Robles and Southern California, temperatures increase but are still moderated by marine influence.

Expectedly, the grape varieties prevalent in different parts of the AVA vary. In the north, cool-climate varieties, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling, are successful; while in the southern part of the AVA, heat-tolerant varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, are predominant.

Carmel Valley

In 1982, many of the most highly regarded AVAs in California were established, including Carmel Valley, which sits just west of Monterey and, of all the region’s AVAs, is closest to the coast. The acclaimed region has roughly 19,000 acres (7,700 hectares) in total but only 300 acres (120 hectares) under vine. Perhaps its most important characteristic is its dramatic diurnal shifts. During the growing season, these can be as much as 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 30 to 40 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping from 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) during the day to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 1 degree Celsius) at night. The growing season is long, providing time for phenolic ripeness and acidity profiles to become balanced.

Grape varieties grown in Carmel Valley range widely, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, all benefiting from the mountainous terrain. Vines have been planted up to 2,200 feet (670 meters) in elevation. In the south, Cachagua Valley, though not an AVA, is a desirable area for grapegrowing that sits above the fog line and has gravel soils that are especially well draining.

Santa Lucia Highlands

Santa Lucia Highlands, the county’s best-known appellation, is named after the Santa Lucia Range. East of Carmel Valley, in this 18-mile-long (29-kilometer-long) sliver of land, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay perform best, and they account for most of the AVA’s 5,700 planted acres (2,300 hectares). Santa Lucia Highlands was granted AVA status in 1992 and continues to be a standout region for West Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production.

Adam Lee, the founder and winemaker of Clarice Wine Company, says, “The most obvious answer to what makes the Santa Lucia Highlands special is the climate—most especially the winds. While so much of the wine world is seeing increasing temperatures, the Santa Lucia Highlands remains cool due to the Monterey Bay. As inland central valleys south of Monterey warm up, it pulls in air from Monterey Bay into the Santa Lucia Highlands.” The temperature typically peaks midday, cooling from these winds through the afternoon.

Although most of Monterey County’s geologic profile consists of marine sediments, Santa Lucia Highlands diverged, both literally and figuratively, by a broken plate, which shifted because of the San Andreas Fault millions of years ago. This tectonic movement resulted in hillsides, terraces, and benches. In the late 1700s, the Spanish missionaries identified this topography as ideal for viticulture. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, however, that grape cultivation intensified. The highly regarded Rosella’s Vineyard was planted during this time, and others, including Sierra Mar Vineyard and Garys’ Vineyard, followed in the mid-1990s. All the region’s vineyards are planted on terraces in the Santa Lucia Range, where they benefit from abundant sunshine, which aids in ripening, and cool breezes that result from both the elevation and the ocean proximity, helping build a strong backbone of acidity in the wines.

Arroyo Seco

There are only 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) under vine in Arroyo Seco, which was designated an AVA in 1983 and is located just south of Santa Lucia Highlands. The appellation’s name, meaning “dried riverbed,” refers to its geologic origins as a seasonal creek. Runoff from the mountains would eventually dry, and, over time, the depressions that remained helped form this appellation geologically. Part of the appellation opens directly to the ocean, gaining exposure to cool breezes and heavy fog cover, while the western side of the AVA is protected by an east-west gorge, resulting in warmer weather. The area’s climatic profile leads to a very long growing season, allowing grapes such as Riesling to thrive. Soil types vary, but the predominant ones are gravel and sandy loam—which are the soil types found in old riverbeds.

Arroyo Seco is a relatively small AVA that has yet to gain a stronghold among consumers. But the stellar caliber of the area’s wines is well known by insiders and wine critics.

Gabilan Mountains

Gabilan Mountains was recently approved as an AVA, in 2022. It is among the highest-elevation AVAs in California, starting at 1,500 feet (460 meters) and extending to 2,370 feet (720 meters) above sea level. Most of the appellation is above the fog line, exposing the vines to abundant sunlight, which facilitates uniform ripening. There’s also more rainfall here than in Monterey’s other AVAs.

Of the nearly 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) in the appellation, only 436 acres (176 hectares) are planted to vine, and there are six commercial vineyards in the AVA. The famed Mt. Harlan AVA, in San Benito County, another high-elevation AVA, is within Gabilan Mountains. Granite and limestone soils dominate, encouraging complexity and minerality in the resulting wines.


The oldest-producing vines in Monterey County are in Chalone AVA, which is nested inside Gabilan Mountains AVA and was established in 1982. There are 300 acres (120 hectares) planted between about 1,200 and 2,300 feet (370 and 700 meters) in elevation. Dramatic diurnal shifts and scant rainfall characterize the appellation. Like Gabilan Mountains AVA, Chalone is above the fog line, where sun can drench the vines all day.

Chalone is the only region in Monterey with decomposed limestone and granite soils, which are exceptionally well draining and limit vigor, increasing the possibility of smaller berries with highly concentrated flavor profiles. Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah perform well here, as do Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

San Bernabe

San Bernabe is in the middle of the vast Monterey AVA and spans 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares). It was designated an AVA in 2004. Over 20 grape varieties are grown in San Bernabe AVA, as temperatures can vary significantly across the region, resulting in microclimates conducive to both cool- and warm-climate varieties, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Although there are many soil types, sandy loam is dominant.

San Lucas

San Lucas AVA, south of San Bernabe, is warm, with wide diurnal shifts and a long growing season. Elevation ranges from 325 to 1,250 feet (100 to 380 meters), allowing for vines to be planted on terraced vineyards, or atop or along alluvial fans. There are 8,000 planted acres (3,200 hectares) here. Soils are predominantly shale and limestone, perfect for growing Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc with power and body. The San Lucas wine industry only began in the 1970s, much later than elsewhere in Monterey County, and the AVA was approved in 1987. Prior to the development of viticulture, it was primarily dairy land.

San Antonio Valley

Of all the Monterey appellations, San Antonio Valley extends the farthest south, where the temperatures are warmer. The appellation reaches an elevation of 2,790 feet (850 meters), the highest in Monterey County. It differs from the other Monterey AVAs in that it is a concave valley, with a bowl-like shape that results in a range of climatic profiles. Many grapes thrive here.

San Antonio Valley became an official AVA in 2006. It was first planted in the late 1700s, when the missionaries of San Antonio de Padua identified the area’s potential for making sacramental wine.

Hames Valley

Smaller than San Antonio Valley, and east of it, Hames Valley is far from the bay and thus the warmest of all Monterey’s AVAs. Hames Valley also has the most dramatic diurnal shifts of all 10 AVAs, requiring special attention in the vineyards. But this is the appellation where innovation stands out. The warm climate necessitates careful planning of row direction, which can impact grape development and mitigate possible sun damage, and meticulous canopy management.

Established as an AVA in 1994, Hames Valley has about 2,000 planted acres (800 hectares). Rhône varieties perform best. Limestone, schist, and shale are the most prevalent soil types, all ideal for warm-climate grape varieties.

Climate Change in Monterey

For winemakers and viticulturists in Monterey, the issue of climate change is paramount. The impact of climate change on the oceans could alter the cooling winds that have been key to the region’s identity, causing them to warm much more or much faster than they do today. This would create major viticultural challenges and exacerbate economic issues.

Scott Caraccioli, the general manager of Caraccioli Cellars and the interim director of the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans board of directors, explains that most winemakers in the county use a four-pronged approach for climate change mitigation. The first is vineyard adaptations. Growers are adjusting pruning times, working to ensure canopy management is effective, and heeding drought conditions for efficient water usage. With that comes the second tactic: the practice of water conservation. Vineyard managers and winemakers monitor the moisture levels in the soils with advanced technology to help make irrigation decisions.

Sustainability is the third part of the approach. Most of the vineyards in Monterey are organic. Steve McIntyre, also a board member and a grower, was one of the founders of the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification program, which aspires to viticulture that has the least impact on the environment and, therefore, the climate. He manages around 16,000 acres (6,500 hectares) of vineyards across the state and has partnered with Sitos Group to establish a biochar program near Monterey Bay to encourage regenerative farming and reduce carbon emissions from vineyard cuttings. Finally, vintners are focused on collaboration, sharing current research and new ideas.

Winemakers hope that these techniques and practices will yield results. The preservation of Monterey County’s dynamic wine industry depends on them.

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A Taste of Monterey (website). Accessed March 7, 2024. https://www.atasteofmonterey.com/.

Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans (website). Accessed March 7, 2024. https://www.santaluciahighlands.com/.

Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association (website). Accessed March 7, 2024. https://www.montereywines.org.

Monterey Pacific (website). Accessed March 7, 2024. https://www.montereypacific.com.