Why is Napa Napa and Monterey Monterey?

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

A couple of weeks ago I read Steve Heimoff’s post on Monterey County. It can be found at:

Thoughts on Monterey County


I think it would be fair to say that Napa is the King of American wine, and Monterey a backwater with a fair to middling reputation. Why is that?

While the most obvious reason which jumps to mind is that Napa is just a better wine producing area than Monterey. I have a problem with this. I don’t think it’s true.

I don’t want to stand accused of bad mouthing Napa. After all, that’s where I live and grow grapes. And it is an excellent wine grape growing area.

And while I do not know Monterey nearly as well as I know Napa, I think I know it well enough to say that it is an excellent wine grape growing area as well. But then again, so is Australia, Chile, and a whole slew of other places which don’t have nearly the reputation that Napa does.

As with so much in life, the accidental predominates over the planned. To a large extent, Napa’s well deserved reputation goes hand-in-hand with Cabernet Sauvignon. One can quibble whether Napa is the best, or simply one of the best, places on the planet to grow Cabernet. But there is no doubting that that variety does extremely well in Napa.

And, I think it would be fair to say, Cabernet does not do very well in Monterey. It doesn’t do very well in Burgundy, either. That has not stopped Burgundy from being considered one of the premier wine growing regions of the world. It is not enough to have an area that is able to produce great wine grapes. Necessary, but insufficient. Nor is it enough to have a great wine grape. Again, necessary, but insufficient. The two must be paired. Cabernet and Napa, Pinot Noir and Burgundy. Both result in great wines. Cabernet and Burgundy. Well, there’s a reason why they don’t plant that there.

Long before I became involved in the wine business, I tried a number of Cabernets from Monterey. Unfortunately, Cabernet was considered the be-all of wine, and everybody planted it everywhere. In Monterey, it uniformly yielded wines redolent of unripe bell peppers. After a number of poor experiences with Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignons, I chalked up the region as inferior, and simply stopped buying their wine.

More recently, I have tried a number of Monterey County Pinot Noirs. They have been uniformly good. I don’t think they have quite measured up to some of the more prestigious AVA’s further south on the central coast, but they were definitely solid wines. I have also tasted a more limited number of more expensive wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County. These wines have received many accolades, and I do think they are very good. However, they are, by and large (at least the ones that I have tasted), not of the style that I prefer (light, elegant, racy, perfumed). But that really is just a matter of personal preference, and I do believe that the wines from that region deserve to be highly regarded, even if they are not my cup of tea.

But whether you like a wine depends on an awful lot besides where it came from and the variety and clone it is made from. Vineyard practices and winemaking technique can result in radically different wines being made from vineyards side-by-side planted to the same variety. The bottom line to all of this is that I have very little doubt that Monterey County is fully capable of making “world-class” wines.

Aside from the unfortunate experiment with Cabernet, I think a second, and maybe even more important, reason for its less than lofty position is that the quality associated a the wine region has easily as much to do with marketing as it does with the wines produced there. And, if there is one thing that Napa is even better at than producing wine, it’s marketing. The Napa “brand” has been developed laboriously over many decades. Why it developed there and not someplace else is probably largely an accident of history, but things are the way they are. Monterey, as Heimoff points out, was developed largely by bulk winemakers. If you want to make great wines, the first thing you need to do is to want to make great wines. If you have your sights set on making reasonably passable plonk, then if you make a great wine, it will be totally by accident. And even then, it would be unlikely to be perceived as such.

I hope that Monterey is eventually recognized as being a premier wine grape growing area, as I believe it is fully capable of being. But, once pegged in a certain hole, it can be very difficult to reposition yourself in the marketplace. Ask any Australian winemaker.

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