Like other wine-producing areas, the County is blessed with a wide assortment of boutique wineries. Each is as individual as a fingerprint, with its own quirks, philosophies, and bonuses for visitors.
Boutique wineries are actually the rule on the Central Coast, rather than the exception, according to Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association executive director Rhonda Motil. "About 75 percent of county wineries are boutique wineries, crafting small amounts of handwrought wines," said Motil.
Three local wineries that have been tagged with the "boutique" label are Mesa del Sol Vineyards in Arroyo Seco, Marilyn Remark Winery in Salinas, and River Run Vintners in Aromas. Although each are quite different in their operations, they all are powered by their owners' passion and their growing reputations among wine lovers in the know.
Mesa del Sol
ARROYO SECO hasn't exactly been a tourist destination, but it may very well get to be one with the opening of Mesa del Sol, which is both a working winery and a vacation retreat in the hills south of Carmel Valley.
For proprietor Ann Hougham, it's the realization of a dream that's been a long time coming, beginning when she and her husband, Jake, bought the historic property near the junction of Carmel Valley and Arroyo Seco roads in 1998.
Originally opened as a health spa around 1900 because of the area's dry, pure air — it's said that Teddy Roosevelt, who suffered from asthma, stayed there — Mesa del Sol has since been enlarged and improved by a succession of owners. It was the late state Sen. Fred Weybret who bought the property in 1927 and built the main house of redwood and Carmel stone; after his death in 1945, Salinas lettuce magnate Steve Rianda and wife Mary moved there and built a large outdoor area for entertaining guests.
The Houghams saw the potential for a vineyard and put in seven and a half acres of wine grapes. Tragically, Jake Hougham died of colon cancer just two years later. But Ann was determined to carry on.
"He was a visionary in many ways," said Hougham, noting that her husband made many innovations in the produce business during his life, such as bagged spinach and hearts of romaine. He also had a passion for organic and sustainable farming, reflected in the practices still employed at Mesa del Sol.
"Sometimes less is more. That's what I learned from him," said Hougham.
In the winemaking business, Hougham also has had to learn by doing. She produces about 200 cases a year, with the help of winemakers Dave Coventry and Chris Weideman, which include syrah, zinfandel and sangiovese.
She's also proud of the fact that grapes she sold to Soquel's Hunter Hill Winery were the base for its 2002 Syrah, which won best of show at the California State Fair in 2005, out of 2,800 wines entered. Recently, she got the news that Mesa del Sol won a silver medal, for syrah, and a bronze, for zinfandel, at the 2009 Monterey County Fair.
As for the Mesa del Sol property, it has also blossomed into a vacation destination for families and groups. In addition to the beautifully updated main house and guest cottages, there are picnic areas, a swimming pool, chicken house and trout pond, and nearby are hiking trails and the river.
This is the resort's first season and, so far, it's gone well. "It's been steadily rented all summer," said Hougham. "We've had three and four generations of families stay here. It's an incredible spot."
Hougham's next move: building a wine barn so that more tastings and other events can be held there. Information: www.mesadelsolvineyards.com or 674-2033.
Marilyn Remark Winery
Unlike other businesses that want to get as big as they can, Joel Burnstein has the opposite philosophy: He started small and intends to stay that way.
"Our business model was always to be a boutique winery, and not try to grow beyond our means," he said.
He and life partner Marilyn Remark started their South Salinas winery in 2001, although it was something Burnstein had been planning for at least a decade before that.
His gradual but focused path to winemaking started when Burnstein was a trader on the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. He found himself fascinated by wine on trips to Napa and Sonoma, so eventually he quit the stocks game and took classes in enology at Fresno State, followed by an internship at Sterling Vineyards and then a position as winemaker at Jekel and San Saba.
"That's when I decided to roll the dice," said Burnstein.
Inspired by a visit to France's Rhone Valley, Burnstein and Remark decided to make those types of wines, even though some are not familiar to American wine drinkers. Their lineup includes marsanne, roussanne, viognier, grenache, syrah, and petite syrah — all made from grapes grown in Monterey County.
Burnstein has agreements with growers so that he has "complete control over what goes on in the vineyard." That includes, in some cases, telling the growers what grapes to grow. "I'm working with good people and great properties," he said.
Remark Winery is producing fewer than 2,000 cases a year, and that's the way it will stay. Rather than sell to stores or restaurants, the vintages are only available through Remark's wine club and at the recently opened tasting room at 645 River Road, Salinas, weekends and holidays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Burnstein and Remark also host a number of wine events during the year, some with fun themes. For instance, there's a New England clambake and a gourmet pizza party, in addition to gourmet dinners with wine pairings. Events are open to the public, although wine club members get first dibs and special pricing.
Information: www.remarkwines.com or 455-9310.
River Run Vintners
When J.P. Pawloski first came to Aromas looking at properties to buy, one seemed custom-made for him.
"We were looking for a home, and there was an unused winery on the place," he recalls.
Already making wine to give away for gifts or trade, Pawloski saw it as a sign that it was time to turn his hobby into a full-time occupation. He and his wife bought the property, and that's exactly what happened.
River Run Vintners has been in business since 1982 in this rural community that straddles the border of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Pawloski, mostly on his own, produces up to 3,000 cases for local stores and restaurants.
"It's pretty close to being all-volunteer," said Pawloski, who has a day job as a respiratory therapist. "I have a couple of friends who help during the crush, and a friend of mine is coming from Hawaii this year to give me a hand."
Pawloski makes mostly red wines with a few whites sprinkled in, and his selection is eclectic. He's made everything from a rare negrette — "there's only seven acres grown across five counties," said Pawloski, — to merlot, cabernet and organic chardonnay.
He buys his grapes mainly from Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, within a 50-mile radius of the winery, and he keeps tabs on what's happening in the vineyards.
Because there are restrictions on how much tasting can be done at his winery on Rogge Lane, Pawloski has endeavored to make River Run wines as available as possible. It's carried at many markets and stores in the area, including Star Market in Salinas, and is also being poured at a number of restaurants in the Bay Area.
However, he does host events at the winery several times a year in the "tasting garden."
Information: www.riverrunwines.com or 726-3112.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.