River Road, a rural thread of highway stretching from Salinas to Greenfield, is a trek past the farms and fields so vital to the region's economy and identity.

But that winding route through the agricultural heart of the Salinas Valley isn't just about spinach and salad greens these days. More and more, it is becoming a destination for wine-tasting adventures.

"What's unique about it is how beautiful the drive is, and the combination of the vegetable farming plus the wine industry side by side," said Evan Oakes, an agricultural scientist who conducts wine tours. "You don't get that kind of experience pretty much anywhere else in California."

Row crops of spinach, broccoli and lettuce still dominate along River Road, but that's part of the charm. And the area has grown exponentially as a wine-growing region in the past 40 years. The vast majority of Monterey County's vineyards — close to 39,000 acres — are located here along the River Road corridor, which stretches across two separate appellations.

In recent years, a growing number of wine-tasting rooms have opened up as well, giving visitors a chance to taste the product of some of those grapes which, until recently, were mostly exported out of the county.

Up to 75 percent of the county's total wine grape production are exported elsewhere, according to the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.

But what started with a handful of wineries in the early 1970s has now blossomed into a wine-tasting route that continues to evolve.

The River Road Wine Trail is about 40 miles long and skirts the Santa Lucia foothills on the west side of the Salinas Valley. It also takes in wineries on Foothill and Arroyo Seco roads, as well as several other smaller roads.

Sycamore Cellars, on Arroyo Seco Road in Greenfield, opened its winery over a year ago and launched its tasting room last May. Brand new on the scene is Hammond Vineyards, which opened in January on River Road just south of Marilyn Remark winery.

In all, there are now 13 tasting rooms along the River Road Wine Trail. Public opportunities for wine-tasting at those venues vary widely.

Some, like Paraiso Vineyards, are open daily. Others — including McIntyre Vineyards, Boekenoogen Vineyards & Winery and Ray Franscioni Wines — are open to visitors only by appointment or during special events.

At least one River Road winery is expanding its public presence. Robert Talbott Vineyards, which produces wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands, has plans to open a tasting room at its winery in Gonzales this spring. Currently, the winery's only public tasting room is located in Carmel Valley.

Vineyard at Hahn Estate
Vineyard at Hahn Estate (Photo by David Royal)

Monterey County's winemakers are getting a bit of additional attention these days thanks to 25 new signs marking wineries along the River Road Wine Trail, and eight colorful murals along the side of Highway 101 spotlighting the region's wine culture and personalities. The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association has also introduced a new mobile phone app designed to help visitors fine-tune their wine-tasting excursions.

In addition to its wines, River Road offers visitors a chance to enjoy a scenic, relaxing drive, said Mark Manzoni of Santa Lucia Highlands winery Manzoni Wines. "Driving down River Road in the heart of the Salinas Valley, you will not only be driving along many vineyards but also produce fields and orchards."

He recommends bringing along a picnic or sack lunch to take advantage of the scenic views from one of the tasting rooms with lawn or deck areas.

"I've been to hundreds of hundreds of wineries throughout California and I still consider the views from Hahn to be the best," said Oakes, the agricultural scientist who has conducted wine tours in Monterey County for the past 14 years "They just have this incredible view."

Paraiso also offers breathtaking vistas of the Salinas Valley, and other venues feature everything from overlooks and picnic grounds to ponds. But the route is certainly a rural one, so Oakes said visitors striking out on their own should get a winery map before they start out, and either bring food or take advantage of the mom-and-pop restaurants in Gonzales, Soledad or Greenfield. 

Through his tour company, Ag Venture Tours & Consulting, Oakes offers daylong guided tours of River Road wineries, along with separate Carmel Valley and Santa Cruz Vineyard at Hahn Estates wine tours, sightseeing and agricultural education tours. His River Road Wine Trail tours require a four-person minimum and run $60 to $100 a person.

The regions have a distinct identity, with River Road being much more isolated and more connected to the vineyards themselves.

"What's unique about it is how beautiful the drive is, and the combination of the vegetable farming plus the wine industry side by side," said Oakes. "You don't get that kind of experience pretty much anywhere else in California."

He's watched the mix of crops grown along River Road change over the years, with grapes — and tourism opportunities — becoming increasingly important.

"There's more and more tasting rooms, and they plan on some more coming up here," said Oakes. "But it's nothing dramatic; it's been a pretty slow process."

That laid-back pace, he believes, is a good thing.

"Most people have been to Napa or Sonoma, and there are hundreds of people (at each winery) in a day. Down here on River Road, it's a lot more casual, it's not so crowded," said Oakes. "They say River Road is a lot like Napa was 50, 60 years ago."


IF YOU GO:

Wineries along the River Road Wine Trail include Marilyn Remark Wines, Talbott Vineyards, Pessagno Winery, Manzoni Estate Vineyard, Ray Franscioni Wines, Boekenoogen Vineyards & Winery, Hahn Winery, Wrath, Paraiso Vineyards, Ventana Vineyards, Sycamore Cellars and Scheid Vineyards.

To get started, download a map from the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association's website at www.montereywines.org or check out its smart phone mobile application for searching specific winery features. The River Road Wine Trail wineries also have a website with links to each winery and an events calendar at RiverRoadWineTrail.org.

— Marie Vasari