Today, Carmel Valley, the quiet village 11 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, boasts 19 wineries and tasting rooms, a healthy mix of iconic Monterey trailblazers (Talbott), new players (Mercy Vineyards) and established wineries looking for foot traffic (Marilyn Remark).
Everything on the lush, overgrown trail is within walking distance, but without the traffic and commercial presence of Carmel. This village is humble, and with vineyards nearby, the windy stretch of Carmel Valley Road that leads to the Cachagua Valley feels more like wine country. We spent a recent Sunday exploring the strip. Here's what stood out.
The scoop: The Georis family farms 28 acres of Bordeaux varietals in the upper Carmel Valley. They're known for European-style wines, with lower alcohol and less oak. Walter Georis, who owns Carmel's French-inspired cafe, La Bicyclette, as well as the popular Casanova, recruited winemaker Damien Georis (no relation) from Bordeaux when they realized they grew up in the same village in Belgium.
The sips: Damien's Bordeaux blend, La Chappelle, is exceptional. We also liked the rosé and barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc.
The details: 4 Pilot Road; www.georiswine.com.
The scoop: Vintners Mike Kohne and Mark Dirickson have 45 years' combined experience in wine (they met at Alameda's Rosenblum Cellars). They left their desk jobs in 2008 to make wine from three contiguous vineyards in the dried riverbed of the Arroyo Seco, a numbingly cold, fog-laden, semiarid, rocky slice of the American Viticultural Area that they think is ideal for pinot noir and chardonnay. It's also less marketed than the Santa Lucia Highlands, so you can find exceptional values.
The sips: 2009 Zabala Vineyard chardonnay, with its layers of orange and brioche; 2009 Cedar Lane Vineyard pinot noir is earthy and gorgeous.
The details: 40 W. Carmel Valley Road, Suite A; www.mercywines.com.
The scoop: In 1997, John Boekenoogen transformed his family's Santa Lucia Highlands cattle ranch into a vineyard that produces chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. It also makes zinfandel and petit sirah, which is rare in Monterey.
The sips: We loved Boekenoogen's peachy viognier. If you like zinfandel but hate the heat, try this one from the Bell Ranch Estate. It's jammy, without the dragon breath. Boekenoogen has one of the largest patios on the trail. This is the place to picnic with a bottle of that lush viognier.
The details: 24 W. Carmel Valley Road; www.boekenoogenwines.com.
The scoop: Bill and Mary Parsons (and daughters Rachael, Ali and Brooke) planted their seven-acre, south-facing hillside vineyard in 1998 with syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot. They were the first to plant syrah in Carmel Valley. Son-in-law (Ali's hubby) and winemaker Frank Melicia also makes the wines for Silvestri. Check out Mary's colorful, limited-edition giclees decorating the tasting room.
The sips: The 2009 Tanner cabernet sauvignon is rich, like satin. The 2011 Estate Syrah is also a beauty -- chewy tannins with notes of meat.
The details: 19 E. Carmel Valley Road; www.parsonagewine.com.
The scoop: Father-and-son team Francis and Russell Joyce produce small lot wines from vineyards in Monterey, San Benito and the Santa Lucia Highlands. Dad leads the reserve estate program; Russell, 27, makes everything else. This was our favorite winery of the day -- from the industrial urban tasting room, with its funky contemporary art, to the quality of the wines.
The sips: Nearly all of Russell's wines left an impression, from the racy, lemon-lime Tondre Grapefield riesling to the creamy, quince-tinged Black Mountain chardonnay and the elegant, Burgundian-style Franscioni Vineyard pinot noir, a steal at $21.50. Grab a bottle of the Gamay Noir rosé before it sells out and stay tuned: During our visit, Russell was harvesting a few tons of premium Chalone pinot noir grapes. There's a new, high-end pinot in his future.
The details: 19 E. Carmel Valley Road; www.joycevineyards.com.
Don't want to drive to Carmel Valley? Take the Monterey-Salinas Transit's Carmel Valley Grapevine Express for $2.50 each way Mondays through Saturdays. For a schedule, go to www.mst.org or call 888-678-2871.