By Laura Ness
When did Carmel become a true wine lover’s destination? Shortly after the first few tasting rooms moved in and the town realized they had something huge to brag on: some of the world’s best-loved scenery and beaches, top-notch restaurants, ample lodging and shopping that is the envy of every other wanna-be beach-resort town, and now, some of the finest wineries in the region to cap it off.
The best way to enjoy wine tasting in this town is to buy a Carmel Wine Walk Passport from the Chamber of Commerce, which you can do online, or at the Chamber itself. The Chamber is located on San Carlos Street between 5th and 6th. You can also buy them at the wineries that participate in this program. They cost $65 and are good for one $10 tasting at each of the nine wineries that honor them, so it’s well worth the investment. As an added bonus, corkage will be waived for bottles purchased at a Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea tasting room at participating restaurants. This offer is good for one bottle per visit, per party.
If you are making a day trip of it, you’ll need to be aware that Carmel has some of the toughest parking Nazi’s on the planet patrolling the streets. Most zones are good for only two hours, and the enforcers religiously police the area, so unless you are spending the night at a place that has unlimited parking, you’ll need to be prepared to keep moving your car – unless you are lucky enough to get a spot in the one underground garage that exists right next to the Carmel Plaza. This means you might do a little more walking, but at least you can relax knowing that your car is safe and you are paying by the hour for the privilege of not having to move it.
A perfect day of winetasting in this lovely village by the sea should begin with a light breakfast at the quaintly quirky and delicious Little Swiss Café, where their crepes are divine, or pick up some coffee and pastry at The Carmel Bakery on Ocean Street. Then, head to Caraccioli Cellars for some of their amazing sparkling wines, made by world-class Champagne expert, Michel Salgues, who oversaw the sparkling program at Roederer in Anderson Valley for 17 years before becoming a consultant. Both the Brut and Blanc de Noir are fine-bubbled and beautifully rendered, and the elegantly-crafted tasting room, rich with wood to provide the ambiance of a French Champagne cave, will set the mood for a day of magic. Their Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also well made and deliver true Burgundian style.
Practically next door on Dolores is Figge Cellars, located in the Winfield Gallery, an ever-changing collection of local art that’s always worth a gander. Winegrower Peter Figge has been growing grapes for decades, and started his own label to show off his estate fruit: there is always something to love between his caramel-apple and peachy Chardonnay to his very raspberry and fig-jammy Pinot Noir from the Pelio Vineyard. He also makes a very fine Syrah. The current releases are all priced at $35.
Next, a short walk down 7th street brings you to San Carlos street, where you’ll take a left and find a cluster of tasting rooms next to the Doud Shopping Arcade. Visit the Blair Estate and Shale Canyon shared tasting room, where you’ll be able to enjoy anything from Blair’s lovely Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, to some rocking Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Shale Canyon. They both also make respectable Pinot Noir from Arroyo Seco vineyards.
Perhaps this would be a good time to take a break for lunch, and you’re in luck, because Basil is the excellent restaurant that just happens to inhabit this little square. You can sit outside and enjoy a delightful shaved Brussels sprouts salad with pomegranate, hazelnuts and Laura Chenel goat cheese; the salmon BLT or the open faced paté sandwich: the basil spread for the crusty bread is a must. Enjoy a glass of local wine, or perhaps a beer or Basil Spritz cocktail, made with Caraccioli sparkling and Aperol, would hit the spot.
Fueled up for some more winetasting, you step across the courtyard to the tiny domain of Mark Manzoni at Manzoni Cellars, where you’ll revel in the sassy Pinot Gris and sink into the richness of his estate Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Dave Coventry is the winemaker for this label, turning out a mighty righteous Syrah, also from Manzoni’s estate fruit, which is grown along River Road where you’ll find Manzoni’s other tasting room that is open on the weekends, and is set in the vineyards with a view of the row crops he still farms. One cannot live by wine alone, after all.
Take a little breather from winetasting and hit the Doud Arcade for a few tourista souvenirs, some gift shopping or maybe a new pair of socks or stockings – lots of fun shops to browse here. There are plenty along each street in Carmel, too, with Ocean Street having quite the plethora of fine boutiques.
Then head towards Nielsen’s Market, where you can grab a quick soda, peruse the well-stocked wine or cheese selections, then take a left and you’ll soon spy the Silvestri tasting room on your left, and the Scheid tasting room across the intersection to your right. All the Scheid wines are screwtops, so be sure to pick up a couple of bottles that you can enjoy back at home, or perhaps on a stretch of beach somewhere along the coast another day. The Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc are quite good, and the 2007 Petit Verdot and 2009 Clone POM Pinot are standards of measure. The Odd Lot Red is always a good bet as well, and usually comes away with a good haul of medals at wine competitions. There’s a well-chosen and eclectic selection of wine-related gifts and souvenirs here, to accompany the wine offerings, which are the broadest of all the tasting rooms in town. Winemaker David Nagengast is a busy guy who oversees the making of thousands of gallons worth of custom-crush wine for Scheid’s many large customers, but it is his small lot winery, where all the wines you’ll taste in the tasting room are produced, that is his passion.
That’s a pretty full day. If you need a snack for the ride home, head to The Cheese Shop or grab a scone or biscotti at the busy Carmel Coffee and Cocoa Bar, both located in the Carmel Plaza where you parked.
Should you be in the mood for an early dinner, Flying Fish Grill, right in Carmel Plaza, is a wonderful choice, and the earlier the better, as it is a tiny place that fills up rapidly and the noise level rises with the spirits of each passing hour. The wonton chips and ginger salsa are amazing and the Alaskan black cod and almond crusted sea bass are phenomenal. You can’t go wrong with Anton & Michel, or Andre’s Bouchee, either, especially if you’re hankering for French cuisine after all that Pinot Noir.
Should you want to make your visit longer, just give Carrie a call at Hofsas House down on San Carlos between 2nd and 3rd: she frequently has rooms in this magnificent older place that has a homey feel to it. Reasonable rates and a solid breakfast make it a true find.