Thursday, August 13, 1998
According to legend, it was Franciscan Father Junipero Serra who introduced the first vineyards into California; and from his final resting place at the Carmel Mission, Serra undoubtedly must wonder at the religious fervor with which his worldly legacy of the wine grape has been embraced.
Here in Monterey County, more than 36,000 acres of land are currently planted with vineyards, producing a wine grape harvest valued in excess of $200 million. Particularly in the Salinas Valley, where tens of thousands of additional acres of vines will be planted in the coming years, public officials view the wine industry and its potential as a magnet for tourist dollars as the Holy Grail of future economic growth.
However, as witnessed by the transformation of Napa and Sonoma counties from quiet rural enclaves into crowded theme parks overrun with tourists, the wine industry is an economic engine full of promise and peril.
Nowhere is the potential impact of Monterey County''s burgeoning wine industry of greater concern than in Carmel Valley Village. With its rural character and remoteness, the Village has until now been treated with indifference by the hordes of tourists drawn to the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur coast.
That could change--and whether that change is a positive or negative remains largely to be seen.
"For me, [the wineries] are a form of ag land preservation, and as a scenic resource I''m quite supportive of the industry, although I wouldn''t want to see Carmel Valley gridlocked to the extent Napa is," says Supervisor Dave Potter, whose District 5 includes Carmel Valley.
While the Village remains a quiet community that includes working families and service-oriented businesses, there are unmistakable signs that it is undergoing a substantial transformation, fueled primarily by the growth over the past 30 years of Cachagua-based wineries like Durney, Bernardus, Joullian, Georis, Galante and Chateau Julien located east of the Village.
Smaller and less visible than most of their counterparts, the Valley''s wineries have nevertheless garnered international recognition as producers of some of California''s finest varietal wines. This reputation is in turn beginning to draw larger numbers of tourists to Carmel Valley Village. For wine connoisseurs and tourists alike, the Village is fast becoming a mecca to indulge the palate with fine wine, and the body with sunshine, fine food and comfortable lodging.
"There is a natural pathway being established to Carmel Valley, and with the wineries making financial commitments, what it does is bring some focus to the community," explains noted restaurateur Walter Georis, who began planting wine grapes at his 40-acre Cachagua vineyard in 1981.
Georis acknowledges that it is as much the aura of fine living that surrounds wine-drinking, as it is a true discernment of the qualities of fine winemaking, that draws visitors to wine areas like Carmel Valley.
"The wine industry has always been a symbol of good living, and when you add to that the nice climate, the early California lifestyle and the Valley''s rural western character, it becomes very desirable."
Carmel Valley''s character has always been defined by agriculture and the quality of its weather and land. During the land grant era, large sections of the Valley were deeded as cattle ranches to families whose descendants continue ranching to this day. As ranching became less profitable for some, the land was divided into smaller parcels for farms, dairies and fruit orchards. It wasn''t until after the second world war that a community began to be built around what is now the Village. Within the last 40 years, the Valley has become an increasingly residential, and desirable community for both working families and wealthier individuals looking for a piece of paradise.
The emergence of the Valley''s wine industry reflects both the Valley''s agriculture heritage, as well as its more recent incarnation as an upscale retreat for the wealthy.
The new focus alluded to by Georis is evident throughout the Village area. Bernardus, Durney, Georis and the smaller River Ranch Vineyard, have all opened wine-tasting rooms in the Village over the past several years. Talbott Winery, which is headquartered in South County, plans to open its own wine-tasting room in the Village sometime next year on property recently purchased by Georis.
Fueled in part by the anticipated influx of tourists being drawn to the area''s wineries, the Robles Del Rio Lodge above the Village is undergoing expansion and upgrades, as is the White Oak Plaza, which will have three new retail complexes on its west side, including at least one wine-tasting room. Last year, Bernardus purchased the former Carmel Valley Inn at Carmel Valley Road and Laureles Grade, and plans to reopen by next spring with an upscale, wine-themed guest resort complete with its own vineyards.
Some preliminary numbers indicate that it is indeed wine that is drawing greater numbers of visitors to the Village. According to Michael Strockbine, manager of Bernardus'' wine-tasting room, it is not uncommon for up to 125 people to visit Bernardus on the weekends.
"More and more people are coming out this way, and even the hotels are sending people out," notes Strockbine. "Because we are off the beaten path, [the wineries] are not a big tourist thing in the Valley, and typically the people who come out here are aware of wines."
Ann Olivier, executive director of the Carmel Valley Chamber of Commerce, has also noticed an increasing awareness among visitors of the Valley''s wineries.
"What''s been really amazing is 75 percent of the people who come here are asking where the wineries are located for wine-tasting," says Olivier. "We have excellent wineries here and they''re definitely drawing more people to the Village."
How significantly this increase in visitors will add to the continued decline in traffic service along Carmel Valley Road has yet to be determined. But as far back as the 1986 Carmel Valley Master Plan, there are numerous sections along Carmel Valley, from Rancho Ca¤ada to the Village, where four-laning, widening and turn channelization lanes will be required to maintain the level of service C--the road''s current level of service, as graded by the California Department of Transportation.
Just how well Carmel Valley''s essential character survives its transformation into a tourist destination, and what kind of positive changes the wine industry brings to the Valley may ultimately depend on the vision and best intentions of the winery owners themselves.
Despite the implicit threat to Carmel Valley''s existing way of life, and fears that much of the Valley will turn into a congested, overpriced playground for self-indulgent arrivistes, Carmel Valley''s winemakers insist that these changes will take advantage of, yet preserve, the Valley''s best qualities.
"I have concerns about Carmel Valley," says Terry Terflinger, general manager of River Ranch Vineyards and co-owner of the White Oak Grill, a combination restaurant/ tasting room that features River Ranch and other Monterey and California wines.
"We''ve been here a year and a half, and have noticed dramatic changes. We seen a lot of money and employment coming in, but the spirit of the Village is people have pride and see the value of what we have. Carmel Valley can be built up and made into a destination location, but what I respect as a businessperson, and where I hope the Village goes, is that people look at what we have and give back so Carmel Valley can prosper and improve for the community as well as the tourists."
Like some Benedictine brotherhood who bring the same reverence for winemaking as the monks bring for their prized liqueur, Carmel Valley''s winemakers embody a distinctly European vision of wine as an expression of the good life.
Men like Walter Georis and Bernardus founder Ben Pon, a Dutchman and former Porsche race car driver, bring an Old World sensibility to grape growing and a connoisseur''s appreciation for wine that favors quality and craftsmanship above profitability.
It is this attitude towards wine, say winemakers like Jack Galante, that has garnered the Valley wineries an international reputation for quality, and will protect much of the Valley''s existing way of life.
"It''s a whole different mentality here than in Napa," says Galante. "Here we have pretty much reached the maximum size we can be in the Carmel Valley appellation. I really believe in looking at a three- dimensional approach to the land as a living organism, and how we can we get the most out of the land without taking too much."
"We''re more or less maxed out," agrees Georis, who feels the wineries'' smaller production capacity will be a necessity to limit growth. "Although some wineries are bringing in Monterey grapes from outside the immediate area, by definition, the volume of production reflects the direction in marketing, whether you''re producing one varietal or four or five. What will allow growth over the next 20 years is to identify those parcels with potential for great wines."
It was Bill Durney who planted Carmel Valley''s first major commercial vineyard back in 1969. With its ideal combination of soil, water and temperature, Durney recognized the potential for Carmel Valley''s Cachagua region to produce fine Bordeaux-style varietal wines.
Through the efforts of Durney and the region''s other growers, Carmel Valley was awarded its own appellation in 1983, a designation that has come to signify distinctive, quality wines.
Fifteen years after award of the appellation, Carmel Valley wineries have experienced remarkable success in maintaining the quality of their wines, while increasing the quantity.
Bernardus, with 50 acres of estate vines, is producing close to its maximum production capacity of 50,000 cases of varietal wines. Joullian currently has 40 acres planted with another 20 acres designated for planting in the year 2000. Last year Joullian produced 7,000 cases of estate bottled wine, and has a maximum allowed production of between 9,000 and 10,000.
Galante Vineyards has seen a volume increase from 2,000 cases in 1995 to 3,700 cases this past year. According to Galante, the winery has a current capacity of 5,000 cases, but will eventually handle the vineyard''s total production of 100 percent estate Cabernet grapes of 10,000 cases worth.
At Chateau Julien, which has vineyards throughout California as well as 16 acres at its Carmel Valley location, capacity has grown to 300,000 cases. Chateau Julien just recently completed construction of a 9,000 square foot barrel room that will hold 2,000 oak barrels.
While these case production numbers represent a major success story for Valley winemakers, they are regarded as rather small in quantity by industry-wide, wine production standards.
With close to 300 acres of vineyards currently producing at close to maximum capacity, the limited number of acres available for new plantings will limit the ability of the wineries to expand much beyond their current size. In addition, the remoteness of the wineries themselves, and current county zoning restrictions, will limit the number of tourists passing through the Village to visit the Cachagua wineries.
"Because of the beauty, we could have many people [visiting the wineries], but because of the remoteness of our situation, most of the wineries work on appointment only," says Joullian Vineyard''s General Manager Ridge Watson.
"We''re pretty selective and none of us have an open-door policy. It would require too much staff time and I''m not sure the area''s ready to have that many people. I doubt we''ll see a great growth of visitors to the Cachagua wineries because they are so far away.
It is the relative inaccessibility of the Cachagua wineries and the critical advantage tasting rooms bring to wineries, that is responsible for the recent influx of wine tasting rooms to the Village. With a narrow winding road providing sole access to the Cachagua wineries visitors will likely venture no farther than the Village to sample wines.
"I think tasting rooms afford wineries the ability to present their wines personally to the public, and in terms of exposure, a room can really help or spur sales," says Watson. "The best thing about a wine-tasting room is the winery realizes the full price of a bottle wine. When you''re in limited production like the Carmel Valley wineries, anytime you can realize a greater percentage of the bottle price it makes the business more viable."
As the wineries have become more of a draw for tourists to the Village, local restaurants and lodges are trading upon wine''s cachet to promote their own businesses.
Michael Cawdrey, general manager of Carmel Valley Lodge, has been promoting the local wine tasting rooms to prospective guests since the middle of June.
"I was struck by the fact we have a unique opportunity with all the wine tasting rooms in Village," says Cawdrey, who provides guests with maps, information and small package tours of the local wineries'' tasting rooms. "I think we have every opportunity to become a destination for people interested in wines, and it''s unique to be able to go to one place, park your car, and walk to three different wine-tasting rooms instead of the hassle of going from winery to winery.
"This was something I discussed with the wineries and the response was very positive," adds Cawdrey. "Whether you''re a restaurant, winery or hotel, we are all partners with hospitality and should work together for our guests."
Leading the push to make wine an all-inclusive, vacation experience is Bernardus, which plans to open its Harvest Lodge with several acres of vineyards, a spa, tennis courts and 57 new rooms by April of next year.
The Lodge will also feature a 60-seat restaurant, an outdoor seating bar, a regulation size croquet lawn, and groves of olive trees.
For Walter Georis, all these changes to Carmel Valley Village represent a natural byproduct resulting from quality wine production.
"When you''re producing good wine, you encourage good food, and you''re starting to see changes in the quality of [lodging] and restaurants established here already," says Georis. "There is a big clientele in Carmel Valley that supports that now, and if you look at either side of the hills you see beautifully built and designed homes for people who have financial influence. That is creating a difference, and I believe it''s a really positive thing."
Just how positive a change the Valley wineries will bring will depend, say environmentalists, on the degree to which the vineyards impacts can be gauged and minimized. Concerns over water and pesticide use, erosion concerns, and questions about water availability have many Carmel Valley residents wondering whether the wineries will forever alter the balance and inherent beauty of the Valley''s natural environment.
"Traditional agricultural practices [in Carmel Valley] have been grazing, and those practices by and large have been relatively benign," says Mark Stromberg, resident director of the Hastings Natural History Reserve in Carmel Valley. "But with the switch to grapes, large areas are being fenced, creating a very foreign environment which excludes whole areas for deer habitat and for birds who don''t get a chance to nest. Oak trees, which support 200 species of wildlife, are also being cut down."
"The big issue, however, is most of the land in the Carmel Valley watershed is steep, and there is controversy over erosion control, terracing, and grading above 15 percent slope," adds Stromberg. "From a watershed standpoint, that''s got to increase sedimentation in the Carmel River. If the wineries do it well, I assume they can minimize erosion with terracing and planting good cover crops."
Acknowledging that vineyards have the potential to negatively impact the environment, vineyard managers like Bernardus'' Todd Kenyon insist that those impacts are being kept to a minimum with state-of-the-art management practices.
"As far as agricultural practices, every year we plant an annual cover crop, and are in the process of planting a selection of native perennial California grasses," says Kenyon. "We have implemented a program required by the county and replanted three oaks for every one removed."
As far as pesticide use, Kenyon says all the wineries try to grow as organically as possible, but only to the degree that quality can be maintained.
"My goal is to use naturally occurring compounds or derivatives, but if I can''t reach the quality and wine grape numbers [I''m after], I won''t let a marketing decision for organics become more important than the quality of the wine itself."
While there are no uniform figures that indicate precisely how much water vineyards require, Kenyon says that through the use of computer monitoring of weather conditions and computer-controlled irrigation, water use is kept to a minimum. And given the recent El Ni¤o rains, Kenyon says there will be very little watering this year.
"We try to use a water deficit to control plant vigor and emphasize fruit versus leaf production," says Kenyon. "I try to bring things to a water deficit early to get the roots deeper, and I won''t be watering until later in the season."
One of the potential environmental upsides to the Cachagua wineries are the role they may play in stopping construction of the Cal-Am''s proposed new Los Padres Dam on the Carmel River. Supplemental work on the project''s Environmental Impact Report is currently being conducted as a result of a lawsuit by Jack Galante, charging that the impacts to the area wineries were not sufficiently considered in the original EIR.
"The wineries should stop the dam, and hopefully it won''t happen," says Galante. "The dam will certainly damage the landscape and atmosphere of the Valley, and will definitely create severe problems in the short term with dust mites and the importation of phylloxera. In the long-term, there could be significant climatic changes that could make growing grapes impossible."
How much ability Valley residents will have to direct the changes being brought by the wineries is limited by the Village''s unincorporated status. As the Valley''s sole political representative, it will be up to Potter to see to it that the wineries bring measured, reasonable changes to the Carmel Valley.
"I don''t think the wineries will bring the same kind of subdivision intensification we''re seeing in and around the Salinas area," adds Potter, "and the people I''ve met seem genuine and to be more community-oriented than some of the developers I''ve met. They have the goodness of the ground at heart and I think they''re trying make it as community appropriate as possible."
"The strength of the community will stay there and I think [the wineries] will benefit both rich and working families," insists Georis. "I think there will be more work than ever for people as things change, but individuals have to know how to adapt. We have an opportunity to direct it in a way that with good guidelines, architecture and planning it can be a jewel of a place. The key is the people."