By June Naylor
Leisurely wandering between Monterey and Santa Barbara reminds me of joys I first experienced exploring the Napa and Sonoma valleys before those spots became too busy for my taste. The central California coast offers a laid-back time journey for exploring friendly villages and lush countryside without the crowds. With memorable dining and wining in charming towns with rich scenery, the time to go is now.
MONTEREY AND CARMEL
A quick exit from the little airport puts me in the heart of Monterey’s Cannery Row in minutes. Stroll down the buzzing street past John Steinbeck’s bust and spend time at the magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium — easily one of the world’s best and well worth a visit. Lunch at the C Restaurant + Bar, a waterside dining spot, delivers cioppino and grilled Arctic char paired with viognier from Miner Family Winery in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Miner is one of the options in the from-the-barrel system that reduces the carbon footprint because no bottles, corks or labels are used. Near the pier where the Monterey women of Big Little Lies enjoy their morning coffee, A Taste of Monterey Wine Market & Bistro also serves as the visitors center. There’s not a better place in town to sip wine, all sourced in the area, while gazing at Monterey Bay with the hopes of spotting whales breaching in the Pacific. A short drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea leads to exceptional plates of food at Il Tegamino, where dishes of octopus in a satiny olive oil-potato cream sauce are served along with lamb osso buco by the chef — hailing from the Amalfi Coast — in a garden filled with lemon trees. A bottle of bubbly from nearby Folktale Winery & Vineyards, enjoyed fireside in a suite at Spindrift Inn on the bay, is the perfect nightcap.
It’s impossible not to fall hard for the swooping landscape on the drive some 30 miles inland from Cambria, roughly 60 miles south of Big Sur. In the late 1700s, Franciscan friars seized on the cool, foggy mornings and warm afternoons as perfect for growing grapes, and modern farmers continue to find those same conditions ideal. At the very modern, sleek tasting room at Justin Vineyards & Winery on the Paso town square, cheeses and charcuterie pair with a 2016 Justification (a Bordeaux style, merlot-forward blend). An open-air tasting room sits squarely in the Halter Ranch vineyard. There, you can enjoy a 2018 Carbonic Grenache, sold only on-site, and the 2017 Syrah, available for shipping (and, like Justin’s wine, sold in stores at home). At Onx, a newer winery found in a contemporary collaborative park, the 2015 Reckoning, a syrah-petite sirah-zinfandel-grenache blend that won a 96 rating from Wine Spectator, has me rooting for its Texas distribution. In Barton Family Wines’ old cottage tasting room, two sleepy cats and a giant yellow Lab keep me company as I discover why the 2018 Broken Road viognier and the 2016 Back in Black petite verdot are snapped up quickly. At Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ, smoked tri-tip and smoked pork bahn-mi sandwiches, good wines on tap and friendly gossip among industry folk make for an entertaining evening. Handcrafted lattes and blueberry scones at Spearhead Coffee the next morning are equally satisfying. A lavish loft apartment at Paso Park Suites with a balcony overlooking the town square is a lovely base camp.
SANTA MARIA AND SANTA YNEZ
Skirting the Pacific Coast south from Paso, I land at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery just outside of Santa Maria. Famous for chardonnay and pinot noir grapes since the 1970s, the former dairy’s sweet little farmhouse offers a tasting room and patio, the latter a perfect spot for sipping in the sun. Nearby, a restored 1800s church surrounded by thick patches of lavender bushes and wildflowers has a spectacular hilltop view of strawberry farms. Snacking on berries picked up at a farmstand, I prowl the countryside en route to tastings around Santa Ynez. A favorite was Sunstone Vineyards & Winery, a former equestrian ranch where a busy tasting room, stone-walled courtyard and picnic grounds draw a crowd thirsty for a variety of reds and whites. S.Y. Kitchen, in the vintage downtown of Santa Ynez, serves a lunch memorable for garden-fresh dishes, fresh fish from the nearby sea, breads delivered each morning from the local bakery and a thoughtfully crafted list of wines from Central Coast vineyards. At The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in the Santa Ynez Valley, I count stars while enjoying a nightcap of wine picked up earlier in the day.