Edible Monterey Bay

Big Little Lies and Wine Enthusiast Lift Monterey Wines

Big Little Lies and Wine Enthusiast Lift Monterey Wines

Big Little Lies cast photo by Jennifer Clasen

May 7, 2019 – There’s a moment that sums up the spirit of HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies beautifully. It appears in the opening credits and trailers, but it contains none of its constellation of stars—no Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zöe Kravitz or Meryl Streep.

Instead, it features a wave crashing onto the local coastline, foam flying off dark rock. It’s simultaneously energetic, natural, Monterey-based and edgy, like the show—and, more and more, with each passing vintage, a lot like Monterey County wines.

That symmetry makes a brand-new partnership between HBO and Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association rather poetic. After catching word of the Big second season, MCVGA president and second generation Caraccioli winemaker Scott Caraccioli suggested the association approach the show runners and offer bottles as props. When HBO responded positively, MCVGA executive director Kim Stemler invited members to send in samples for placement consideration. Santa Cruz wines and Monterey Bay beers will also appear.

“That kind of exposure is invaluable,” Stemler says. “We had to do the work, and contribute the wine, but it cost us nothing as far as advertising, and what an amazing opportunity!”

Numbers back her up. The show’s premiere drew nearly 9 million viewers, and that was way back in spring of 2017. Millions more have watched since. In fact, the runaway popularity of Big Little Lies has been cited by Witherspoon and Kidman, who also produce the series, as the major driver behind the decision to do a second season, which airs beginning on June 9.

Caraccioli’s own sparkling wines and rosés would slot in smoothly at one of the afternoon gossip rendezvous the protagonists like to have on Fisherman’s Wharf. At May 4’s MCVGA Winemakers Celebration, in the streets of downtown Carmel, the Caraccioli méthode champenoise sparkling and still rosé in large format bottles were a top draw, and felt predestined for a sun-splashed day.

So too did the crisp La Marea Albariño, Albatross Ridge Pétillant Naturel Rosé and Odonata sparkling Reisling.

Each of the four winemakers behind those wines—Scott Caraccioli, Ian Brand (of La Marea), Garrett Bowlus (Albatross) and Denis Hoey (Odonata)—are among the of-the-moment winemakers celebrated by Wine Enthusiast’s June issue, now on newsstands.

They’re joined by Russell Joyce (Joyce), Garrett Boekenoogen (Boekenoogen), David Baird (Folktale Winery) and Sam L. Smith (Morgan Winery) in a multipronged profile piece by Matt Kettmann called “New Blood in Old Monterey.”

“[Monterey County is] largely a land of tradition, used by generational families and corporate concerns that make it hard for new blood to establish itself,” Kettmann writes. “There’s an electricity buzzing across the county, as a growing contingent of adventurous vintners settles into urban wineries in Salinas and Marina and established brands enlist the next generation of winemakers.”

Another Kettmann line pulses with the power of sea smacking shore: “Unbound by the shackles of convention and attuned to the wishes of millennial consumers, this emerging vanguard produces racy, exciting and even avant-garde bottling, often at stunningly fair prices.”

Opening of Wine Enthusiast piece on Monterey wines

As Joyce adds in the Enthusiast piece: “You feel everyone starting to hone their craft and capture the energy of Monterey.”

The love from Big Little Lies and Wine Enthusiast provide two high-profile indicators Monterey County wines are as hot as ever. Another indicator is the annual Winemakers Celebration, which on the first Saturday of May provided an al fresco update on what’s happening here, with the potential for lots of face time with the winemakers—our own galaxy of stars, with more beard and less time in the makeup trailer.

“The fact that it’s the winemakers’ own event really contributes to the relaxed and welcoming feeling of the afternoon,” Stemler says. “They take ownership, and are friends with the chefs, and one another, so it’s one of the best familial vibes of any event I have been to.”

Another outstanding and thoroughly local wine event flows this way Saturday, May 18, not long before Big Little Lies’ second season debuts.

The Sun, Wind and Wine gala at Mer Soleil Vineyards celebrates Santa Lucia Highlands wine producers, more than 40 all told, with vintners sharing more than 100 vinos, and around 30 purveyors from around Monterey County providing small bites. The highlands setting is special; tickets run $120 ($65 for designated drivers); more information awaits at santaluciahighlands.com.

But first some brief observations from a spin through the two blocks of wine and food at Winemakers Celebration last Saturday:

• The kinship among the newer generations of winemakers touted in Wine Enthusiast is real. When I saluted Brand’s knack for atypical wines and vineyard selection that are helping earn Monterey accolades, he demurred. “Adventurous, yes, but it’s really about the relationships,” he said. Like he told Kettmann: “We feel strongly about sharing [our] experience and helping to create a group that will push us and push the region.”

Winemaker’s Celebration on May 4, 2019. Photo: Manny Espinoza

• There’s something cool about the street-level setup, which reminds me the event really took off once it made the move to Dolores (it has since expanded into Seventh). “It’s not so ‘bougey’ as some wine events,” event volunteer Jennifer Haydu says. “And I like that it’s open and not walled off so people on the sidewalk can check out what’s going on.”

• My informal recon reveals wine club sales remain crucial to small operations, and—like a CSA—allow for mindful and sustainable planning while keeping production low-quantity and high-attention.

• Large wine houses are a pillar of the area industry and MCVGA, particularly when it comes to area standards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I like the tiny operations as much as anyone, but the consistency and volume of big boys should be celebrated and not looked down upon from snobby altitudes. They play a fundamental role in making Monterey County what it is.

• One of the area’s biggest producers presents a fascinating dichotomy that reflects the area’s balance between small mom-and-pops and vaster brands. Family-owned Scheid Vineyards does lots of high-value, high-volume wines like District 7, but restricts its boutique Scheid brand to fewer than 10,000 cases. While Scheid can go big or small, it always flows fresh and progressive: My favorite coup is what they’re calling, accurately enough, “wind-powered wine,” because their huge turbine means Salinas Valley breeze provides 100 percent of winery energy needs. At peak moments the output doubles that. That’s lots of extra energy for the city of Greenfield.

Photo courtesy Manny Espinoza

• I love that Joyce can tell such a super-local origin story: Neighbors Nick and Todd Grice, now assistant winemakers, would often cross the street and pick grapes from the front yard vines with Russell. Joyce’s dad Frank would shout, “See who can pick the most!” “We finally got wise at 14 or so,” Nick says. “We realized we could be getting paid.”

• Escolle Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands is producing some fantastic grapes that a range of local winemakers are doing great work with. Keep an eye out for that on labels.

• One of the leaders of the next generation of winemakers, Marina-based Miguel Lepe of Lepe Cellars, is expanding production quickly, adding varietals while staying boutique. He does the house label for new Village Wine and Tap Room in Carmel Valley, which opened earlier this spring with the aim of showcasing local wines that don’t have their own tasting rooms.

• Rexford Winery was new to me, and caught my attention because former food-and-wine writer and all-around flavor bloodhound, local attorney Tom Nash, was all over their pinots, citing supreme bargains. Its two tasting rooms are on Ingalls in Santa Cruz and E. Carmel Valley Road in Carmel Valley.

• Kori just opened one of Carmel’s newest tasting rooms in Court of the Fountains across from Anton & Michel, in the old Albatross Ridge spot. The Griva Sauvignon Blanc and SLH Rosé are two of theirs well worth sipping.

Photo courtesy Manny Espinoza

• Serving sliders on the same street as his longtime (and now former) home at Cantinetta Luca, chef-owner Jason Balestrieri of breakthrough butchershop/deli The Meatery in Seaside went through his whole supply of snacks. He’s clearly loving his new(ish) project.

• Thomas Snyder, new chef at Seventh and Dolores, seems similarly at home in new digs, and went through his short rib even quicker than Balestrieri did his beef.

• Wine done right can approximate a form of potable destiny—seizing upon the alchemy of place, provenance, personality, patience, chemistry, teamwork and Mother Nature. As I wrote in “Eat the World: Lessons from eating, drinking and fasting in 15 countries in 13 months,” I’ve been scouring for food and drink inspiration abroad, across five continents, for a while now. I came back for the birth of little love magnet Norah Evelyn Louise Fowler, born May 4 at Community Hospital for the Monterey Peninsula. The fact that the Winemaker Celebration happened to be the next day, and allowed me to catch up on so many worthy wines and inspiring personalities—very much of this specific time and place, like little Norah—felt like a bonus splash of destiny itself.