Wine & Stein[beck]: It Happened in Monterey

by Jules Older

Back when I was a grad student in New York, I was lured to Monterey in California. The words of John Steinbeck are what lured me.

© Effin OlderA Baltimore boy who'd discovered Steinbeck in my teen years, I wanted — no, needed — to see and smell and walk the streets where Doc and Mack, Hazel and Wide Ida, Danny and Pilon plied their trades and plotted their scams.

Now, those same Steinbeck characters help entice three-to-four-million tourists every year and have, in the words of Diane Mandeville, vice president of Cannery Row Company, “changed us from a dirty, smelly industrial town to a clean and green tourist town.”

That’s all well and good, but it wasn't just The Grapes of Wrath that upgraded Monterey. It was also the grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet, Chardonnay and almost every other potable varietal under the sun. Like Napa and Sonoma to the north, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara to the south, Monterey is now serious wine country.

And it was on my last trip to Monterey that I got into the fermented grape juice.

For the same sort of reason — if ‘reason’ be the word for it — that I skied the French Alps with French-speaking Quebecois, sightsaw Kyoto with one of those Japanese tour parties and toured Israel with the Black Hebrews of Jerusalem, I now found myself in Monterey with a group of dedicated oenophiles.

How dedicated? I'm talkin’ swirl-and-spit. I'm talkin’ 20 different wines… before lunch. I'm talkin’ conversations like this:

Real Oenophile 1: I get a sizzling-crazy volatile nose. What do you get?

Real Oenophile 2: I get French oak, Colombian coffee, Swiss chocolate, high-octane gasoline and cat pee.

Both: What do you get, Jules?

“Uh… It’s, umm, nice. Nice and… fruity.”

“What kind of fruit, Jules?”

“Uh… grape?”

“Well, I get gooseberry, grapefruit, black raspberry and a hint of pear, with a finish of ripe melon.”

“Plus subtle notes of new asphalt and shade-grown tobacco.”

© Elfin Older“As well as toasted oak, slightly burned butterscotch and an amusing whisper of malolactic fermentation.”

Either they were making it up, or I should trade in my nose and mouth.

But eventually, one of the winers — winees? oenophiles? sip-‘n-spitters? one of the experts in the subtler qualities of fermented grape juice — took pity. She endeavored to lead me from blissless ignorance into the secret world of wine.

My sensei, wine-writer Laura Ness, went over the drill slowly, patiently, sip-by-tiny-sip.

“Take your time, Jules. Sink your nose deep into the glass and inhale. Good. Now, take a sip and swirl it vigorously around your mouth, hitting all those taste buds hiding in the corners. Good. Now, spit.”

I never quite spat, but in time, under the Laura’s tutelage, I sniffed longer, swirled more and started to pick up at least hints of the extra flavors my fellow travelers kept discovering: pine tree, resin, grapefruit, maybe even bubble gum.

I never did taste melon. Or butterscotch. Or cat pee.

And I came to accept that failure as a consequence of my limitations… limitations I can live with. Kind of like not spitting.

Even without the alcoholic enhancement of the wine, Monterey is stunningly beautiful country.

From the inland hills to the lone cypress guarding the rocky shores of 17-Mile Drive; from the post-industrial quaint of Cannery Row to the agricultural heartland of River Road, this is California at its most Californian.

It’s got blue Pacific, piebald coast, green fields of artichoke, gray-misty mountains and the pale ghosts of John Steinbeck’s Chinese store owners, Oklahoma farmers, drifters, grafters and whores with hearts of gold.

All that, plus a rather nice Chardonnay to accompany a dinner of fresh, sustainable fish.


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