Monterey County Grows Most Pinot Noir in California

Wine region produces second-largest amount of Chardonnay, according to 2016 crop report

by Jaime Lewis
wine monterey value harvest grapes crush
Monterey, Calif.—According to the 2016 Crop Report recently released by the Monterey County Agricultural Commission, the crop value of wine grapes has increased to 5.6% of the county’s $4.25 billion agriculture industry, a major gain over 2015. The report also notes that Monterey County is California’s top producer by volume of Pinot Noir and the second-highest producer of Chardonnay.

“Each year we like to highlight a segment of the industry in our report, and this year chose wine grapes,” Monterey County ag commissioner Eric Lauritzen wrote in the report’s introduction. “The wine grape industry was the lone standout among the top 10 crops in 2016 with a 28.5% increase.”

Monterey County is ranked fourth in California for agricultural productivity (behind Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties), and called “America’s salad bowl” for the high volume of spinach, lettuces and row crops that grow along the long Salinas Valley and ship around the world. The region’s wine grape producers are, in many ways, very similar to their “salad bowl” neighbors, with thousands of acres of vineyards optimized for mechanical management and harvesting.

As such, Monterey’s wine industry is uniquely grower-centric, comprising a number of multi-generational family-owned companies like Scheid, Delicato and Smith Family Wines, all of which began by farming and selling grapes to outside producers. The result was fewer producers farming more vines; by way of comparison, the Napa Valley and Monterey County AVAs both have about 45,000 acres under vines, but Napa Valley has 400 wineries while Monterey has just 71.

Whereas much of Monterey County’s wine has previously been shipped elsewhere (including Napa), an increasing number of large and small local producers are capitalizing on Monterey County’s growing conditions and keeping Monterey fruit back for estate-, appellation- and vineyard-specific projects.

“Because of the coastal influences—and particularly the influence of the deep submarine canyon in the Monterey Bay—the northern wine-growing AVAs of Monterey (Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, Monterey and Chalone) are excelling in growing both cool-loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” says Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. In fact, she says, for the past four consecutive years, from 2012 to 2015, Wine Spectator has declared the Pinot Noir vintages from Monterey County (specifically the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA) the best in California.

“Because of the high quality of Pinot Noir grapes uniformly produced in the northern Salinas Valley, growers have replanted older vineyards to Pinot Noir,” Stemler continues. “The result is that Monterey County is now the top Pinot Noir producer in California, producing 23% of the Pinot Noir grapes crushed in California in 2016: 37% more than the second-closest district, Sonoma/Marin.” She adds that, at 14% of California market share, Monterey County is also the second-largest producer of Chardonnay in the state.

Accounting for the steep increase in the local wine grape harvest, Stemler cites productivity and demand as major variables. “The tonnage per acre went up by 21.5%,” she says. “Monterey growers offer high-quality grapes at a tremendous value with prices rising only 5.5%. We anticipate seeing continued growth in the wine growing sector in the county.”


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