It’s Always Sunny in Carmel Valley

By Michael Chatfield • Photography by Kelli Uldall, Carmel Magazine

There’s a buzz in Carmel Valley. Not too many years ago, that buzz would probably have emanated from the flies hovering around the horses on one of the Valley’s numerous working ranches. Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that sound is the vibrant hum of commerce, the buzz of business, the happy hum of people having fun. And it is a happy place; a place of sunshine, warmth and hospitality. If it’s foggy in Monterey or Carmel, chances are the sun is beaming bright in the Valley, especially east of Quail Lodge and Golf Club, about three miles from Highway 1 on Carmel Valley Road. Not that long ago, Carmel Valley was rural with a capital “R.” Dairy farms, horse ranches, fruit and nut orchards, row crops, hay fields.

Sure, there were a couple of establishments such as Los Laureles Lodge and the Holman Ranch that offered accommodations for those who desired to vacation off the beaten path, but few came here for pleasure in those days. Carmel Valley was a relaxed, laid-back place of few people and even fewer pretensions. No doubt there were more horses and cows than people here in the early part of the 20th century.

It exuded an Old-West feel, the kind of place where dressing up meant dusting off your jeans, scraping your boots and leaving your cowboy hat at the door. Meanwhile, the world was beating a path to the Monterey Peninsula and its golf courses, ocean-view hotels and fine dining establishments. Something was bubbling on the back burner, however.

The world is now beating a new path to Carmel Valley, sometimes bypassing Monterey, Pebble Beach and Carmel altogether. After all, locals have always known that when the Pacific Ocean caresses the Peninsula with its fingers of fog, a short drive on Carmel Valley Road is rewarded with blue skies and sunshine. That road (aka Monterey County Road G16), a picturesque two-lane blacktop that begins at Highway 1 near Carmelby- the-Sea and terminates 53 miles later in the Salinas Valley town of Greenfield, is the backbone of Carmel Valley.

It’s a beautiful drive; every twist and turn is rewarded with a new vista of the mountains on each side of the valley, rolling off into the misty distance. The verdant valley is uncrowded and still seemingly untouched by 21st century hustle and bustle; horses nonchalantly graze, birds circle overhead, wildlife abounds. But make no mistake: this is a thoroughly modern place with lodging, dining, recreational and shopping opportunities the rival of those anywhere.

Carmel Valley has undergone a renaissance in the last couple of decades. Several forwardthinking businesspeople have recognized the area’s potential and have sunk serious resources into bringing it to fruition. And the fuel for that renaissance? Wine.

In the early 1960s, wine grape vines were planted in the Cachagua (pronounced Ka SHOU wa) region of Carmel Valley. The area’s hot, dry climate turned out to be beneficial to the production of red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Others followed; while not exactly a rush, a steady stream of forward-thinking individuals began growing grapes and making wine in what was, in 1982, designated the Carmel Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). Today there are a dozen or so small-scale, family wine operations up and down the valley, and around 20 tasting rooms. By law, each winery is allowed just one off-site tasting facility, so the fact that the winemakers have chosen to locate them here says a lot about how they view the Valley’s potential as a visitor magnet. Their presence has sparked nothing less than a revolution in the valley.

One property that perhaps epitomizes this rebirth more than any other is the venerable Holman Ranch, a short distance east of Carmel Valley Village. The property is home to an elegant event facility, ten guest cottages, 19 acres planted to wine grapes, a winery and an extensive equestrian center. Established in 1928, the property has hosted Hollywood royalty Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Marlon Brando. The 400- acre ranch was purchased in 2006 by the Lowder family who set about turning the property into the shining jewel it is today. Guest Services Manager Nick Elliott, past President of the Carmel Valley Chamber of Commerce, has seen the region’s remarkable transformation. “The growth is astonishing,” he says. “What was almost a ghost town in 2008 has made a stunning turnaround. New shops, restaurants and wine tasting rooms have cropped up in the last couple of years. This is a very positive time and I can’t wait to see what happens down the road. It’s very exciting.”

Another businessman bullish on Carmel Valley is restaurateur, winemaker, artist and Carmel Valley resident Walter Georis. His Corkscrew Café and adjoining Georis Winery tasting room have been favorite destinations for years. In addition to that brand, he has recently established Cowgirl Winery with a new tasting facility and gift shop located in a rustic barn just up the street. Though a native of Belgium, Georis is no newcomer; he established his vineyard in 1982. He is pleased by what he sees around him. “This is a renaissance being driven by the wine industry,” he says. “But it’s not just about wine. The hospitality and retail sectors are coming along as well. We’re seeing significant investment in private real estate as well.”

Carmel Realty Company’s Cheryl Heyermann agrees. “We are absolutely experiencing an upswing and strengthening in the market,” she says. “Lots of positive activity. More out-of-area people are looking to purchase a retirement or second home. Things are definitely looking sunny in Carmel Valley.”

Tasting rooms are for the most part concentrated in Carmel Valley Village, the spiritual, cultural and economic hub of the Valley. The Village, as it’s known, is small in size but big in character. There’s a feeling of stepping back in time upon entering town; it’s a place that hasn’t forgotten its Old West roots while growing with the times. “This has become quite a tasting destination,” says Jack Galante of Galante Vineyards. “That has brought notoriety to our town.” Several have grouped into White Oak Plaza at the east end of town, including that of Dawn’s Dream, founded by Galante’s wife Dawn. Others are along Carmel Valley Road, including Boete at Valley Hills Center near Quail Lodge and Chateau Julien, located five miles from Highway 1 at what is known as “mid- Valley.” Chateau Julien also offers on-site winery tours and its barrel room is a popular events center. Attending a wedding reception surrounded by thousands of gallons of wine in repose is an experience not to be missed.

An exciting development is the relocation of the Talbott Vineyards tasting room. Long a fixture at the corner of Carmel Valley and Pilot Roads, the facility has moved up Pilot to a building next to Cowgirl Winery. In addition to sampling the winery’s venerable varietals, visitors can view owner Robb Talbott’s extensive collection of rare and exotic motorcycles.

For those who prefer a cold beer, Carmel Valley even has its own microbrew, a tasty Pale Ale made by Carmel Valley Brewing Company and available on tap at several local watering holes. The aforementioned White Oak Plaza has recently branded itself as the “East End Wine Row,” and the tasting rooms there have banded together, putting on regular events that include live music and art showings. Where there’s wine, there’s food. Carmel Valley dining establishments cater to every taste and budget, from the rustic, saloon-like Running Iron and the tempting Mexican food of Taqueria Del Valle, across the street at White Oak Plaza.

The ever-popular Café Rustica, locals’ favorite Wills Fargo and the Mexican cuisine of Plaza Linda have been pleasing palates for decades. Renowned chefs Cal Stamenov at Marinus at Bernardus Lodge and Tim Wood at the Lodge Restaurant at Carmel Valley Ranch offer culinary masterpieces that wow even the most discriminating diners. And of course, they are masters of pairing their food with the wines produced here. If your idea of dining also includes a bit of dancing, there are a couple of establishments that offer live music to help burn off a few calories. Baja Cantina, in the Valley Hills Center three miles from Highway 1, serves up hearty southof- the-border fare and award winning Margaritas. On the Valley’s balmy summer evenings, Baja features the best local musicians performing on its outdoor deck. In the Village, Plaza Linda offers live music several nights each week. Both establishments are family-friendly. A more high-brow form of musical entertainment can be found at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, near Carmel Valley Village. Classical recitals by master-class students occur regularly in addition to occasional jazz performances. The venue is intimate and on warm evenings, a wall of the auditorium can be opened to the night air to enable the enjoyment of listening to music under the stars.

Given Carmel-by-the-Sea’s longstanding status as a haven for artists, it’s only natural that many would migrate a few miles east, finding inspiration in the Valley’s climate—both meteorological and artistic. Shelley and John Aliotti run the Carmel Valley Art Association and maintain a bright, sunny and approachable gallery in the heart of the Village. More than 40 member artists are represented here, including nationally known artists such as cowboy artist Jack N. Swanson and whimsical painter Will Bullas. “This is the friendliest gallery around,” says Bullas. And it’s made more so by the fact that each member spends one day a month working in the gallery. “Visitors can actually meet and speak with the artist whose work is on the wall,” says Shelley Aliotti. “People are surprised and delighted.”

The Valley offers plenty of shopping opportunities as well. But don’t expect mall-type chain stores. Selections are much more esoteric and exotic. Offerings range from vintage clothing to fly fishing accessories; consignment furniture to organic produce; olive oil to lighting fixtures. In recent years, the Village has been imbued with a Continental flair, thanks to several businesspeople, including Walter Georis with his Corkscrew Café (dining on the outdoor patio of his Corkscrew Café feels like being in a Belgian backyard) and his buddy Jan de Luz. While visiting his friend, de Luz fell so in love with Carmel Valley that he moved here from France, opening a business that specializes in antique European architectural elements. “Our passion has influenced the community and architecture of the Peninsula,” de Luz says. More European influence can be experienced at Lights of Rome, a delightful shop showcasing European lighting and home furnishings.

In Italy, folk wisdom says that one plants grape vines for yourself and your children; you plant olives for your grandchildren. That saying refers to how long it takes an olive tree to come to maturity. Dr. Steve Brabeck has put his faith in the Valley’s longevity by opening Quail and Olive, a unique shop in the Village that offers of different varieties of olive oil, plus balsamic vinegars and kitchen accessories.

A day trip to Carmel Valley can be a great way to get a taste of what the area has to offer. It’s easy to explore the Village on foot; most of the town’s attractions are within walking distance of each other. But two entrepreneurs offer unique ways to get around. Cowboy Pete Azevedo offers tours around the Village in a restored wooden wagon behind his 1939 Farmall tractor; Azevedo can be found waiting for fares along Carmel Valley Road in town—he’s hard to miss. For those desiring to sample several different winery wares and not have to worry about getting behind the wheel, there’s The Wine Trolley, led by Gary Munsinger in a bus built to look like a trolley car. “Carmel Valley has turned into a destination,” he says. “It’s come from being an out of the way place to a wine Mecca.”

Staying longer? Accommodations run the gamut from no-frills budget to world-class luxury. Quail Lodge, Carmel Valley Ranch and Bernardus Lodge in particular offer rooms and amenities on a par with the finest hotels anywhere— all three feature luxurious facilities offering a full range of relaxing treatments. Even in the lap of luxury, these properties retain a refreshing sense of that famous Carmel Valley laid-back casualness. “What the Valley has done so well is hold onto its charm and character while sustaining smart growth,” says Bernardus President Mike Oprish. “Here at Bernardus Lodge we present a world-class level of service with no pretensions while embracing this serene environment.”

Oprish perhaps perfectly sums up what makes Carmel Valley unique: it has one boot on the ranch and one in the spa. Truly, Carmel Valley Chamber of Commerce Managing Director Elizabeth Vitarisi Suro is not exaggerating when she calls the Valley “the gem of the Monterey Peninsula.” Discover why for yourself. You’ll be welcomed with open arms—and a nice glass of wine.

Posted in Carmel Magazine Archives