As darling as the wine regions in Napa, Sonoma, and even Santa Barbara are, their acclaim has led to high lodging prices and steep tasting-room fees. It’s not uncommon to plunk down at least $250 a night for an average hotel and pay $15-$20 at each tasting room. If you're looking for the next big thing in Northern California wine travel -- and better prices -- look to Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands.
From San Jose Airport, it’s a 90-minute drive south to this off-the-beaten-path region. Spanning 18 miles long, this wine region was only established in 1992 -- but armed with decades of experience growing grapes for big-label producers, there's a new generation expanding into the wineries here. In the tasting rooms, you'll want to try the region’s two most famous grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Rhone-style varietals flourish here, too. (Santa Lucia Highland's oceanside location and rocky soils create a special environment that nurtures these wines, according to Andy Mitchell, director of viticulture at Hahn Winery.)
For a wine-fueled weekend, you can expect rates as low as $155 at adorable bed-and-breakfasts, like Captain’s Inn in Moss Landing. Plan to spend most of your time along the nearby River Road Wine Trail in Salinas and Soledad, a concentration stretch of a dozen or so wineries. Few charge a tasting-room fee -- or if they do, it’s between $5 and $10 and waived with a bottle purchase -- making a weekend here even more budget-savvy. Bonus for those who are all about local gems: Outside of the wineries here, it’s rare to find their wines, even on restaurant lists throughout the same state.
Here, a few family-owned wineries along the trail that we especially love for great vino and small-business passion.
Odonata Wines, Salinas
Odonata Wines relocated from Santa Cruz in June after winemaker/owner Denis Hoey purchased the winery. While a tasting room remains in Santa Cruz, all of the wines are now made in Salinas. Varietals of organically and sustainably grown grapes include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Malbec and Sangiovese, plus Rhone-style whites like Roussanne and Marsanne. The tasting room is open on Saturday and Sunday only.
Pessagno Winery, Salinas
We can't think of anything warmer than the greeting guests get here, from the Pessagnos’ black Lab Kobe. When visiting the rustic tasting room, complete with chandeliers and mustard-yellow walls, don't forget to try the chocolates stuffed with port -- part of the tasting experience offered daily except for Tuesday and Wednesday. Fun fact: Owner Steve Passagno’s first vintage was in 1999, but the former mechanical engineer worked at other wineries prior to starting his own.
Manzoni Vineyards, Soledad
Twelve years ago, Mark and Sabrina Manzoni -- this winery’s owners -- converted vegetable crops to grapes. Today, they produce 2,000 cases a year by farming six acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The tasting room, which is housed in a converted garage, comes alive on the weekends. Keep an eye out for the Swiss flag behind the bar, an homage to Mark’s grandfather who emigrated from Switzerland in the 1920s. ( The Manzonis also have another tasting room in downtown Carmel.)
Brosseau Wines, Soledad
Short on time? Taste and buy Brosseau’s wines right at their posh bed-and-breakfast, Inn at the Pinnacles, a few miles west of Pinnacles National Park. (Rates fall between $235 and $260 per night this winter.) Owners Jan and Jon Brosseau owners planted 17 acres in 1980, and their son Bill is now involved too. In addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the wines cover many Rhone-style varietals, like Syrah, Grenache, Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne, and Chenin Blanc.
Puma Road Winery, Gonzales
Owner Ray Franscioni is a third-generation Monterey County farmer, with his family’s harvests going to top producers like Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates and Mer Soleil Vineyard. Now, with daughter Kathy, and plus winemaker David Coventry, their 25-year-old vines shine in a brand-new tasting room open on Saturdays and Sundays.