Monterey County Wines

Finding Refuge in Carmel

This week, Daniel and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in the beautiful town of Carmel.  This oceanside gem may well be the most beautiful place I have ever been.  To put that in perspective, I have been to Jamaica and Hawaii, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Grand Canyon, Egypt, Paris, Greek Islands, Cinque Terra, and basically everywhere in California.  But Carmel just has something the equal of which I have never seen.  Between the ocean, the cypress trees, and the gorgeous coastline, Carmel exudes natural beauty, and it’s houses and downtown area are adorable without taking away from the beauty that’s already there.  Carmel also has much to offer in the food and wine areas, and I try to visit whenever I head down to the Monterey area.

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We began in Carmel Valley with a fabulous lunch at the Vineyard Bistro.  It was adorable!  We sat outside, surrounded by trees, my skin baking in the sun.  I had the most amazing tortellini in gorgonzola cream sauce.  It was rich and flavorful without being overpowering, and I am quite sure my arteries were in danger of bursting afterward, but I didn’t care because it was SO GOOD.  It was a really nice place to sit and enjoy each other’s company, lazing about in the sun.

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We couldn’t very well visit Carmel Valley without tasting some wine, so we wandered over to Chateau Sinnet‘s tasting room nearby.  Having done very minimal research ahead of time, I had seen their tasting flight contained 7 wines for $7 which is a pretty good deal, so we went for it.

Apparently, we should have looked around a bit more.  The wine was perfectly decent.  The White Merlot was unique and tasty, and if we didn’t already have a ton of wine at home, I might have bought a bottle.  We both enjoyed the Cabernet Franc and the Late Harvest Zinfandel as well, and the prices were really reasonable.

The Tasting Room Manager who was anything but.  We agreed after that he was the worst pourer either of us had ever had.  Usually, pourers are either relatively reserved, giving you the chance to concentrate on the wine, or they try to engage you in conversation, about the wine, your day, or whatever else they can think of.  In my experience, the best pourers are friendly and chatty, know a lot about their wines, and are eager to share the information without pushing it.

This guy was just about the opposite.  He was disengaged, talking super fast but monotone as if he were reading from a script.  And he pushed the hard sale which is just stupid when you’re talking about wine.  No one wants that, and we may actually have bought a bottle if he had just shut up.  As it was, we were both ready to get out of there as quickly as possible to the point of leaving before we had finished our last taste.  We practically ran to the car once we got out the door.  Suffice it to say, I will not be going back.

And then we entered nirvana.

The main event of our trip was Refuge.  It is similar to a spa in that people visit for relaxation and renewal, but the how is unique.  The Refuge Experience consists of cycles of heat, cold, and relaxation.  If you do it according to their plan, you heat up for 5 – 10 minutes in a hot tub, sauna, or steam room, immediately cool down in a cold pool for as long as you can stand it (up to 1 minute….I definitely never made it that long), and then relax for at least 15 minutes before starting the cycle over.  You are primarily outdoors, surrounded by trees and crystalline pools with waterfalls flowing down the rocks.  The setting is idyllic and very conducive to relaxation.

However, the process itself was at times rather rigorous.  Normally, heat and I are good friends, but the sauna and steam room were both much hotter than I was comfortable with, and I couldn’t stand to be in either for long.  The steam room was so steamy that I could not see the back upon entering, and the steam was laced with eucalyptus which made it hard for me to breathe.  I must admit though, I felt a lot better after sitting in that steam…you know, once I got to the relaxing part.

The cold pool was, well, really cold.  Actually, I should say the “cool” pool was really cold as I never could get in the 37 degree “cold” pool past my thighs.  They wanted full submersion, and at 50 degrees, trying to stay in the cool pool for even 30 seconds was difficult.  However, the process did make me feel better after a few rounds, and the relaxing portion was just that.  I almost went to sleep more than once, and coming out of the cold makes you feel a lot warmer than I would have expected while you’re relaxing.

I tried to do the cycles their way, but after the first hour or two, I started spending large amounts of time in the “warm” pool between cycles.  That was truly relaxing.  But I do think there is merit to the cycle system because Daniel and I both felt great after.  Our skin looked amazing, and for both of us, that is not an experience we often get.

Refuge was completely worth the drive and the cost, and I fully intend to go back as frequently as possible.

Carmel is a place where I can always find tranquility wherever I look for it, but if you want the ultimate relaxation experience, Refuge is a good place to look.

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Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Food, Local Travel, Monterey, Monterey County Wines, Northern California, Restaurants, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Salinas: Hole-in-the-Wall Heaven

Upon entering Salinas, one might wonder, indeed, why anyone would want to enter Salinas.

I, being a super savvy traveler, stayed there during Memorial Day weekend.  Normally, when one goes on vacation during Memorial Day weekend, it is with the knowledge that she will be accosted by tourists, packed hotels, and the inability to find parking.

Not so Salinas.

We arrived on Sunday to find that at least half of the restaurants downtown were closed for lunch.  And not the crappy hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants, no, we are talking about the big, overly welcoming, “I’m going to charge you a minimum of $12 per entree even though this is fucking Salinas” restaurants.

It was weird.

I have never visited a town that looked more like a ghost town, aside from Detroit in 2009.  But there was just nothing going on in Salinas.  It was perfectly nice looking (well, OK, downtown was perfectly nice looking) and well-kept, it was just closed.

I cannot say whether this was normal or whether the entire town decided to leave for the weekend, but as my husband and I wandered the streets, we were quite unnerved by the stillness.

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Downtown Salinas “Art”

Eventually, we found a Mexican restaurant that was open, inexpensive, and, well, clean, and it actually turned out to be surprisingly good.  Based on our quick drive around downtown Salinas, I would say at least half of their restaurants sport Mexican fair, and they clearly know what they’re doing.  At least this one did.

Paloma’s Mexican Restaurant really impressed us both.  It is relatively small, has no inner lighting besides skylights, and is definitely a hole-in-the-wall kind of find.  Nonetheless, the food and service were excellent.  Before we even ordered, they brought us bowls of watermelon to snack on which was a new experience and quite an enjoyable one.   The chips and salsa were good with a rather unique flavor, and both of our entrees were fabulous.  Daniel got green mole chicken which we both immediately fell head-over-heels for.  I don’t know what they put in that sauce, but it was magical.  I ordered chicken tamales because I judge all Mexican restaurants on their tamales, a technique that generally does not work well in Northern California but sure worked out here.  They were quite tasty, especially when slathered in green mole.

Random, but delicious.

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Art at Salinas Transit Center

After gathering our stomachs and dragging them and their contents out of Paloma’s, we decided to ditch the Steinbeck Center in favor of extra time for wine tasting.

Monterey Country has some really fantastic wineries, and many of them reside on River Road, a short drive from Salinas.  Like the main strip in Napa, you can basically just drive down the road to encounter lots of delicious wine choices, and this is what we did.

Having somehow missed our freeway exit, we decided to start down the road a bit and work our way back.  Thus began the start of our tasting adventure at Pessagno Winery.  I was pleased with this turn of events because Pessagno was the winery I was most interested in, and apparently, my preliminary research paid off because it was super tasty.

Pessagno is small but welcoming with a long wooden tasting bar and very friendly hosts.  We were tempted to buy several of their Pinots and their Syrah, and I actually gave in to their Perelli 101, a Port without Port varietals that genuinely tasted like berries.  We greatly enjoyed their actual Port as well but not nearly as much as the Port-filled chocolates that we downed in one gulp.  Their pours were ample, and I was sufficiently tipsy by the time we left which in hindsight may not have been the best idea I’ve ever had, but hey, it was fun at the time.

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Fountain at Talbott Tasting Room

We continued up the road to the most established winery of our trip, Talbott Vineyards.  While it was pretty and clearly someone had put a lot of thought into the decor, we both found their wines utterly uninspired despite trying both of their tasting lists.  This is the most expensive winery we visited, and it was so not worth it.  Despite already being lubed up for the experience, we spent the whole tasting trying to find something that we liked and failed utterly.

I however was getting quite drunk by the time we arrived and needed to take a break before meandering back to the car.  We stumbled through the vines, lamenting that we were there in May when none of the grapes were ripe.

Though I probably should have just stopped there, there was only one winery between us and our hotel, so really we had no choice but to try it.  We’re very happy we did.

Marilyn Remark was the most surprising of the wineries we visited.  The tasting room was literally a giant metal shed complete with barrels, farm equipment, and a large chemistry set.  Our wines were served on folding tables, and our company included the winery dog.  And the wine was really, really good.

We wanted to buy at least half of the wine list and actually purchased their Viognier.  I do not like Viognier.  I have had maybe one other Viognier in my life that I liked at all.  These days, even though I have a penchant for whites, if I see a Viognier on a tasting list, I’ll most likely skip it.  This Viognier was clearly crafted by God.

You can probably imagine how drunk I was when we left Marilyn Remark.

Needless to say, I do not remember much else from our day.

At some point, I took a nap which is a respectful nod to the quality of the wines I drank and to the level of my intoxication.  I awoke in time to partake of some truly delicious Chinese food that Daniel had scavenged from China House Restaurant, a treat we were not expecting in a sea of taquerias.

And then it was time for me to have a nice long sleep.

Salinas is not the kind of place you’d expect to have a good vacation.  It is small, largely abandoned, and often looks like the kind of place you shouldn’t walk alone at night.  However, like the restaurants and wineries we visited, this hole-in-the-wall town was unexpectedly pleasant, and I actually kind of want to go back to check out some more wineries.  Maybe next time we’ll actually go to the Steinbeck Museum.

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Steinbeck House

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Monterey County Wines, Northern California, Restaurants, Wine | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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