Monterey County’s Arroyo Seco AVA doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. It doesn’t have the recognition of its growing area neighbor to the north, the Santa Lucia Highlands, nor the storied history of its neighbor to the east, Chalone. But for decades, Arroyo Seco has produced high-quality fruit and this AVA has its own alluring, unique characteristics.The AVA gets its name from the Arroyo Seco Creek, which passes through the center of the area, draining rainfall from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Salinas River. And despite the name, the creek is not always dry, although the area is generally arid with well-drained, nutrient-poor soils. Although Arroyo Seco is located adjacent to the Salinas Valley, it does not escape the frequent coastal winds and fog. However, a unique characteristic of the growing area is the presence of large stones in the soils which absorb heat from afternoon sunshine and provide this additional heat to the vines. Local growers have affectionately named them: “Greenfield Pebbles.”
The AVA is actually relatively small at 18,000 acres, with around half of those acres planted with grape vines. By comparison, the Santa Lucia Highlands is larger, at 22,000 acres. Although small and not overly well-known, the growing area’s uniqueness has been recognized for some time. As of April 2016, the AVA is celebrating 33 years as a designated AVA, making it one of the state’s oldest.
The AVA is divided into four general areas of terrain, referred to as the Gorge, the Ancient Riverbed, the Western Bench, and the Southern Benchland.
The westernmost sub-area of the AVA is a narrow ravine located at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The terrain is steep and the soil is thin and rocky. This is a very challenging area to grow wine grapes, but the results, when successful, are outstanding. As this is the one area of the AVA partially protected from coastal influences, heat-loving varietals do well here, such as Rhône varietals.
The Ancient Riverbed
The Ancient Riverbed area of the AVA is the region directly adjacent to the creek bed, which essentially flows through the center of the AVA. This area experiences extreme coastal influences and is planted primarily with Chardonnay and Riesling, although there are pockets with other varietals. One notable exception is the famed Griva Vineyard, which is primarily planted with these two varietals, yet has around 40 acres dedicated to highly-regarded Sauvignon Blanc.
The Western Bench
The Western Bench area actually looks like it sounds – as a pronounced bench rising dramatically above the depression formed by the creek in the Ancient Riverbed area. As it is located directly adjacent to the Santa Lucia Highlands, it’s not surprising that this is an area primarily planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.
The Southern Benchland
The southern side of the Ancient Riverbed is visibly distinguishable as another bench area, although not as extreme as the Western Bench. The soils here are more fertile than in the rest of the AVA, and for this reason this is an area with more varied varietals, such as plantings of Albariño, Grenache, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Although there clearly are other varietals planted in Arroyo Seco, it’s estimated that 80% of the fruit produced in the AVA is Chardonnay. Chardonnay from Arroyo Seco has been sought after since wineries such as Wente and J.Lohr first started planting it in Arroyo Seco. Along with these two out-of-towner wineries and others such as Cobblestone and La Crema, there are some Monterey County wineries sourcing their wines from Arroyo Seco grapes, including: Bernardus, Mercy Vineyards, Chesebro, and Carmel Road. Ventana has also always maintained a strong Arroyo Seco presence, sourcing their Chardonnays and Rhône varietals from here.
And speaking of Ventana, it’s the AVA’s only tasting room. Although, as mentioned earlier, the AVA is just south of the Santa Lucia Highlands, offering plenty of tasting room options in the general vicinity.
So while Arroyo Seco may not receive the attention or notoriety, it has been a constant provider of high quality wine grapes for Monterey County for over 30 years. And while Chardonnay has been an Arroyo Seco staple, as wine grape growing and wine making techniques change with time, we expect to see more small pockets of other varietals popping up in this unique Monterey County AVA.