For nearly 50 years now, wine lovers traveling between San Luis Obispo and Carmel by-the-Sea via the Highway 101 inland route have encountered one of California’s standout wine meccas: the River Road Wine Trail. Though the earliest vines along the rugged Santa Lucia Highlands here were planted in the 1790s, what was to evolve into River Road Wine Trail (map) really began during the early 1970s. That was when pioneering wineries including Paraiso, Sleepy Hollow, Hillside, and Estancia began to expand on the region’s growing reputation.
Fast forward to today: The Monterey growing region, which the River Road Wine Trail travels through, is home to nine AVAs (all of them created after that early-70s boom) and several dozen wineries crafting vino, most famously Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Grenache Noir, Syrah, Viognier, and others.
From their hilly perches, the dozen-plus wineries lining River Road, traveling roughly from Salinas south to the little town of Greenfield, offer commanding views of the rumpled range and the broad valley below, some of the richest farmland in the state. Visit in spring for a two-thumbs-up scenic drive, with vistas as green as Ireland in every direction. A few that are not to be missed: Wrath Wines, where the winery tasting room, complete with a sunny terrace, offers stunning views of the Santa Lucia Highlands and Salinas Valley; and Scheid Vineyards, one of the pioneering vineyards that dates back to 1972, which has a spacious tasting room on the vineyard grounds as well as one in Carmel. Puma Road Winery and Pessagno Wines, both run by third-generation Monterey farmer Ray Franscioni, are two other long-time standouts on the trail.
Know before you go: Most of the tasting rooms are open only on weekends or by appointment, so some advanced planning can avoid locked gates and disappointment.