Monterey of My Own
For a relatively small area on the California Central Coast, Monterey County enjoys worldwide notoriety and a year-round influx of vacationers. For many first-time visitors the wild Pacific shore with its sandy dunes, cypress groves, and verdant valleys supersedes just about anything in nature previously thought beautiful and engaging. No matter how many times I come back to Monterey Peninsula, there is always something to discover in this incredibly rich and multi-faceted region of the Golden State.
Sunny, fertile, and picturesque year round, Carmel Valley is nestled in the Santa Lucia foothills and boasts scenic views of the surrounding mountains, vineyards, and ranch lands from any place.
My visit to Earthbound Farm Stand, Market & Organic Café proved more educational than I imagined. I learned that when the owners, Drew and Myra Goodman, founded their company in 1984 no one could predict that organic farming would skyrocket in a relatively short historical period. The Goodmans started selling organic raspberries grown in their backyard from a roadside stand, then added baby lettuces—prepackaged on their kitchen table—then reached out to big retailers such as Costco with a goal to deliver foods grown without harmful chemicals to places where regular people lived and shopped.
Gardens and event manager Janna Jo Williams, who joined the Earthbound 15 years ago, told me that at first Costco didn’t want the word “organic” on the packaging because the perception was it was “ugly.” Now, the Earthbound family consists of 200 different farmers—some with 10 acres of organically cultivated land, some with 100 acres—and supplies 75 percent of all major grocery stores in the country. Despite all this progress, Earthbound, the nation’s largest organic produce company, is just 0.8 percent the size of PepsiCo Inc.
I admired a large variety of organic flowers, fruit, and vegetables sold at the small but well-stocked and busy market. I toured the grounds where Herb Garden, Kitchen Garden, and even Alphabet Kid’s Garden are located and ate lunch at the café. I learned the difference between German chamomile and Roman chamomile; had a glass of fresh-squeezed juice made of beets, carrots, celery, apple, chard, ginger, kale, parsley, and lemon; and decided to come back in summer because at Earthbound Farm they have a fun and free to the public event: all-you-can-eat berries at their Berry Patch!
With lettuce as the primary crop in Carmel Valley, followed by strawberries, grapes come as No. 6, but “only because the economists count the value of the fruit, not of the wine,” explained Evan Oakes, Ag Venture Tours creator and operator. “Otherwise, it would be No. 1.”
During his half-day Carmel Valley Wine Tasting Tour, Mr. Oakes provided plenty of information about why European vines are being grafted to the healthy American roots, how a labor price on a single grapevine can easily reach $1,000 before it matures, and what should be done to protect the grapes from their seasonal enemies—frost and deer in winter and spring and birds and gofers in summer and fall.
The tour featured three remarkable local wineries: Château Julien, with a vineyard on the premises and a tasting room in a replica of an Alsace chateau; Joullian Vineyards, where we tried excellent 2011 Zinfandel and a rare 2010 black Muscat Hamburg, produced in the amount of one barrel; and Bernardus Vineyard and Winery, known for its comparative tasting flights.
The creator of the latter, Bernardus Pon, inspired a boutique luxury resort, Bernardus Lodge, opened in 1999 and surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills, and pine and oak groves. Upon check-in, I was escorted by a courteous staff person from the cozy main lodge with a wood-burning fireplace and an overflowing fruit basket to my guest room, also with a fireplace and a fruit basket—in addition to a luxurious bed, an antique armoire, an oversize bathtub, wine and snacks in a kitchenette corner, and a charming outdoor terrace shielded by blooming cherry trees and overlooking a croquet lawn.
I took my sweet time enjoying a bouquet of fresh red roses in my room, wine and cheese service that is a staple at Bernardus Lodge upon arrival of any guest, and a spacious warming pool at the spa—a 100-degree outdoor pool with a side fountain and a lavender patch.
I returned to the main lodge at dusk to dine at Wickets Bistro, the resort’s informal restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. Knowing it was impossible to go wrong with Bernardus Lodge cuisine, I ordered specials of the day: a heavenly Portobello mushroom soup with sherry and goat cheese and house-made ceviche with local halibut, avocado, and bell peppers.
Executive chef Cal Stamenov and his team make Bernardus Lodge cuisine famous not only at Wickets Bistro and Marinus Restaurant but also at the Chef’s Table, a dining booth in the main kitchen, and at the Wine Cellar, where oenophiles can dine inside a vast collection of Old and New World wines accumulated by wine director Mark Buzan.
Monterey and Pacific Grove
Honeymooners and other romantically inclined travelers flock to Pacific Grove on the tip of Monterey Peninsula to admire the brightly colored colonies of migrating Monarch butterflies that populate the city every winter, stay in a historical B&B in a Victorian house, and walk to the favorite attraction of the area: Lovers Point. Rocky outcrops, evergreen cypresses and pines, meandering trails, and clear blue ocean water caressing the sandy beach at Lovers Point emanate serenity and calm we attribute to Mother Nature at her best.
From here, a short walk along the beach with lounging silvery seals brought me to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in a revamped cannery building right by the water in the city of Monterey. This internationally recognized institution features the richness of Monterey Bay’s marine life and represents an extensive natural preserve located just off shore. The aquarium’s major exhibits are popular with adults and children alike—the Open Sea, populated by sharks, turtles, stingrays, and a giant, weird-looking sun-fish; the jellies, floating around like some whimsical pieces of artsy glasswork; Kelp Forest, with native California species; Touch Pools, where visitors can stroke a starfish or a sea cucumber; and cutesy-faced sea otters, always the showstoppers.
After a day of wonders at the aquarium, I walk back to Pacific Grove and to my hotel for the night, Centrella Inn. Located in a National Historic Landmark building from 1889, Centrella Inn is a wonderfully quaint B&B, warm and inviting, with excellent service and a feel of a hospitable family home. In the first-floor parlor, decorated with period furniture (up to Art Nouveau tiles!), I joined a party of other guests by the fireplace for a nightly Social Hour with Salmon Creek Cellars wines and house-made hors d’oeuvres.
My room, with a beautiful garden view, had festive floral wallpaper, a country-style bed, antique armoire and bed stands, and a claw-foot tub in a renovated bathroom. The best was yet to come; in the morning, I had the most delicious chef-prepared breakfast of spinach, mushroom, eggplant, bell pepper, and cheese frittata, served with country potatoes and freshly baked bread and pastries.
Choosing a memorable dining spot in Monterey is not easy; too many places are regarded as good, great, or wonderful. Even among the very best, Restaurant 1833 with the executive chef Levi Mezic at the helm stands out. Rumor has it the chef’s photograph can be found pinned to some other restaurant kitchens’ walls with an inscription, “The enemy. Makes chefs cry.”
A modest home chef, I’m proud of my skill in traditional Eastern-European dishes, such as meat dumplings or rabbit stew. At 1833, I was ready to cry when I tried chef Mezic’s incredible veal tortellini over green pea puree and then his rabbit rillette, bacon-wrapped rabbit tenderloin, and especially the tiny “rack of rabbit”—the daintiest food in the world suitable for a lady.