Avoid The Crowds Of Napa At This Picturesque, Under-The-Radar Wine Destination

Napa Valley certainly has its charms, and it's one of the most well-known of California's wine regions; however, all that popularity means that it can get busy and pricey, particularly during the harvest season. So, for an underrated California wine region with fewer crowds, check out Carmel Valley in Monterey County along California's Central Coast. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive there from San Francisco (barring excess traffic), and you'll find that Carmel Valley is home to boutique wineries producing some fantastic wines.


Carmel Valley became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983 and is now one of nine AVAs in the larger Monterey County AVA. The region encompasses 19,000 total acres of hillsides and mountains south of Carmel-by-the-Sea and north of Big Sur, with just 300 acres worth of vineyards. The region lends itself to growing predominantly Bordeaux varietals, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sauvignon blanc, due to its well-draining soils and microclimates. Some vineyards are close enough to the coast to get an ocean fog influence, while some are up higher into the mountains.   

"The Carmel Valley AVA is one of the most unique areas I have ever grown grapes," Matt Shea, vineyard manager at Bernardus Winery, told The Californian. "It has the diversity for us to cultivate eight different varieties within just a few miles of each other." Bernardus, along with Galante, Holman Ranch, and Boekenoogen Vineyards, are some of Carmel Valley's most well-known producers, though there are more than a dozen others.


Linger in the vineyards or visit multiple tasting rooms in downtown Carmel

If you want to get up close and personal with the wines as well as enjoy picturesque views of Carmel Valley, reserve an on-site winery tour or tasting. The 600-acre Holman Ranch is known for its chardonnay and pinot noir, and the ranch has a popular tour where you get an ATV ride to the vineyards along with a tasting in the wine cave where the wine is made. Another fun option is Folktale Winery & Vineyard. They make award-winning wines that you can try in their French-chateau-style tasting room. During the summer, they have yoga classes on their lawn. And year-round, they run a wine garden music series on the weekends where you can enjoy their wines while listening to live music in a beautiful setting.


However, if you're looking to streamline your Carmel Valley tasting experience, visit Carmel-by-the-Sea. Typically just referred to as Carmel, this coastal town has some amazing beaches with great sunset views. Plus, it has 18 tasting rooms in the downtown area. That makes it easy to try a variety of local wines without having to worry about driving. For a guide to many of those local tasting rooms, Visit Carmel put together the Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk. It's a free, mobile guide that gives you info on more than a dozen wine destinations along with freebies or deals at each one, like a free tapas or cheese plate, or a discount on the tasting.

Where to stay and eat to enjoy Carmel Valley wine

If you want a place to stay with easy access to Carmel Valley's wines, the Stilwell Hotel opened in May 2024 in the heart of Carmel. The closest tasting rooms are De Tierra Vineyards, right across the street, and the Chalone Vineyard tasting room, just a two-minute walk away. The Chalone Vineyard has its own AVA outside Carmel Valley.  It's well worth a visit, as the oldest winery in Monterey County, producing wine since 1919. 


When you pair wine well with food, it makes both the food and the wine taste better. The Stilwell Hotel restaurant, Foray, has a 1,000-bottle wine cellar featuring a number of local vineyards. Staff can help you pair a glass with the menu made up of all West Coast ingredients. Some are even foraged by Falco, the truffle dog owned by the restaurant's co-owners — husband-and-wife-team Chef Michael Chang and Sommelier Caroline Singer.

If you want to wake up in wine country and enjoy some sensational food and wine pairings, the luxurious Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley is surrounded by the Bernardus Winery's estate vineyards and organic gardens. The on-site restaurant, Lucia, has been visited by the likes of Julia Child and Leonardo DiCaprio. Lucia serves high-end California cuisine, which staff can pair with the vineyards' own estate wines as well as wines from around the world.