River Road Winery Series: Ventana Vineyards

In advance of the River Road Wine Trail’s first annual “Tunes, Trucks and Tastes” event on June 12, 2016, we are doing our best to visit those way-too-unknown but oh-so-easy to get to wineries along the western Salinas Valley, sitting at the eastern foothills of the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains. 

We have been out and about on the Wine Trail and learned that this special food, entertainment and wine event is selling out quickly! Go here to learn more and to purchase your tickets!

We have found ourself in a bit of a wine tasting rut and have decided we need to be more adventurous and go a bit off the beaten path. So on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon, we turned off of the scenic Arroyo Seco Road (which eventually intersects with River Road) and made a turn onto Los Coches Road just southwest of Soledad. Initially we drove past row crops but soon saw the grapes of Ventana Vineyard. There’s no fancy-schmancy specially-built tasting room here, folks. The tasting room, a converted dairy barn, also houses barrels full of maturing wines (and nighttime bats, according to the tasting room attendant—the guano makes a fantastic fertilizer so he benefits from doing the daily clean-up!). 

Ventana Vineyards are owned by local growers who started out row crop farming and who have evolved into viticulturists. It is a Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified vineyard. 

Today we decided to do our wine tasting in the traditional way: right off the menu, whites to reds.  Our pourer, who recently retired from a long career in agriculture, knows all about the wines, the vineyard's owners and production methods. 

We started with a 2013 Ventana Estate Chardonnay, which is fermented 50/50 oak and stainless steel. If you’ve been with us for awhile, you’ll know we aren’t fans of white wines. But this Chardonnay was very different—crisp and clean from its finishing in stainless steel. There’s a hint of lemon and minerals, but none of the sweetness that turns us off of Chardonnays. It’s a very refreshing wine that honestly, we’d not mind drinking. 

The 2013 Ventana Sauvignon Blanc was a complex blend of pepper and a “musty” odor and taste. Our pourer described it as “cat pee on a gooseberry bush.” If you are a Sav Blanc drinker, this wine has everything you’d expect. We quickly moved on to a 2012 Ventana Gewürztraminer, which was citrusy on the nose but mineraly and off-dry to the palate. 

Having had our fill of whites, we moved onto the reds. First up was the 2013 Ventana Pinot Noir. This Pinot gives the nose an explosion of cherry and raspberry, and in the mouth there’s that delicious smokiness that not all Pinots have. We could not help but notice how pretty this wine was in the glass! 

Next up was a 2011 Le Mistral Red, a Rhone-style made of 51% Sirah, 39% Grenache, 7% Alicante Bouschet and 3% Petite Sirah. This is the final vintage of Le Mistral available at Ventana, as the label has been sold. There are older vintages still available at Ventana. This wine is aged in brand-new French Oak barrels, and it shows!  Black cherry, blackberries, strawberries and stone fruit definitely tickle the nose and the palate. Add a bit of dark currant, herbs and pepper, and you have a very nice, drinkable wine. This wine likes to be exposed to air, so open before use or decant. You won’t regret it.

We do enjoy a nice Tempranillo, and the 2013 Ventana Tempranillo is indeed something special! The grapes are grown in extreme south Monterey County, in the Hames Valley appellation, which is located between Highway 101 and the two lakes, San Antonio and Naciemento. Non-taster Cat could easily tell that these grapes came from a different area, immediately noting the smell of a grassy cow pasture and huge, ancient oak trees. The color of the wine is an intense garnet red—which goes with its flavors of dark plum, blackberry, blueberry, tobacco and spices, including green pepper (that’s the grassy smell!). This wine begs to be paired with Mexican food, especially your very best red sauce enchiladas. Be sure to decant this big, bold wine. 

Ventana’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is the perfect wine to stand up to your fatty meats—your prime rib, rib eye or New York steaks. A very bold wine, it is very fruit-forward with pepper, cedar and dark stone fruits. This wine would be happiest sitting on your shelf for awhile, as it is still a bit young, but it has everything it needs to develop into something spectacular! 

We ended with Ventana’s 2013 Counoise/Cinsault Rhone blend. It looks like a rosé but tastes like raspberries and herbs. This wine is a bit young and will appreciate time in your collection. 

Ventana’s tasting room fee is $8 and included 7 wines, though our attendant admitted he couldn’t count, so you just might get a bit more if you are truly interested in the wines themselves! The wine club is super-affordable, at $30–$75 per quarter for three bottles. We liked what we tasted well enough to join this wine club. Benefits of membership include complementary tastings for club member and 4 guests, discounts on wine and merchandise and access to the “Members Only” area of the website, which will include recipes and wine pairings. 

We came in search of a palatable Pinot Noir and a bold Cabernet Sauvignon and left with a bottle of the Le Mistral Red.