Salamandre Wine

Arroyo Seco

Arroyo Seco Vineyard in Early Spring

Arroyo Seco: Winter Water, Summer Wind, Dry Humor

Pacific winter storms pound the rugged Ventana Wilderness, sending torrents of water crashing either West to the Big Sur or East down through the Arroyo Seco Gorge. Over the eons, chips of granite and limestone have washed downstream, grinding, scraping, and finally settling in a broad fan where the Gorge opens into the fertile Salinas Valley. In the summer, mountain springs continue to feed the Gorge, although the water dives deep into the cobbly alluvium, rendering this stream (arroyo) dry (seco) by May. The moisture may be out of human sight, but it still can be reached by the determined grapevines planted there 40 years ago.

High in the Arroyo Seco
Gorge in Late Fall

The Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County commonly harbors fog in the early morning, yielding to intense heat in the mid day. As the sun dips lower, a marine wind pushes through the Salinas River mouth on the Monterey Bay and howls down the Salinas Valley. This chilling wind may be a nuisance for truck drivers and sun bathers, but it turns out to be blessing for a Chardonnay grapevine. The viticultural promise of this extraordinary combination of soil and climate was discovered in the 1970's by pioneers like Doug Meador of Ventana Vineyard and Terrel West. The Arroyo Seco now produces some of California's finest white wines, and we make one of them.

Chardonnay Label
Chardonnay in Summer

The Arroyo Seco Vineyard occupies several hundred acres in the neck of the alluvial fan, between the foothills and the dry rivercourse. In the early 1970's, under the careful hand of Terrel West, dozens of certified grape varieties were planted to "road test" the new region. Terrel experimented with much more than the varieties. He tinkered with vine spacing, irrigation, pruning strategies, cover crops, and night harvesting. Terrel learned more in 10 years than most men in a career, and he generously shared his knowledge. He also treated us kindly back in the late 1970's when we landed on his doorstep as dilettante home winemakers. We have seen many changes as Terrel's intellectual curiosity has borne agricultural fruit, but we are still making wine from some of the same vines as our first Chardonnay.

Terrel now nurtures millions of new vines in a state-of-the-art nursery, and Roger Moitoso has assumed the direct vineyard control at Arroyo Seco. Roger thinks like a grapevine. I don't think Roger cuts his nails. He prunes them. Roger also thinks like a D-9 Cat, a hydrologic engineer, and erosion control environmentalist. Roger lobbied for the expansion of the vineyards into the hilly benchland 5 miles upstream from the Arroyo Seco Vineyard, above the fog layer. We'll soon see what this exotic new planting will do with Bordeaux heritage grapes.
Roger Moitoso with Alexa
- a few years ago

Serafin Guzman, Arroyo Seco Vineyard's foreman for decades, has touched every rock, post, and pipe on the ranch. Only the deserving ones remain. My respect for Serafin outgrows its planter every year. He coaxes vines to perform as their spiritual obligation, and he similarly inspires his co-workers, some of the hardest working people I've ever met.

Serafin Guzman among the
Dijon Pinot Noir vines after harvest

Perhaps the most distinctive wine of my career was the 1989 Serafin, a Botrytis'ed Riesling which we picked at 43 Brix at Serafin's behest during the turbulent days after the earthquake. Serafin said: "These grapes do not look so pretty, but I have seen beautiful wine made from grapes like this…. It would be a shame to waste them, don't you think?" I replied: "It would be an unpardonable sin." It tasted like purified apricot honey, and the aroma filled the room. I've never come close to matching it. Maybe next year.
Serafin tracks the brix
of maturing grapes

It's really too bad that the aromatically fruity grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat have somehow never
captured the American palate, because they truly thrive in the Arroyo Seco. Be that as it may, Chardonnay is the undisputed
Queen of Arroyo Seco.

Chardonnays from this region typically show abundant tropical fruit-pineapple, melon, and citrus--with an everlasting aftertaste.
The consistent evening cooling assures that the grapes maintain a crisp acid backbone, a critical feature to match fruit, body,
and longevity.

Salamandre applies traditional hands-on techniques to Chardonnay, starting with highly selective hand picking at the cold crack of dawn. Serafin makes certain we take nothing but "la pura seleccion." We use old fashioned basket presses, low tech gravity flow, and slow barrel fermentation. Under a physician's watchful eye in the cellar, we let the wine mature naturally with the bare minimum of manipulation. French oak ageing complements the grape flavors with a delicate, toasty background and contributes to the lingering finish. Similarly to many white Burgundy wines, our Chardonnays typically reach their peak after 2 years bottle age, 3 years after harvest. Patience is a virtue.
Dave South nestles into
the Chardonnay as the sun plays with the fog

Merlot grapes entering veraison
- the blush of color

The first Cardinal Zin

Red wines from the Arroyo Seco show year-to-year variation, depending upon the date of fruit set and the character of the late summer. Long hang times with steady heat with cold nights have produced Best of Show Cabernets for other wineries, and for us, some rich Merlots and the original, ravishing Cardinal Zin in 1987. Every 3 or 4 seasons, however, cooler years or quirky El Nino weather yield less memorable wines from heat-loving red varietals.

The great promise for Arroyo Seco reds, in my opinion, is Pinot Noir. The original 1970's plantings in the area featured a clone with relatively light color and delicate flavour-truly perfect for sparkling cuvees, but less distinctive for those Californians chasing the Burgundian Grail. The Arroyo Seco Vineyard has constantly experimented with new cultivars, and as the millennium approached, Roger planted a series of rare Dijon clones grafted over to American rootstock.
End of a long
day at harvest time


Salamandre has enjoyed the privilege over many years of being the first to put Arroyo Seco's experiments into expensive barrels with small winery love (OK-that's actually compulsion). Our first Pinot from these grapes is a showcase of bright cherry fruitiness with a velvety aftertaste that rolls onto the beach like waves at sunset. Surf's up. This will be our future Arroyo Seco centrepiece.

Wells Shoemaker MD, Winemaker