The provenance of the name “Cachagua” (pronounced Ka SHOU wa) is lost to the sands of time. “However,” according to the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, “its use goes back to the 1850s with the spelling ‘Jassagua,’ which likely has native Esselen or Spanish influences.” Today, the region is known as a tightly knit and somewhat insular community. It’s also the nexus of the Carmel Valley AVA, one of Monterey County’s nine unique wine-grape-growing regions known as American Viticultural Areas.
The padres who followed Father Junipero Serra, founder of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel Mission), recognized the region’s suitability for nurturing red wine grapes and established vineyards here in the nineteenth century. A century later, businessman Bill Durney and his wife, screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, purchased a 1,200-acre cattle ranch in the Cachagua area as a family retreat, dubbing the property “Rancho del Sueño” (Ranch of Dreams). The couple’s daughter, Christine Durney Armanasco recalls, “Father traveled extensively in Europe for his business and had a great appreciation of fine wines.” She continues, “He thought ‘why not plant a vineyard up there and test the waters?'” The Durney patriarch did just that in 1968. He approached his children one day, handing them cuttings to plant in a field he had prepared for that first vineyard. “He said, ‘I want you to plant these,'” Christine says. “We laughed and joked that if we planted them upside down, they would grow to China. That was 1967. We got serious the following year.” That was the inauguration of Carmel Valley’s first commercial vineyard.
Following Durney’s lead, several other families planted grapes in the region. This in turn sparked a movement to gain official recognition for the region’s unique “terroir,” a French term used in the wine industry to describe the environment in which grapes are grown, encompassing soil type, climate and topography. That mantle was taken up by Christine’s husband, David Armanasco, who, by the 1980s, was Durney Vineyards general manager. “It was a very arduous process,” David recalls. “We had to demonstrate a combination of factors and show the region has a specific microclimate. The representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Washington DC agency that then oversaw the process, made seven visits during the verification process.” Why did it take so many visits? “It turned out the guy had fallen in love with my secretary. They eventually married and moved away.”
Nevertheless, in 1983 the process was completed and the Carmel Valley AVA was born. It encompasses 19,200 rugged acres, more than 300 of which are dedicated to wine grape growing. “The well-drained, gravelly terraces of the district, combined with warm days and cool nights, are especially suited to the red varietals of France’s Bordeaux region.” says Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. “This AVA is the closest to the coast, but due to the protective positioning of the mountain ranges, it has less coastal influence than the northern AVAs in the Salinas Valley.” Currently there are eleven commercial vineyards in the Carmel Valley AVA.
Among the other visionaries to discover the area’s suitability to growing Bordeaux-style grapes was Carmel restaurateur and businessman Walter Georis. “We bought our property in 1980 from the Nasons, a historic Carmel Valley Native American family,” he recalls. A native Belgian, his family were farmers or performed work related to farming. “The farming part of making wine was—and is—really important to me. I wanted to be more in touch with the land and the seasons, and producing wine has allowed me to be in touch with nature, while at the same time producing what I consider to be time capsules, a way of measuring time.” The Georis operation is very much a working enterprise. “Our winery is not a luxury architectural statement. The structure was built out of rocks quarried from the vineyard, and it looks like it would be right at home in Belgium. We hold many family events there.”
Walter planted the vineyard himself, with family and friends. Employees from his signature Casanova restaurant also come out on days off to help. Today, the Georis property encompasses 40 acres, with 13 acres planted to grapes, and five to olive trees. “The Carmel Valley AVA lends itself most favorably to red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc,” Walter says. “And because the days are hot and the nights cold, we get great pigmentation in the fruit, resulting in darker wines.”
Jack Galante’s family also purchased a Cachagua cattle ranch. “My parents acquired 700 acres in 1969,” he says. They sold their product—mostly Cabernet Sauvignon—to other wineries, after planting in 1983, until Jack decided to build a winery to produce his own wines under the Galante brand a decade later. He and his wife Dawn (for whom their “Dawn’s Dream” brand is named) sold their vineyard in 2020. He explains why this AVA is unique. “What I consider the outstanding factor is that due to the climate and the general absence of coastal fog coming in at night, we harvest later, getting a long hanging time for the grapes. The result is great maturity, you get nice acid development, resulting in lower alcohol content but intense flavor.”
He says that this longer growing term equates to a varietal character not found anywhere else in California. Another factor contributing to that increased hang time is frost. “Frost comes later here,” he says. “But it also starts earlier. As a result, we always held off pruning the vines as long as possible.” Due to changing climactic patterns, Jack notes that there have been fewer frost events over the past ten years. “It’s an upside to climate change,” says this eternal optimist. “There’s always an upside to everything.”
The name Bernardus “Ben” Pon is spoken reverentially by members of the Carmel Valley wine community. “I give him credit for putting our appellation on the world wine map,” says Walter Georis. “He loved the romantic side of the wine business and put a lot of energy and resources into marketing and promoting the appellation.” Dutch by birth, Ben—who passed away in 2019—was a race car driver, world traveler, hotelier and was highly passionate about wine.
“Ben came to Monterey to race at Laguna Seca and golf at Pebble Beach,” says Bernardus vineyard manager Matt Shea. “He fell in love with the area and decided this was where he wanted to make wine.” An often-told story has Ben searching Carmel Valley for land to purchase for his vineyard. A lifelong Cachagua character named Pablo was hitchhiking one day when a dapper European gentleman picked him up in his Porsche. “Ben spent several hours driving around with Pablo, who showed him the area. He got the inside scoop—from a hitchhiker.”
Matt says that the Carmel Valley AVA is the place to be. “This is a great climate to produce Bordeaux. The Cachagua bowl has a funnel at both ends. It captures and concentrates warm air during the day and cools off at night. There’s not much disease or insect pressure.”
Since its inception, the Carmel Valley AVA has been producing award-winning wines, beginning with a gold medal at the Orange County Fair Wine Competition for Durney’s 1978 Cabernet. Today, the region continues to nurture the grapes that are made into wines that are recognized the world over as some of the best California has to offer.
For more information on Carmel Valley AVA wines, please visit www.georiswine.com, bernardus.com, www.galantevineyards.com and www.montereywines.org. For a complete list of Carmel Valley wine tasting rooms, visit www.carmelvalleyroadco.com.