Oxford Dictionaries defines the noun “valley” as “a low area of land between hills or mountains, typically with a stream or river flowing through it.” Seems straightforward enough. But choose 10 Carmel Valley residents or business owners at random and ask them what constitutes that region of Monterey County and you’ll likely hear 10 different answers.
Some believe the valley truly begins just before Carmel Middle School on Carmel Valley Road, where a jaunty, faintly Old-West sign reads “Entering Carmel Valley.” Others include the mouth of the valley, at the western end of Carmel Valley Road. Some think that you’re not truly in Carmel Valley until you enter the Village. Since the feature was carved out by the coursing of the Carmel River, it could be argued that Carmel Valley geographically ends at the Pacific Ocean and extends 36 miles inland to its headwaters in the Santa Lucia Mountains. Whatever its physical delineation, it’s inarguable that Carmel Valley is a set of cultural, economic, climatic and lifestyle factors unique in Monterey County and, indeed, all the American west.
Many agree that the region known as Carmel Valley is comprised of three distinct zones:
Mouth of the Valley: This area, adjacent to California Highway 1, is anchored by The Barnyard Shopping Village and The Crossroads Carmel and contains office buildings, condos and other retail spaces.
Mid-Valley: Beginning roughly at the Quail Lodge and Golf Club, Mid-Valley includes the Valley Hills Center, home to the popular Baja Cantina and several unique retail shops. Next door is Hacienda Hay and Feed, a business that sells ranching supplies to those still engaged in those activities. Further on, the appropriately named Mid-Valley Center is home to Safeway, the lone large grocery store in the Valley. Here too are restaurants, including local’s breakfast favorite Jeffrey’s Grill and Catering.
Carmel Valley Village: Considered the heart of Carmel Valley, the Village is the cultural home of the Valley. It’s here that most of the region’s wine tasting rooms are located, along with many restaurants. The Center Street Marketplace is home to Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market, a local landmark recently transformed into a gourmet food and wine destination by Chef Jerome Viel, and several artists’ studios and galleries.
There’s more along the way, of course, including world-class resorts such as the aforementioned Quail Lodge and Golf Club, the bucolic Carmel Valley Ranch (and golf club), the exclusive, old-California Stonepine Estate and the elegant, European-influenced Bernardus Lodge. Businesses aside, the overarching feel one gets here is just how gobsmackingly gorgeous it is. And there’s never a downtime to its beauty. Choose any season and Mother Nature is sure to please.
Known to fog-bound Peninsula residents as a place that has reliably-warm temperatures—averaging around 80 degrees in the summer months versus Monterey’s mid-60s—that can thaw chill-weary bones, Carmel Valley is known to many as “A Place in the Sun.” That climate nurtured and enabled the Valley’s first human occupants to live off the land quite comfortably.
The native population of Esselen and Rumsen tribe members led an abundant life on the valley floor, hunting deer and birds, tapping the Pacific for fish, abalone and other shellfish and gathering acorns that were turned into meal in mortars carved into local boulders. Many of these can be seen throughout the region to this day, at Garland Regional Park and Point Lobos State Reserve.
The Spaniards who founded the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo in 1771, next to present day Rio Road, also recognized the agricultural potential of the region, setting up gardens to feed the population, tending herds of livestock and even experimenting with wine grapes. By most accounts, those missionaries were none too kind to the native population, leading an early French visitor, Jean-Francois Galaup de la Perouse, to compare their living conditions to a slave camp.
Early in the 19th century, Carmel Valley was part of Alta California, having been ceded to Mexico by the Spanish following the Mexican War of Independence. The spoils of this epic land grab included all of California, Utah and Nevada plus parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. In an effort to populate that vast region, the Mexican government awarded land grants to citizens, known as ranchos. There were five in the area we now call Carmel Valley: Rancho los Tularcitos, Rancho San Francisquito, Rancho Potrero de San Carlos, Rancho Canada de la Segunda and Rancho los Laureles. Some of those Spanish titles survive as names for a school, a resort hotel, a luxury housing development and a former golf course.
Carmel Valley remained a rural ranching and agricultural region until the late 20th century. According to restaurateur and winery owner Walter Georis, “The climate and soils were perfect for growing pears,” he says. “Those pears were shipped all over the world in the 1920s.” The post-World War II economic boom saw many of those lands turned into housing developments, including one promoted by Byington Ford just north of present-day Carmel Valley Village. Ford’s dream was a neighborhood built around an airstrip, allowing pilots to house their private planes in their home hangars. The scheme didn’t catch on, but the airfield he laid was used for private aviation until its closing in 2002.
A second wave of agricultural activity was born when businessman Bill Durney planted a vineyard on his vacation property—a working cattle ranch—in 1968 in the Cachagua area.
“Initially, my father planted Cabernet, Chen-in Blanc, Riesling and Gamay Baujolais,” says Christine Armanasco, Durney’s daughter. At first, Durney’s grapes were sold to other producers. “Mountain View-based winery Gemello was the first to print the words “Carmel Valley” on a label,” says David Armanasco, Christine’s husband and former Durney general manager. “Other companies were winning medals with the wines made from our grapes,” Christine says. “My father thought, ‘I should start making my own wine.'” That decision led to the creation of the Carmel Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) and was the catalyst of what has become a multi-million-dollar industry and the spearhead of Carmel Valley becoming what it is on track to becoming today: an upscale destination for luxury travelers with a taste for fine wines and locally-sourced, innovative cuisine.
Today, there are around 20 wineries operating in the Carmel Valley AVA and many more tasting rooms in the valley.
One of the newest is The Wine House, owned by Charlotte Beshoff-Joyce and her sister Rachel. Rather than showcase a single vintner, the sisters have chosen to present an ever-evolving offering of Carmel Valley and European wines, Monterey Bay-area beers on tap and small bites. The grounds are designed for fun and relaxation, with roomy seating areas, a bocce ball court and occasional mellow live music.
Beshoff-Joyce’s believes her concept is helping to skew a younger demographic to the Village. “There now seem to be tons of young people coming to the valley,” she says. “Many are Monterey locals who used to think there’s nothing going on out here.”
Another tasting room that puts out a playful vibe is the Cowgirl Winery, owned by Walter and Sylvia Georis. Located in a renovated-yet-rustic former barn, tasters can relax under spreading oaks, dance to live music most weekends and sample Cowgirl’s vintages while chickens peck underfoot.
Those tasting rooms are spread throughout the Village, and while many choose to walk between them, there’s another option. A colorful character named “Cowboy Pete” operates Happy Trails Wagon Tours, an Old West wagon now pulled by a John Deere tractor. Pete can be seen ferrying grinning passengers up and down Carmel Valley Road just about every day, stopping at wine tasting rooms along the way. Another option for safely navigating the roads after wine tasting is the Wine Trolley. Leaving from Monterey, this company’s two trolleys—buses that look like San Francisco cable cars—take groups to several different tasting spots. The affable Cousin Johnny Aliotti leads many of those tours, lending a Monterey Peninsula native’s stories to the day’s fun.
In its early days, Carmel-by-the-Sea was a genuine art colony, populated by off-the-grid creative types looking for a rustic—and affordable—setting in which to pursue their muses. As both those qualities diminished, many relocated to the Carmel Valley. Shelley and John Aliotti have created a space and an organization, the Carmel Valley Art Association, to celebrate and promote the work of these artisans. More than 40 are represented in the gallery’s brightly-lit space. In addition to their work on behalf of artists, the Aliottis are quite possibly Carmel Valley’s premier cheerleaders as well.
“As a gallery, we’re trying to raise the level of all the businesses in the valley so that everyone benefits,” John says. “We’re not just wineries out here. We have artists and restaurants and amazing hotels.”
Yes, Carmel Valley is indeed an amazing place to visit. But it’s also an amazing place to live—and has been for many years.
“My roots run deep here,” says US Congressman Jimmy Panetta, whose district includes Carmel Valley. “My grandfather moved here from Monterey in 1946. It is my home; always has been and always will be. It shaped my brothers and me, defined us and gave us a sense of belonging to the area.”
Though his public service work in Congress keeps him away from his beloved home frequently (just as it did for his father, former Congressman, White House Chief of Staff, CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta), it’s always in his heart. “I couldn’t think a better place to raise our two daughters,” says Panetta. “Nothing makes me prouder than knowing my kids are going to the same schools and playing on the same sports fields as I did.”
These days, cowboy hats, gun racks and pickup trucks are giving way to designer clothing, corkscrews and BMWs, but Carmel Valley still retains a friendly, rural vibe. As Jimmy Panetta said, it’s a safe, ideal place to raise children. It also offers a multitude of recreational activities for grownups, from hiking or riding horses through the miles of trails at Garland Regional Park golfing at Quail or Carmel Valley Ranch, and yes, surfing at the mouth of the Carmel River. It’s a land of contrasts, where one can have a beer and a burger for lunch at a bar such as the Running Iron and dine on haute cuisine that same evening just down the road. And it’s still the warmest spot on the Monterey Peninsula. It is indeed “A Place in the Sun.”