“What makes the crops rejoice, beneath what star
To plough, and when to wed the vines to elms,
The care of cattle, how to rear a flock,
How much experience thrifty bees require,
Of these, Maecenas, I begin to sing. ”
— Virgil, Georgics (Circa 36 BCE)
As the third largest county in the third largest state of the Union with agriculture the dominant industry, Monterey plays an important role in the production of fine food and wine for tables across the nation. Having recovered from near extinction, the Monterey Bay fishery once again yields a diverse harvest of seafood. Hospitality, the second regional economic driver, delivers this fortunate confluence of epicurean bounty at the peak of freshness and flavor.
Farmer workers cultivate fields of artichokes, berries, celery, and just about every other letter of the produce alphabet all the way to vines and zucchini that line highways and byways across the county. Fishing crews are celebrated for their service in a dangerous occupation. Although health, safety, and security concerns limit casual access to their work sites, there are many opportunities for curious travelers to learn about the people and places that make “the crops rejoice.”
Tales of Two Valleys
The majority of the region’s agricultural output comes from two valleys named after their major rivers. Both are blessed with deep, rich alluvial soil and a temperate, largely frost-free Mediterranean climate moderated by the influence of the Pacific Ocean but have significantly different physical and agricultural characters.
Bounded on both sides by rugged mountain ranges, the 100-mile long Salinas Valley spans cool coastal conditions ideal for artichokes, broccoli, and lettuce near the bay to torrid pimento-ripening temperatures inland. The smaller Pajaro Valley straddles the border of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties near the ocean and focuses on apples, berries, and flowers.
Popularly known as Steinbeck Country, these lands are the settings for Nobel prize-winning writer John Steinbeck’s universal stories of everyday people in harmony and in conflict with nature, society, and themselves. East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and The Red Pony unfold inland, while Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat take place in coastal Monterey and Pacific Grove. The National Steinbeck Center, Salinas and nearby Boronda History Center, together with the Agricultural & Rural Life Museum 50-miles south in King City, tell tales and display agricultural implements that would have been familiar to the author’s protagonists.
With close to 400,000 acres under production, the total value of agriculture is over $4 billion a year and yields the most economically productive soil (acre for acre) anywhere on Earth. Proclaimed the “Salad Bowl of the World” by the chamber of commerce, according to the Monterey County Farm Bureau, the Salinas Valley grows more than 150 crops, about 61% of the nation’s leaf lettuce, 57% of celery, 56% of head lettuce, 48% of broccoli, 38% of spinach, 30% of cauliflower, and 28% of the strawberries.
Most of this is shipped by a handful of large, vertically-integrated agribusiness firms such as Dole Fresh Vegetables, Tanimura & Antle, and Taylor Farms. As the bulk of their output is shipped outside California, they focus on crops that can be picked, packed, cooled, travel for days and arrive looking fresh and unblemished in distant supermarkets.
These varieties are not always compatible with optimum taste or texture. Produce that is best ripened on the vine or easily damaged in transit may prove superior eating but must be consumed locally. It is typically grown by small and family farms and sold at farmer’s markets within hours of harvesting. Much is organically grown, although large operators, notably Earthbound Farm, are now also significant suppliers of certified produce.
Many planting and harvesting operations can be viewed from the highway. Protectively clothed against wind-driven dust from the fine sandy soil, skilled farm workers pick through lush-green, parallel rows of produce in lines that converge towards the distant hills. They lug baskets of artichokes, broccoli, lettuce, strawberries and more to giant, million-dollar Rube Goldberg-inspired machines where produce is sorted and packed as they advance slowly through the fields. Cleared to bare soil and leveled for efficient irrigation, adjacent fields lie fallow awaiting the next planting.
Dedicated agriphiles who wish to get closer can join educational and sightseeing tours conducted by Ag Venture Tours of Monterey. Beginning in the artichoke fields near Castroville, small van groups cover vegetable field harvesting and packing, irrigation, planting, and organic farming. A U.C. Davis agriculture graduate, owner Evan Oakes also conducts wine tasting and customized gourmet food and wine tours.
The Farm agricultural education center and farming business offers fresh produce and baked goods for sale, family activities, and walking tours of the fields with opportunities to pick and sample fresh produce. On Highway 68 south of Salinas, the site is easily identified by ten, 18-foot high cut-out murals of farm workers. Similar installations by the artists John Cerney and Don Sung Kim promote agricultural interests along US 101 and local highways.
Every Saturday throughout the May to November season, Serendipity Farms in Carmel Valley opens its gates to home chefs, canners, kids and anyone who wants to pick fresh, ripe organic produce off the vine. Signs along the road direct visitors to U-Pick strawberry, raspberry and tomato fields.
Farm Stands and Markets
Roadside stands deliver many offerings fresh from the field. In addition to seasonal pop-up tables, several permanent stands are located close to Highway One. South of Moss Landing, The Whole Enchilada Market Place and the Thistle Hut tempt drivers with ads for the state fruit and vegetable (avocados and artichokes respectively) at “10 for $1.”
Pezzini Farms store is set in the middle of acres of artichokes near Castroville where Marilyn Monroe reigned as the 1948 Artichoke Queen. While lower in revenue than some other crops, local fields produce upwards of 60% of U.S. consumption of the spiky vegetable. After nearly 100 years in business, Ocean Mist Farms is the dominant shipper.
Earthbound Farm, now the country’s largest organic grower, continues to serve the local community from a retail stand and organic café on Carmel Valley Road, just down the way from the raspberry field where it began in 1984.
Edible Monterey Bay magazine lists 15 certified outdoor Farmer’s Markets in the county. Two or more are open every day of the week and are patronized by chefs from premier local restaurants. A sampling of vendors at the Friday morning Monterey Peninsula College market reveals fruit, flowers, and produce selected for optimum qualities in their local growing conditions. Strawberry specialist, Paul Tao of P & K Farms will tell you that “every variety tastes different according to the soil, microclimate and how they are farmed.” Customers wait in line to purchase the Albion cultivar that reaches perfection on his Castroville hillside. Shoppers know to arrive early to claim the freshest, most flavorful produce of the day from Tom Coke’s farm in the rolling hills of Aromas. Further south near warm Gonzales, Lisbon lemons and Hass and Bacon avocados thrive on the Violini brothers V & V Farm.
If you don’t have time to cruise farm stands or attend street markets check out the “Bounty of the County” at the Monterey Wharf Marketplace. [Note: the Marketplace closed in 2018.] Fresh local produce, fish, wine, sandwiches and salads are sold in a renovated 1874 railroad depot. Look for the 1929 Ford vegetable truck and the owner’s 1960s-era John Deere tractor next to the harbor parking lot.
Vineyards and Tasting Rooms
The quality and variety of its wines, together with an extraordinary breadth of recreational and fine dining opportunities, inspired Wine Enthusiast magazine to anoint Monterey County as one of the world’s top 10 wine destinations in 2013.
A heritage of wine-making dates back to the Franciscan friars of Mission Soledad in the late 1700s, but large scale planting did not begin until the early 1970s when established wineries Paul Masson and Mirrasou sought replacements for urbanizing Silicon Valley lands in the north. Vintners took advantage of the wide range of temperature, soil, and microclimate zones to experiment with numerous grape clones and wine-making styles. Cool-climate loving chardonnay and pinot noir varietals proved to be most successful. A dozen viticulture area (AVA) designated regions today host nearly 200 vineyards and the same planted acreage as Napa Valley.
With the opportunity to promote and sell their harvest on site, wine makers are more enthusiastic about encouraging visitors than their produce farming neighbors. Following the serpentine course of the Salinas River past rustic barns and bucolic pastures south of Salinas, the River Road Wine Trail divides steep foothill vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA on one side from flat, rich produce land on the other. Signs direct visitors to tasting rooms featuring the wines of local families who pioneered the production of now nationally recognized premium SLH vintages.
Other popular stops include Denis Hoey’s small family Odonata Winery and Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. Gallo recently purchased Talbott to boosts its portfolio of fine wines. Perched high on a hillside terraced with vines, picnic tables at Hahn Family Wines, Soledad overlook a vast brown, green, and gold geometric agricultural quilt stretching east to the other-worldly granite spires of Pinnacles National Park. Walking and ATV tours of the property are available with prior reservation.
Alternatives to driving include the Wine Trolley cable-car style bus tour of Carmel Valley and A Taste of Monterey wine bar on Cannery Row near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The latter offers seated panoramic views of the ocean while enjoying tasting “tours” of local wineries. Pedestrian oenophiles can stroll between more than a dozen Monterey County winery tasting rooms in busy Carmel-by-the-Sea or another cluster in the more rural ambiance of Carmel Valley Village.
A Return to Marine Abundance
Ocean shellfish and freshwater steelhead trout provided important food sources for the early indigenous coastal population. Commercial fishing for cod, flounder, halibut, salmon, sardines, and squid began in the 1850s with Chinese entrepreneurs who shipped fresh catch to San Francisco and dried product to Canton. Sicilian immigrants followed with nets and techniques that transformed fishing into an industry. Sardine canneries thrived as the area’s most profitable and important economic sector until overfishing, cyclical temperature changes in the ocean, and decimation of the marine environment devastated the business in the early 1950s.
The collapse of the canning industry led to the reinvention of Cannery Row as a tourist attraction. Monterey Bay Aquarium and the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary contributed to recovery of the fishery and encouraged popular interest in marine life and whale watching tours.
Commercial fishing continues, although it has struggled through recent drought years, but is now managed sustainably. Retail outlets are located just yards from where the catch is unloaded on busy Monterey Municipal Wharf. Fishing vessels Tina Louise, Gardenia, and others sell fish, shrimp and live crab directly from Dock A at Moss Landing Harbor. Real Good Fish, a community supported fishery organization, works with the owners to distribute their seafood to subscribers as soon as possible after landing.
Visitors planning to spend a day on the ocean can choose among recreational charter and excursion fishing boat operators leaving from both harbors daily. Modern vessels are outfitted with heated cabins, live bait tanks and plenty of seating for long hours out on the water. Depending on the season you may return with a catch of albacore, bass, halibut, lingcod, rock cod, or salmon.
Dining: Bringing it all together
From food trucks, and neighborhood taqueria’s to upscale resort restaurants, visitors can choose among numerous dining establishments around the Bay. Many bring together the bounties of fish, wine and veg with good service in a pleasant setting. Consult current recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program before ordering to be sure that your selection supports a healthy ocean, now and for future generations.
Hailed by the BBC as one of the world’s best beach restaurants, Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery, Moss Landing is famous for the proprietor’s contest-winning cioppino. Overlooking rafts of sea otters playing at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve, Sea Harvest Restaurant & Fish Market is one of three locations operated by local fishing families. The others are in Monterey and Carmel.
Artichoke aficionados can explore exotic servings of the edible thistle at Castroville’s Giant Artichoke Restaurant. Fire-roasted, deep-fried, and jalepino-dipped are among menu items at the 20-foot high, bright green sculpture at the heart of the “Artichoke Center of the World.”
The Fishwife delivers flavorful seafood, such as golden fried oysters and rock cod tostada salad, to the blue-collar community of Seaside. Under the same management, Monterey’s Turtle Bay Taqueria grills and charbroils seafood for tacos prepared as guests watch.
Monterey is home to countless other establishments claiming to specialize in seafood, wine and produce, especially along Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row where intense competition for the tourist dollar typically insures fast, fresh fare at reasonable prices. Lines form early to savor blackened, grilled, and poached seafood with pasta at the Monterey Fish House. Famous for its starring role in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, the Sardine Factory is noted for the depth of its wine cellar.
Feted as owners of the best restaurant in the county, Cindy and Ted Walter of Passionfish in Pacific Gove are annually showered with awards for serving sustainable seafood, organically grown vegetables and award-winning wine. With an unbeatable view and outstanding value for money menu, The Beach House at Lovers Point is a local’s favorite.
Out of the huge selection of high-end resorts and restaurants that blanket the coast from Pebble Beach to Big Sur, Carmel’s tiny La Balena (The Whale) frequently takes the honors for its creative Italian menu featuring whole roasted or grilled daily fish specials.
Food and wine-related events provide an opportunity to sample many local delicacies in one setting. Popular festivals on the 2017 calendar include Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Big Sur Food & Wine, Castroville Artichoke, Monterey Wine, and Monterey County Beer Week.
Presented with Monterey County’s cornucopia of epicurean delights, the poet Virgil would have had to extend his Geordics four-book compendium of agricultural lore dedicated to his Roman-diplomat patron, Gaius Maecenas, for several more volumes.
Originally published the San Francisco Bay Area Travel Writers Taste of Travel, January 2017.