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Uncork a Pinot Noir Haven with Whimsy Soul

A Carmel-by-the-Sea Walking Tour for Wine Lovers

By Kara Harms, CEO & Founder of Whimsy Soul 

April 2024

Carmel-by-the-Sea's fairytale charm is legendary but beyond the historic, charming houses and ocean views is a thriving wine region that's laid back, welcoming, and seriously underrated.

If you've been burned by the snootiness of other California wine-tasting rooms, Carmel-by-the-Sea’s wine walk and the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands AVA offer a refreshingly relaxed alternative. Here, you can ditch the stuffy atmosphere and sip on world-class Santa Lucia Highlands wines in a charming, walkable downtown setting.

I just spent a weekend strolling past flower-filled courtyards, popping into cozy tasting rooms, and savoring exceptional Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays - all without ever needing to hop in a car. Though, we did venture out to River Road to visit some tasting rooms among the vines and it’s worth a drive out there one afternoon. 

In this Carmel-by-the-Sea wine-tasting guide, I'll be showing you all the best hidden gems... buckle up (or should we say uncork?) for a delicious adventure.

I’ve been wine tasting all over California for years, have my WSET 2 certification, and will happily tell anyone that one of my favorite varietals is a California Pinot Noir. 

Which is why I was thrilled to have a weekend to explore the Santa Lucia Highlands with a Carmel wine-tasting tour. While the Russian River in Sonoma County is usually the darling child of California Pinot Noirs, Santa Lucia Highland’s is the underdog worth paying attention to if you love Pinots. 

Santa Lucia Highlands: New Favorite California Wine Region For Pinot Noir

Nestled in the dramatic Santa Lucia Mountains above Salinas Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is a seriously underrated wine region that is producing some seriously cool wines. Sort of literally, too. 

Thanks to the cool morning fog and breezes from Monterey County and the Monterey Bay that funnel into Salinas Valley, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reign supreme in this region. Though, I was surprised to find so many Rhone and other French styles of wine being produced.

There is plenty of Grenache and Syrah to sample, but also interesting varietals as well. I've never seen Gamay on a California wine-tasting menu before but was able to taste it at both Joyce in Carmel Valley and the Caraccioli Cellars tasting room in Carmel. I also tried a few Blanc de Blancs and Bruts, a refreshing departure from the standard blends you usually see on California wine-tasting menus. 

But the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA Pinot Noirs are the winners of this region. They’re bright, have balanced acidity, are fruit-forward with strong cherry and raspberry notes, hints of spice, and good vintages have those tertiary aromas of earth and mushroom that I personally adore in Pinots. 

You can find Santa Lucia Highland wines in many stores around California (some producers also distribute nationally) and of course, there are plenty of wineries with downtown Carmel by the Sea tasting rooms to visit. And that’s just what we did. 

Exploring Santa Lucia Highlands River Road 

Driving down from San Francisco, my husband and I lucked out on a perfect Spring day with blue skies and warm afternoons for our wine-tasting weekend. 

We started out on River Road, the small wine-tasting trail in the Santa Lucia Highlands region near Salinas. You may have driven this way down to San Luis Obispo on the California Central Coast and may have not even realized there's a thriving wine scene in the foothills of the mountains. 

Which are commanding and stunning, by the way. My husband and I met up with Jackie, the daughter of Dan Lee who’s behind the label Morgan Winery, at their Salinas office and followed her out to their Double L Vineyard to kick off our wine-tasting adventure. 

Morgan Winery has a downtown tasting room open to the public and shouldn’t be missed on your Carmel wine walk. But today, we were meeting them in their vineyard. 

As we turned the car West to drive into the foothills, the Santa Lucia Highlands mountains filled our window view. A vibrant shade of green thanks to all the spring rain, it looked like the mountains you would find in Kauai, not California. 

But the day just got better.  At the Double L Vineyards, we met up with Dan Lee himself, where he showed us how to remove “doubles” on the vine. This happens when two grape shoots form during bud break, which can cause crowding and disease, but it’s easy to break off one shoot to leave the other one. 

After our lesson on pruning, we settled down for a picnic lunch under a tree in the vineyard, chatting with Jackie and Dan about Morgan Winery and the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, and of course, sipping on their wines. We started with a Reisling, which was bottled just three weeks prior and showing a little young, but was bright and refreshing, perfect for the already warm day.

“Dad, you’ll have to show her some of the older vintages with petrol later,” Jackie says, after I told her how I love aged Reisling that develops those coveted petrol flavors. 

After packing up our lunch, we headed just a few miles down River Road to Wrath Wines. 

Wrath Wines

We pulled into the Wrath Wines tasting room parking lot and I immediately squealed when I saw a giant orange cat sitting on a car hood. I’m a self-declared crazy cat lady and ran over to him when we parked. “His name is Otis”, the woman behind the wine counter later told us “and there’s a few more running around, too.”

Later I would meet Oscar, an elderly black cat lounging on a box of wine, during a tour we took with the assistant winemaker.

Wrath has probably the most robust Monterey / Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir menu with 12 available, which I was excited for. No matter the time of year, I always crave that fruit-forward, medium tannins, and spice that a Pinot Noir offers. 

Wrath’s tasting room has a sprawling outdoor seating area next to a pond with the sound of frogs gently croaking, even in the middle of the day. There’s a bocce court and plenty of seats in the shade. We quickly lost track of time as we nibbled on local cheese and sipped on Pinot. 

Nothing is rushed here in the Santa Lucia Highlands. 

Odonata Wines

Our last winery stop of the day was at Odonata Wines, a winery that oozes cool from every corner. They’re dog-friendly and have a relaxing outdoor seating area to kick back with a glass of 2019 Pinot Noir, or my favorite: the Super Cali blend. 

But, it’s worth it to hang at the counter inside to chat with other guests and you’ll probably even spot Denis Hoey, the winemaker and owner of Odonata. He rolled in halfway through our tasting, updating the staff on his work in the field that day and chatting with all the guests. 

“It feels empty in here,” he remarked, waving his hands over to the rows and rows of stacked wine barrels a few feet from the tasting counter. “Empty? This is empty?!” I ask. Apparently, there’s normally a whole other row of barrels in the room.

Soon, it was time for us to check into our hotel, the Carmel Mission Inn, so we hopped back into the car and headed into downtown Carmel by the Sea. 

Everyone has the same Santa Lucia Highlands map to show where their vineyards are during tastings, and it's fun to drive out on River Road first before heading into Carmel so you have a visual mental map.

Once we settled into our hotel, we found our stomachs growling so we made our way to Pangea Grill, a Carmel restaurant more than one sommelier recommended to us during the day. 

After a dinner of martinis, kimbap, and kimchi fried rice, we tuckered back to the Carmel Mission Inn to rest for a big day of exploring downtown Carmel’s wine tasting the next morning. 

Uncorking The Perfect Sip & Stroll Of The Best Wine Tasting In Carmel-By-The-Sea 

Day two was all about a relaxing Carmel wine walk downtown! We're early birds and by 8 am were wandering the beautiful downtown streets, looking into windows of Carmel art galleries and gawking at the beautiful houses. 

The city is sleepy but the famous The Staionary restaurant was open with a line already forming. We snagged a table and feasted on homemade cinnamon rolls, lavender lattes, and their famous potato pancakes. 

After, we made a beeline to Carmel Beach for a sunny walk along the water. Before starting our afternoon tasting at all the Santa Lucia Highlands wineries downtown, we opted to explore the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, a stop I always make when visiting Carmel. I just love their gardens so much, especially in the springtime. 

If you are up for a more adventurous morning activity, make a drive down past Bixby Bridge to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a stunning beach with purple sand (yes, purple!) If you are visiting in the spring, you may also luck out on spotting some of the famous Big Sur Cala Lilies, too.

Kori Wines

I was eager to start wine tasting in Carmel, though. I loved seeing the vineyards in person along River Road the day before, but as DD, it was heavenly to just park the car at our hotel and be able to walk around the darling town. 

We started at Kori Wines, a female-owned winery that kicked off our tasting with a tasty Blanc de Blanc and a Sauvignon Blanc that had the most delicious guava nose. Next, we compared the 2019 and 2020 Pinot Noirs side by side, something I always love to do while wine tasting. The 2019 had more forest floor and cranberry notes, while the 2020 presented deeper ripe fruits and vanilla. 

Both were tasty. 

After chatting with the Kori wines sommelier about the newest season of Bridgerton, it was time for us to pop over a few blocks to Talbott Vineyards. 

Talbott Vineyards

What was quickly becoming apparent to me while tasting around Carmel is how genuinely welcoming and friendly folks from the wine scene are here. There’s zero judgment for not catching every single flavor profile on a blend, and they actually want to chat with you about things beyond small talk like the weather. 

In the case of Talbott Vineyard, I spent a good twenty minutes chatting with Marcus, our server, about skincare and astrology between sipping on their traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals paired with local cheese. 

We sampled three different Pinot Noirs from the Santa Lucia Highlands Sleepy Hollow Vineyard here and all were tasty, though my favorite was the 2021 Fidelity Pinot Noir, it boasted the perfect balance of dark fruits like plum, a little bergamot, and toasted spice. 

Talbotts has a lovely outdoor deck so you can soak up all that afternoon sunrise while exploring their wines. Or gossiping about skincare. 

Caraccioli Cellars

The last stop of the day for us was Caraccioli. Almost everyone we talked to at other wineries leading up to this tasting kept hyping it up. “You’ll love their sparkling wines!” was told to use more than once, and they weren’t wrong. 

Caraccioli Cellars’ tasting room is dark, earthy and vibey. During our visit, a playlist of 2000s favorites like Jack Jonhson’s “Banana Pancakes” was playing as they poured us a delicious 2018 Brut Cuvee with just the right amount of lees contact. 

Truthfully this was one of my favorite wines we tasted on our whole trip. Napa’s Domain Carneros and Mumm like to boast the best sparkling wines in the state, but Caraccioli is a major competitor. 

Making only about 6500 cases per year, this winery is still small but is pumping out fantastic Pinots, Gamays, sparkling wines, and even a Chablis-style. Tastings start at $20, an approachable price point that is normal for the Santa Lucia Highlands region. 

Other Notable Tasting Rooms To Visit With More Time: 

There are a lot of Carmel-by-the-Sea wine-tasting rooms and if you have more time, you should also check out:

- Scheid Vineyards

- Manzoni Cellars

- Dawn’s Dream

- Blair Estate

Pro-Tip: Utilize the Carmel Wine Walk Passport program to access some of the best wineries in Carmel-by-the-sea at discounts!


There are a lot of restaurants in Carmel by the Sea serving up tasty food, but we kept hearing whispers of La Bicyclette Restaurant, so we walked across the street from Caraccioli Cellars and grabbed a table despite not having a reservation (score!)

Apparently, the thing to get is their gnocchi and pizza combo, so you can dip the crust in their gnocchi sauce. I can confirm, this is indeed the best dinner in Carmel I’ve had, especially after a day of wine tasting. 

We took some chocolate mousse to go and plopped down on the beach to enjoy it before retreating back to the hotel for the evening. 

Don't Forget To Explore Carmel Valley

There are so many fun things to do in this area and Carmel Valley wine tasting shouldn't be missed.

On our last morning, we headed to the famous Carmel Mission Ranch Restaurant (you know, the hotel casually owned by Clint Eastwood) and snagged a table outside overlooking their fields. 

There are a lot of great restaurants with views in Carmel, but the Mission Ranch is the most elite in my opinion, especially for breakfast since you can watch the sheep come out pasture for the day. They line up and trot across the field and it’s utterly adorable. 

After breakfast, it was time for us to head into Carmel Valley for our last stop of the day before going back home: Joyce Wine Company. 

Joyce Wine Company

Joyce is a small batch winery located in a square next to the Scratch Wine Tasting Room and Albatross Ridge Tasting Cottage. There are trees, outdoor seating with umbrellas, flowers, and a delightful summery vibe about the whole place. 

Joyce has a hip indoor-outdoor tasting room, perfect for spring weather.  We started with their Arroyo Seco Albariño which was bright, with citrus notes and almost a little salinity. I’ve spent time wine tasting in Portugal and have had many Albariños there, and this was on par with some of the best. 

Maybe it was the already warm April day and blue skies, but the Albariño was our favorite white wine of our trip. Joyce’s Rose blended with Grenache and Mourvedre was unique, with notes of grapefruit that had me yearning for a Dolores Park day in San Francisco. 

We also did a side-by-side pairing of their two Gamay wines before moving on to their 2022 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. 

This tasting room’s chill, hip atmosphere had us quickly losing track of time. I could have easily bought a whole bottle of that Albariño to slowly enjoy outside with a book, but we had to head home. 

On the way, we swung by Cowgirl Coffee before driving the quick 2 hours to San Francisco. 

We didn’t have time to swing by Folktale Winery & Vineyard, but we drove past it on our way out of the valley, and it looked adorable!

Carmel by the Sea is a great romantic getaway but I also love visiting with friends. It makes for such a cute California girls' getaway with great local wine tasting, cute houses, and good eats. If you’re looking for a unique wine getaway in California that’s approachable, affordable, and has some dang good Pinot Noirs, you need to visit the Santa Lucia Highlands. And, of course, look for SLH labels in stores during your next wine stock up. 

Thank you to Santa Lucia Highlands for hosting me in this magical region of the state! 


Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans

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