It was December 1602 when a Spanish fleet first arrived in the cold, foggy bay they named Monterey. The viceroy of Mexico, Don Gaspár de Zúñiga y Acevedo, Count of Monte Rey had instigated the journey, hence the name. This first landing by Europeans was just a brief exploration though. Spain didn’t have particular interest in the area then and many other places around the world held the global power’s focus.

As a result, Spain didn’t revisit Monterey until 1769. Then, a land expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá set out from San Diego. It was the beginning of an effort to establish footholds in and exert control over Alta California. Monterey Bay was among the key targets, but de Portolá’s group  traveled as far as San Francisco Bay.

Portolá, Junipero Serra, and several others established a presidio (fortified military settlement) at Monterey in June of 1770. Missions followed. The area became a key waypoint for people traveling between San Diego and San Francisco. By 1794, a Spanish-controlled local government was in place, administering not just Monterey, but the agricultural lands beyond. Growth remained slow though.

In 1850, the population of Monterey and surrounding area was still only about 1,000 people. It had actually dropped quite a bit due to the Gold Rush, with residents leaving Monterey to try their luck in the Sierras. The port retained importance, but the area wasn’t of great strategic importance militarily, nor did it attract many settlers engaged in commerce. Even agricultural development was limited.

Gradually, however, that changed. Dairy cattle was the first significant industry. Then came sugar beets and, from those, sugar production. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Spreckels factory there was producing more sugar than any other in the world. 

The lettuce industry began in 1916. It grew dramatically, thanks to cooled railway cars, in the 1930s. Eventually, the business became so large that it produced as much as 90% of all iceberg lettuce in the country. Other crops followed. And, to support this, so did a significant canning industry. However, for a variety of reasons including lower land prices elsewhere and efficient transit, the cattle and canning are all gone now.

Wine grapes came to Monterey County in 1791. Franciscan missionaries planted “Spanish Mission grapes” to make wine for sacramental purposes and for consumption at meals. Production remained small, however, and eventually, disappeared entirely.

In 1919, Charles L. Tamm established the first commercial vineyard in the county in what is now the Chalone AVA. Though somewhat ill-timed, given Prohibition, Tamm remained in business by selling his  grapes to producers of sacramental wine. One block of his original vineyard, 3.79 acres (1.5 ha) of Chenin Blanc, still remains in production, part of Chalone Vineyard’s estate.

Chalone produced its first wine under that name in 1960. Winemaker Philip Togni made the wine from the historic vineyard, which had been expanded in 1946. Dick Graff took over as owner and winemaker in 1966. Attracted by the limestone soil, he was eager to create world-class wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

But the real boon in Monterey County winegrape growing stems from the region’s classification as a Region I and II, cool-climate growing area by Professor Albert Winkler of UC Davis in 1960. He had been doing climatic research for some time and created the Winkler Index heat summation scale to help California growers understand where best to plant which grapes as the industry finally began its post-Prohibition resurgence. Vineyard acres grew from a few dozen to nearly 2,500 (1,012 ha) by the end of the decade.

1960s on: The Major Players - Mirassou, Wente, 

The first big grower was Mirassou. They installed 1,000 acres (405 ha) of vines in Soledad. Unfortunately, they planted the wrong varieties. They chose Cabernet Sauvignon, instead of easy-to-ripen grapes. Given the very cool climate, the venture didn’t meet with immediate success.

Much more important to Monterey County and California overall was Wente Vineyards planting 300 acres (121 ha) of vines in what is now the Arroyo Seco AVA, starting in 1962. Wente did plant the right varieties. Among them was Chardonnay.

Wente had initially planted French cuttings of Chardonnay at their home estate in Livermore Valley in 1912. They maintained and improved the vines throughout Prohibition. Cuttings from the best vines were planted in Arroyo Seco. Some of the vines were for their own use, but others were used to create a nursery that provided Chardonnay cuttings to other vineyards throughout the state. So it is that more than 80% of all Chardonnay vines in California today are some version of the Wente clone.

In 1967, another significant planting took place. Durney Vineyards established a 60-acre (24 ha) Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Carmel Valley. Despite being near the bay, that particular area is uniquely suited to growing robust red varieties. Mountains surround the valley, isolating it from the cold, ocean winds.

Growth continued throughout the 1970s. Existing vineyards expanded. But new vineyards were planted throughout the county. Vineyard acres expanded by 25,000 (10,117 ha) in 1971-1974 alone. Here are a few specific examples:

1972 - Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands

1972 - J. Lohr, Arroyo Seco

1972 - Scheid, 2,100 acres (850 ha) near Greenfield

1972-1974 - A single 8,100 acre (3,722 ha) vineyard in San Bernabe

1973 - McIntyre Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands

1973 - Paraiso Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands

1979 - Nicky Hahn buys Smith and Hook Vineyards, Santa Lucia Highlands

The United States’ first AVAs were created in 1981 and Monterey County regions quickly joined the ranks. Both Carmel Valley and Chalone became AVAs in 1982. Arroyo Seco followed in 1983 and Monterey AVA in 1984. San Lucas was designated in 1987 and Santa Lucia Highlands in 1990.