River Road Wine Trail – Wine tasting in the Santa Lucia highlands

Grape vines growing along the River Road Wine Trail

River Road Wine Trail

The River Road Wine Trail is found along the western side of the Salinas Valley. Long the center of agricultural production of lettuce and other vegetables, the farmers of the Salinas Valley have put the highlands flanking the Santa Lucia Range to use as vineyards. Now there is a fine wine trail to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

River Road, also known as Monterey County G17, is a back road through miles of crisply plowed fields, lettuce ready for harvest, orchards and now wine grapes. Mission Soledad is also found along this road.

Directional sign for the River Road Wine Trail

The River Road Wine Trail (also designated as Monterey County G17) is located in the center of Monterey County along the Salinas River Valley between the Santa Lucia mountains to the west and the Gabilan Range on the east.

Just 20+ miles over the Santa Lucias and the Ventana Wilderness is found the beautiful Big Sur coast.

This is a back road drive, but is unlike most of the others that you will find here in Central California. For one thing, this road passes through the midst of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. More than 80% of the lettuce consumed in the US is produced right here.

That means that there is always some activity going on: soil prep, plowing, planting, cultivation or harvest. And this goes on all year long thanks to the wonderful climate.

You can tell by the dirt on the sign that this a “hard working” area. The signs haven’t been up very long.

A Salinas River valley field readied for planting

A field of romaine lettuce being harvested

The two photos above were taken only a few minutes apart. They tell a portion of the story of agriculture in this region. While one field is plowed and ready for planting, another is being harvested, while another down the road is being tended for harvest in a few months. Irrigation and the mild California climate allows for this intensive farming.

How to find the River Road Wine Trail

An excellent map is available showing the wineries along River Road at this address: www.riverroadwinetrail.com (opens in new tab or window).

If you like to do things in sequence, you can take G15 north out of King City, turn left or west onto G16 across Highway 101 and the Salinas River to the mouth of Arroyo Seco Canyon and then north onto Highway G17.

Interesting sights along River Road

Entrance sign for the Soledad Mission

The Soledad Mission is worth a visit. It was one of the least successful of the 21 California mission, but some interesting archaeology is being done there especially discovering just how sophisticated the water systems were during the mission era.

Ancient vine at the Mission Soledad

This is an ancient vine at the Soledad Mission. This is one of the predecessors of the flourishing wine grape industry that is now found in the area.

Field of cactus under cultivation

NEVER was a barbed wire fence less needed than in the photo above.

Here is something you don’t see often, even in California. It is at least 10 acres of prickly pear cactus being cultivated. “Why?”, you might ask. The broad flat leaves are de-thorned, cut and pickled for a particularly nice condiment known as “nopalitos”. Favored in the Mexican kitchen, a few gringos (like myself) have discovered this as well. I like it on scrambled eggs.

Wine Grapes along the River Road Wine Trail

Wine grapes along River Road

Most of the wineries along the River Road Wine Trail are located within the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA.

The climate in the Salinas Valley that allows row crops to be grown year round also contributes to great wines.

The special climate of the Salinas Valley

Photo of Central California from the ISS

The Salinas River valley can be seen in the photo above which was taken from the International Space Station. The river flows in a northwesterly direction; from the hills above San Luis Obispo into the ocean just north of Monterey.

The valley itself, being between two mountain ranges, heats up during the day, especially at its southern end. Hot air rises and in the early afternoon a cooling breeze is drawn into the valley from Monterey Bay.

This makes the valley a windy place AND creates an exceptional climate for certain varieties of wine grapes.

If you go…

While this back road isn’t as remote as most of the others in Central California, there are no services. So, the precautions outlined on the How to Drive Back Roads page still apply.

For meals, you might want to try any of the small Mom & Pop restaurants in Greenfield, Soledad or Gonzales. Those towns are only a few miles to the east of River Road.

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