Winery Chateau Julien's white European-style building with a turret.

Chateau Julien‘s European-styled estate building. Photo © Jim G. , licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Its tiny size necessarily limits the number of vineyards and wineries that can set up shop in the Carmel Valley. But this small, charming wine region makes for a perfect wine-tasting day trip from Carmel, Monterey, or even Big Sur. Small crowds, light traffic, and meaningful tasting experiences categorize this area, which still has many family-owned wineries. You’ll get personal attention and delicious wines, all in a gorgeous green setting.

The Bernardus Winery (5 W. Carmel Valley Rd., 800/223-2533, daily 11am-5pm, tasting $5-10) sits on a vineyard estate that also hosts a connected luxurious lodge and gourmet restaurant. Bernardus creates a small list of wines. The grapes growing all around you go into the pride of the winery: the Bordeaux-style blended red Marinus Vineyard wine. Other varietals (chardonnay, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc) come from cool coastal vineyards. If you’re interested and lucky, you might also get to sip some smallbatch vintages of single-vineyard wines that are available only in the tasting room.

The biggest name in the Carmel Valley is Chateau Julien (8940 Carmel Valley Rd., 831/624-2600, Mon.-Fri. 8am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 11am-5pm). The European-styled white estate building with the round turret is visible from the road. The light, airy tasting room is crowded with barrels, wine cases, souvenirs, and tasting glasses. When you enter, you’ll be offered sips from the wide selection of chardonnays, cabernets, syrahs, merlots, and more. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself tasting a rare Reserve blended red or a 10-year-old port. For a treat, call ahead and reserve a spot on the twice-daily complimentary vineyard and winery tours. These tours conclude with a special tasting outside on the flagstone patio when weather permits.

On the other end of the spectrum, tiny Parsonage Village Vineyard (19 E. Carmel Valley Rd., 831/659-7322, Fri.-Mon. 11am-5pm, tasting $5) often doesn’t make it onto Carmel Valley wine maps—which is a shame, because some of the best syrah coming out of California (arguably) comes from this unpretentious little winery with only a nine-acre estate vineyard to work with. The tasting room sits in a tiny strip of shops, the space glowing with light that bounces off the copper of the bar. At the bar, you’ll taste wonderful syrahs, hearty cabernet sauvignons, and surprisingly deep and complex blends—the Snosrap (that’s Parsons spelled backwards) table wine is inexpensive for the region and incredibly tasty. If you find a vintage you love at Parsonage, buy it then and there since they sell out of many of their wines every year.

Another smaller, well-regarded Carmel winery is the Heller Estate Organic Vineyards (69 W. Carmel Valley Rd., 831/659-6220, daily 11am-5pm, tasting $7). Heller is a completely organic winery that uses natural methods, including predatory wasps, to get rid of vineyard insect pests rather than resorting to chemical-laden sprays. After visiting the tasting room, sit with a bottle outdoors in Heller’s sculpture garden while sipping your latest purchase and enjoying the Carmel Valley sun.

Talbott Vineyards (53 W. Carmel Valley Rd., 831/659-3500, Mon.-Thurs. 11am-4:30pm, Fri.-Sun. 11am-5pm) utilizes two vineyards 18 miles apart to produce their chardonnays and pinot noirs. At the Carmel Valley tasting room, they pour six of their chardonnays and six of their pinot noirs. There’s another tasting room on River Road near Salinas (1380 River Rd., 831/675-0942, Thurs. and Mon. 11am-4:30pm, Fri.-Sun. 11am-5pm).

Boekenoogen Vineyard & Winery (24 W. Carmel Valley Rd., 831/659-4215, daily 11am-5pm, tasting $5-10) was a cattle ranch before it became a winery. Their tasting room offers pinot noirs, chardonnays, and syrahs, as well as a garden patio for those sunny Carmel Valley afternoons.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California .