Monterey Bay: Geography that Enables Cool-Climate Grapegrowing

Monterey Bay as seen from space.  One can see the funnel that is Monterey Bay, and the beginning of the Salinas Valley, where the winds rush down the valley and provide extreme cooling effects to the area. Image courtesy Johnson Space Center
. . . the climate is marine-influenced—to an extreme.
Matt Kramer. Matt Kramer's New California Wine

At its surface, the blue expanse of Monterey Bay is one of Northern California’s most picturesque places. As farmers, we see this bay as if it were shot from a plane, and as a large funnel that shunts cold winds and fog from the Pacific across our valley, cooling the vineyards alongside other crops. As host to the largest undersea canyon on the west coast of North America, Monterey Bay’s geography is unique. The dark, cold bottom of its underground chasm, which plunges two miles deep, not only lowers the surface temperatures of the Bay, but also directly influences our valley, enabling us to farm cool-climate grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Our vineyards are located on sloping hillsides that nestle up to the mountainous terrain of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. This orientation shows how the valley acts as a direct funnel for the cold Monterey Bay winds and pacific ocean influence.

Monterey Bay as a Funnel

As many know, Pinot Noir grows best in cool climates. Cool weather slows down ripening and encourages this fickle, sensitive grape to maintain its delicate aromatics. If not for the Pacific shoreline, California would be an entirely warm-weather growing region. But cool-climate Pinot Noir develops well in the Petaluma Gap, the Navarro River, the Russian River Valley and Point Conception in the Santa Rita Hills—places where there is some ingress from the Pacific. Our local version of this geographical phenomenon is the massive funnel of Monterey Bay, which is not a simple inlet, but one that, as Matt Kramer points out in his New California Wine (2004), “is marine influenced—to an extreme.”

Spanning 23 miles, Monterey Bay acts as an immense funnel, channeling ocean air through the Salinas Valley that is home to the Santa Lucia Highlands and other American Viticultural Areas. The funneling process works this way: air from the southern end of the valley close to King City and points farther south warms and rises, which produces strong suction that in its turn draws in cooler air from Monterey Bay. The wind created as a result is shunted from the broad expanse of the Bay through the narrower Salinas Valley. The geographical constriction produces a decrease in air pressure, which correspondingly increases the flow of cold ocean air across the farms and vineyards of this valley. Both Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley are uniquely positioned to be strongly influenced by these winds, which enhances the Venturi effect even more.

Comparison between the dramatic sizes of the Monterey Undersea Canyon and Arizona's Grand Canyon.  
Image courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

An “Underwater Grand Canyon”

Monterey Bay’s submarine canyon, which reaches depths two miles below sea level—a distance comparable to those the Grand Canyon descends on land—also helps produce the area’s cool climate. It does so by cooling the Bay’s surface temperatures (which hover between 49 and 55 degrees) and chilling its depths to even lower temperatures.

It’s easy to imagine the effect this frigid volume of water produces on the farming and grape growing area a few miles away. The dense, cold water in the Bay’s underwater abyss is cycled to the surface by a process known as upwelling. This condition is critical for the undersea ecosystem. The cold water brought to the surface also provides the impetus for the coastal fog that blankets the neighboring farms and vineyards all summer.

You might ask why the California coast is so cold. The oceanic current that circulates water near the state’s coastline California coastline (and which is known as the California Current) conveys water from northern latitudes by British Columbia down to the continent’s western coastline. The California Current is a product of the North Pacific Current, which itself is very cold in nature.

The Monterey Bay is a unique piece of geography that also brings cool weather to the Salinas Valley. This vertical relief shows the enormous depths of the Monterey Canyon, the largest undersea canyon on the west coast. Photo courtesy D. Fierstein/MBARI
The valley is extremely dry . . . but fiendishly cold. Vines regularly bud two weeks earlier than the California norm and are picked at least two weeks later, giving the Salinas Valley one of the longest growing seasons in the world of wine.
Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson, World Atlas of Wine

Winemaking in the Santa Lucia Highlands

In his 2015 autobiography The Winemaker, Richard Peterson recalls a 1974 adventure in Monterey County when he planted Cabernet Sauvignon according to erroneous climate categorizations that failed to take account of just this wind. The flavor profiles of the resulting wines, which contained very high amounts of the bell pepper aromas that have come to be associated with growing this varietal in cool-climate conditions, convinced him he was “operating in one of the world’s coolest summer climates.” Since then, winemakers have slowly pulled out these unsuccessful varieties and replaced them with others more suited to the coastal climate. When Gary Pisoni planted his first vineyard in 1982, he, too identified this cold weather. And while his initial planting involved some of the less successful Cabernet Sauvignon, Gary did include some acreage of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Lettuce, celery, broccoli and the dozens of other vegetable crops famously grown over thousands of acres on the flat valley floor of Monterey also flourish in cold and foggy weather—just like the grapes. The Salinas Valley, in fact, is one of the few places in the nation that can produce this volume of such cool-climate vegetables.

To offer another perspective on the geography of this beautiful region, consider the vineyard acreage in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This terroir resides on the foothills of the western mountains that make up the Salinas Valley. Our vines grow in the challenging, shallow and flinty soils of the mountains. The grapes simultaneously benefit from the cooling weather the Bay and its underwater canyon provide. The match of cool-climate finesse and mountain-grown intensity is what enables us to work toward crafting distinguished wine.