Monterey County has been producing wine for more than fifty years, but many people are just discovering those wines for the first time. A wide variety of grapes are grown in the region, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are an exceptional value. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named it one of the "Top 10 Wine Travel Destinations" for a reason! It is an exquisitely beautiful area with great wines and wonderful restaurants.
People often ask if they should stay in Monterey or Carmel. The two towns are, literally, right next to each other so you don't actually have to choose. Personally, I'd choose Carmel-by-the-Sea any day just because it's mellow and quiet - probably one of the better perks of getting out of the city, right?
In Carmel, the best restaurant in town is Aubergine and it's connected to the best hotel in town, L'Auberge (Relais & Chateaux). For something more casual, head up to the rooftop bar at Vesuvio and order a margherita pizza. Or if you're in the mood for Spanish tapas, find a hidden table at Mundaka and enjoy a carafe of sangria while you're at it! The best oyster spot in town is A.W. Shucks Oyster Bar, but get there early to avoid a wait on the weekends.
In Monterey, you'll find that it's a bit more commercial and crowded than Carmel, though still beautiful. The saving grace for me was the Cannery Row Antique Mall, which is one of the best antique malls I've been to in recent years. Fisherman's Wharf is sort of cute (read: touristy) and worth it to enjoy the view and some seafood. I'd rather send you to The Wharf Marketplace, which is right around the corner and is the perfect place to sip an espresso while you peruse the local goods. If you want to find the best restaurant in Monterey, it's Restaurant 1833. On a chilly night, enjoy some small bites in their Library next to a roaring fire or head upstairs to their Absinthe bar!
If you're heading out to wine country, don't forget to stop at The Cheese Shop in Carmel to stock up on road snacks. For a small town, they have an impressive selection of cheese, wine, and gourmet foods. You'll also find some lovely charcuterie and other goodies at Salumeria Luca. If you'd rather stay closer to town and still do some wine tasting, there are some great tasting rooms at The Crossroads in Carmel, including Morgan Winery (excellent Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc) and McIntyre Vineyards. Since you're over that way anyway, stop by Lafayette Bakery at The Barnyard and pick-up a baguette to go with your cheese!
Talbott Vineyards and Bernardus Winery were favorites for their estate-grown Pinot Noir - and they are located in the same area. To map out your own wine route, take a look at the Monterey Wine Country site for a list of AVAs and vineyards.
The Monterey County wine region isn't enormous, but definitely large enough for a whole day or two of tasting. If you'd rather sleep closer to the grapevines, look no further than Carmel Valley Ranch - a luxurious hotel and spa nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which is also a nice lunch escape (or golf escape) to break up a day of wine tasting.
If you haven't already, don't forget to head south and take that famous drive through Big Sur!