Next Stop: What to Find in Salinas Valley: Lush Fields, Good Wine and, Yes, Steinbeck
But with the region’s limited hotels and the popular Monterey County coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey as competition, it has never been a tourist attraction.
Lately, however, that has changed. New agricultural tours are giving visitors the chance to learn about the produce grown in mass quantities by recognizable brands such as Dole and Earthbound Farm, and the wine industry is getting attention because its winemakers have opened tasting rooms in Carmel. And the long-neglected downtown is being revitalized as entrepreneurs make it a vibrant hangout.
Even without these draws, the scenery alone — rural roads lined with piercing green fields — is worth a trip. Mr. Cogley’s description of Salinas evoked how Steinbeck immortalized his hometown in his work, most notably in his 1952 novel “East of Eden,” in which he writes poetically about the tawny hills, the lupine and poppy flowers and lettuce fields.
He wrote the story for his two sons to give them a sense of place. In his “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters,” a series of letters to his editor, Pascal Covici, he wrote: “I want to describe the Salinas Valley in detail but in sparse detail so that there can be a real feeling of it. It should be sights and sounds, smells and colors but put down with simplicity as though the boys” — referring to his sons — “were able to read it. This is the physical background of the book.”
I became more immersed in the richness Steinbeck captured after taking an agricultural tour with Evan Oakes of Ag Venture Tours. Mr. Oakes, a viticulturist who has an undergraduate degree in agriculture from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s in agriculture from Fresno State University, leads half- and full-day excursions through the Valley in his 14-passenger white Dodge van; the highlight is when he stops at a field to share interesting tidbits about what’s in it.
During my morning with Mr. Oakes, as we drove past fields with hundreds of heads of romaine and butter lettuce, I learned that the Salinas Valley grows so many vegetables and fruits because “the depth of the soil is an ideal environment for crops to flourish and be sustainable,” he said.
On another stop, Mr. Oakes pointed out workers putting strawberries into the individual plastic boxes. “Strawberries are packed directly in the field so only the person who picks them has touched them before you buy them,” he said.
Travelers who want to taste what they’re seeing can do that. Mr. Oakes takes them shopping at a farm store for ingredients that they use to cook a meal with the guidance of a private chef, Mary Chamberlin, at her home.
For those in search of more sybaritic pleasures, there is a robust wine region as well: the Santa Lucia Highlands, part of the mountain range shielding the Valley from the Pacific Ocean, and flourishing with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.
Many of the brands have been around for decades, and some bottles can be priced in the high double digits. They’re also on wine lists at a number of high-profile restaurants. The first winery I visited, Morgan, began in 1982 and produces wines sold at restaurants like Per Se in New York.
The wine may be of note, but the wineries themselves lean toward the bare-bones. Sleekly designed tasting rooms are characteristic of many wineries today; in the Santa Lucia Highlands, few have tasting rooms at all, but their earthiness is also their appeal.
Morgan, for example, is on the rural River Road, and the initial sight after driving up a dirt road to the hilltop winery was an industrial-looking warehouse. The tanks and barrels where the wine is fermented and stored were inside. But then I saw the folding chairs that the proprietor and winemaker, Dan Lee, had arranged for us on the edge of a hill overlooking the mountain range and the sprawling valley. It was an idyllic setting, and we savored it underneath a sunny sky punctuated by an intermittent breeze while sipping Mr. Lee’s crisp chardonnay and silky, spicy pinot noirs.
Mr. Lee is one of more than a half-dozen winemakers from the region who have tasting rooms in Carmel; he said his company’s presence there had increased visitors to Morgan in the Valley.
“There isn’t much infrastructure here to entice people,” he said, “and having the space in Carmel has meant more visibility for the wine and an interest in coming here to see where it’s actually made.”
The morning of drinking had spiked our appetite, and the lure of our next visit, to Paraiso Vineyards, was the promise of a good lunch. Run by a husband-and-wife team, Jason and Jen Smith, it’s as fancy as it gets in the Valley. Though the couple have a tasting room in Carmel that is tucked away in a charming courtyard resembling an Italian piazza, their winery in Salinas has a patio where they lead tastings and recently began serving meals.
“We are in the middle of nowhere, so we needed to have some amenities to give people a reason to visit,” Ms. Smith said.
Our spread of two salads (a leafy green with artichokes and a spiral pasta with diced vegetables), a cheese and charcuterie platter, mixed berries and, of course, their wines — a rosé of pinot noir, a chardonnay and two kinds of pinots — was simple and flavorful, and we enjoyed it unhurriedly with the Smiths to keep us company.
While we ate, they told us how the changes in Salinas have made a difference in their lives. “With more people visiting, the Valley doesn’t feel as far removed,” Ms. Smith said, “and instead of heading to Monterey or Carmel for a good time, we go to downtown Salinas, which never used to be cool but now has a scene.”
On our visit the next day, we saw what she meant. We started at the National Steinbeck Center, which opened in 1998 to honor the author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. It offers clips of movies made from Steinbeck’s books, video interviews with one of his sons and memorabilia, including the 1960 GMC pickup truck the author drove for “Travels With Charley,” a narrative published in 1962 on his trip around the United States, with his dog, in which he connected with everyday Americans.
Not too long ago, downtown Salinas was defined by a dearth of people and shuttered storefronts on Main Street. Today, pedestrians stroll along the avenue checking out the new restaurants and stores.
Two of these restaurants are Dubber’s, a lively sports bar, and the elegant European restaurant Patria, owned in part by Paolo Kautz, a chef who has worked at well-regarded restaurants in Monterey County.
But the most impressive is 201 Main, a stylish complex once home to a Wells Fargo bank; it has several establishments, among them Giorgio’s, an Italian restaurant serving dishes such as maple-bourbon-marinated rib-eye steak in a grand setting of soaring ceilings and marble columns. In a courtyard patrons can have food and drinks around the four fire pits, and in the basement there is a nightclub, Exchange, open on weekends. Jesse Kehoe, an owner, said he will open a casual restaurant in early March where sangria will be on tap.
A major force in the downtown transformation is Bruce Taylor, the chairman and chief executive of Taylor Fresh Foods, one of the world’s largest vegetable companies, with $3.1 billion in revenues in 2016. Mr. Taylor grew up in Salinas and said he envisioned a town where both residents and travelers would be excited to spend their leisure time. “Anyone should be able to come here for a great meal and to spend a fun afternoon out,” he said.
To help increase foot traffic and give businesses an incentive to open, he moved his company’s headquarters from the outskirts of town into a gleaming new five-story building on Main Street. He is also planning to open a boutique on the building’s ground floor selling crafts from San Miguel de Allende in Mexico (a pop-up version of the store was open in December). The city’s first Starbucks is to open in May.
“Salinas is a collection of different themes,” Mr. Taylor said. “There’s always been the Steinbeck bit, and now there’s agricultural, wine and the downtown for people to get to know. Put all these together, and you have a worthwhile destination.”
If You Go
Where to Stay
The Sanctuary Beach Resort is a 60-room oceanfront property 20 minutes from downtown Salinas. 3295 Dunes Drive, Marina, Calif. From $190 a night.
La Playa Carmel is a 75-room property near the beach and 40 minutes from downtown. Camino Real and Eighth Avenue, Carmel-by-the-Sea. From $249 a night, including a champagne buffet breakfast.
Where to Eat
Paraiso offers lunch with advance booking. 38060 Paraiso Springs Road. From $25 a person.
Patria serves European comfort food such as handmade pastas and pork schnitzel. 228 Main Street. Dinner for two with wine is around $90.
Giorgio’s at 201 Main is a hip Italian restaurant in a former bank in downtown Salinas. Dinner for two with wine is around $120.
Aubergine showcases Salinas Valley produce in artistically presented dishes. Monte Verde Street and Seventh Avenue, Carmel-by-the-Sea. Dinner for two with wine and tip is around $500.
What to Do
Ag Venture Tours Evan Oakes, a viticulturist, leads half- and full-day agricultural tours of the Salinas Valley. From $80 a person.
Some of the wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands are open to visitors, and more than a half-dozen, including Morgan, have tasting rooms in Caramel. Visit the websites of the individual wineries, listed here, for more information.
The National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas is a museum and cultural center dedicated to the author’s life and works. Admission is $12.95 for adults.
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