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5 Reasons to Spend Your Next Wine Vacation in the Salinas Valley

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I love Napa and Sonoma and would rather swallow a crumpled-up wine box than dis either one of them.

But if money talks, a much better California county for wine lovers is on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The side where John Steinbeck was born, the side that, for decades, has grown the lion's share of our salad greens, our strawberries, our broccoli and our peppers.

Turns out, the self-proclaimed "Salad Bowl of the World" also grows excellent grapes and the resulting wines are not only getting raves reviews, but their prices are a third to a half of what you'd pay for their more pretentious Napa cousins.

That's reason enough for me to visit the 30 some tasting rooms in Monterey County. But here are four more:

1. Wine alone does not a vacation make. You have to do something until the tasting rooms open, until your conscience allows you to begin the descent into the "big happy." Monterey County has tourist attractions that don't revolve around wine and food. Not that there's anything wrong with tourist attractions revolving around wine and food, but it's nice to know there's a world-famous aquarium (Monterey Bay Aquarium) and a national park (Pinnacles National Park is America's newest) you can visit in your downtime. It's comforting that your Pinterest board will have beaches and Lone Cypresses and maybe even a shot of Clint Eastwood (he used to be the mayor of Carmel) along with those art shots of your glazed-over reflection in a wine glass.

2. You can also celebrate great literature. A Nobel Prize winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner were both born in Salinas. Granted, they're the same person, but who cares? John Steinbeck's legacy is everywhere from his boyhood home, a turreted Victorian building in downtown Salinas that serves lunch Monday through Saturday, to Monterey's Cannery Row and Doc Rickett's biological lab where I was lucky enough to meet one of his last surviving friends.

To see the old pools where Ricketts kept the starfish, rays, turtles and other marine specimens that he sold to schools, to walk the same fields that George and Lennie walked (I'm told that Of Mice and Men continues to rank high up on high school required reading lists) is truly magical. The entire Joad family, Steinbeck's dog Charley, Jody from the Red Pony and all the other characters from Steinbeck's 27 books come alive at the National Steinbeck Center.

3. You can impress even your snobby friends. In 2013, Wine Enthusiast named Monterey County as one of the world's top 10 wine destinations, completely snubbing its famous neighbors to the north. So when your friend pulls out his $600 bottle of Bryant cabernet, you can pull out this issue where editors gushed about the Salinas Valley, its award-winning Pinots and Chardonnays and its friendliness to the old pocket book.

4. Monterey County equals Napa in acres of grapes. Monterey may have fewer wineries (175 compared to Napa's 400), but who really needs 400 wineries. I rather liked the undivided attention I got here.

As winemaker David Coventry of Puma Road Winery wisely pointed out about quantity, "The world already has enough bad wine." And while owner Ray Franscioni, a jeans-wearing, helicopter-flying farmer, sells some of his grapes to Sonoma's Kendall-Jackson, Coventry like to jokes, "What are they reserving it for? Wine is to drink."

The thing I liked about the winemakers on River Road Wine Trail is they're accessible, friendly and even philosophical. Dan Karlsen at Talbott Vineyards, whose Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noirs compete in the big leagues, says "Winemaking is like raising children. You can't fix them later. You have to treat them with love and respect from the very beginning."

Whatever they're doing in this 90-mile long valley, I have to agree with Sabrine Rodems, whose Scratch 2013 Rose just landed a 90 in this month's issue of Wine Enthusiast, who said, "Amazing things are happening in Monterey Wine Country. We're finally getting the recognition we deserve."

Oh, and did I mention they have great prices?