Like the irrepressible Terrytoons magpie that shares a name with Salinas Valley wine pioneer Bill Jekel, the Arroyo Seco AVA is one odd bird. Perched inside a larger appellation, Monterey County (which in turn is a subzone of the sprawling Central Coast AVA), Arroyo Seco is right on the cusp of climactic schizophrenia. The eastern and central areas are chilly by California wine-growing standards, subject to big morning fog and bigger afternoon winds, while the western portion dive-bombs into the Santa Lucia Mountains where it is protected from the Pacific, resulting in warmer day-to-day temperatures.
As intuition might tell you, that makes Arroyo Seco’s right brain more suited to cool weather grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir—even riesling—while left-brain Arroyo Seco is home to heat-hankering zinfandel as well as Bordeaux cultivars like cabernet and merlot.
Few California appellations can succeed in such a variety of varietals; far fewer using such limited floor space: less than twenty thousand acres total.
Bill Jekel was one of the first winemakers to recognize the potential in this identity-disordered appellation, planting his first grapes in 1972 and releasing a vintage five years later. In fact, , he was one of only a few Arroyo Seco vintners who based his initial plantings around the characteristic winds rather than sun and temperature alone, and managed from the outset to avoid some of the vegetal qualities that still pop up in Salinas Valley reds, especially in the cabs.
Which is a good thing: At tastings, so distinct and delightful is the berry-rich, mocha and coconut profile of the cabernet sauvignon that Jekel has nowhere to Hyde.
So, back to the magpies…
Heckle and Jekel, though identical in appearance, displayed a split personality similar to Arroyo Seco’s, remember? One droned on politely in an upper-crust British accent while the other spoke pure, cynical Brooklynese. Which was which is anybody’s guess, though Bill Jekel—who sold off his eponymous winery to Brown-Forman in 2005 (who again sold up, though keeping the brand name)—probably knows.
Despite the several hands which have been turned toward Jekel, it continues to produce reliable and price-attractive wines of considerable complexity, thanks in part to Arroyo Seco’s long growing season, dry microclimate and piss-poor soil, which generally results in deeper root structures—hence, more trace elements coming to the surface. The whites tend to be nicely balanced with tropical fruit flavors and bright acidity; the reds boast open-knit personalities, easy to enjoy with somewhat restrained and gentle tannins.
And in case you’re wondering, either hue should stand up to magpie pie.
Jekel Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, 2008, about $13: A clean, finesse-styled chardonnay with striking marigold, tangerine and green apple on the nose. Dry and nicely proportioned, the wine shows a Mâcon-like minerality throughout the palate, especially damp slate and chalk, and finishes with cream and a dash of honey.
Jekel Merlot, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, 2007, about $15: Sourced from a warm Arroyo Seco pocket (Sanctuary Vineyard) and allowed extended maceration , this dense, ruby-colored wine is concentrated with coffee bean and nice black things: black cherry, black olives and black plums. Long in the palate and smooth with finely integrated tannins making for a slightly chewy merlot that suggests a bit of cellar potential.
Jekel Cabernet Sauvignon, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, 2007, about $15: Love the near-eerie backlit label; love the wine, too. Sweet and saturated, there’s cocoa and coconut behind the characteristic depth of focus. The mid-palate shows an interesting spiciness, almost like mulled wine along with a jammy soft underbelly. A postcard vintage in 2007 allowed extra hang-time for the grapes, and the result is ultra-rich, very ripe red, drinkable now through the mid-teens.