Santa Cruz Mountains

While most wine drinkers are familiar with Californian American Viticultural Appellations (AVAs) such as Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, or the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, many may not be as familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is nestled in one of the most unique natural environments in the world. Mountain terrain, marine influence, varied micro-climates, and distinctive soils combine to produce some of the finest conditions for winegrowing. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (called "America's Premier Mountain Appellation") was federally approved in 1981 and was one of the first AVAs to be defined by geophysical, altitudinal and climatic factors. The peak of Mount Madonna forms the southern boundary, and the sparkling waters of Half Moon Bay define the northern boundary. The minimum vineyard elevation is 400 feet on the ocean side and rises from 400 feet on the eastern San Francisco Bay side to 800 feet at the southeast boundary. Elsewhere, vineyards are planted as high as 3,200 feet. The appellation exceeds 400,000 acres although vineyard plantings are only around 1,500 acres. There are numerous subregions within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA: Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, Coastal Foothills, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley. Additionally, Ben Lomond Mountain AVA is within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The Santa Cruz Mountain Range is a span of mountains separating San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean and forming the spine of the peninsula from San Francisco to Gilroy. In the shaping of this range, many geologic forces have interacted in important and complex ways. Dozens of times during the past hundreds of millions of years, the site of the present Santa Cruz Mountains has been occupied by ancestral ranges upheaved by folding and faulting — primary forces of mountain building. And dozens of times these ranges have been worn away by the relentless erosive action of wind, river, and sea. The ancient past is thus a story of mountain building, erosion, and inundation, repeated time and again. Fifteen million years ago, during the Miocene Epoch, the Pacific Ocean reached as far eastward as the Central Valley. Sediments and fossils deposited in this ancient sea are commonly exposed in the lower foothills behind Stanford. Notable among the features of the Santa Cruz Mountains is the San Andreas Fault, a basic zone of weakness in the crust of the earth which extends for 600 miles from Point Arena to Mexico. The shattered and pulverized rocks along the fault zone have been eroded more readily than the adjacent hills to form the broad valleys throughout the mountain range. Wine was first produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the mid 1800's. Even then, the grapes grown in this area commanded higher prices due to the superior quality. In the famous 1976 Paris tasting where California wines were tasted against the French elite, two of the 11 wines chosen to represent California's best were from the Santa Cruz Mountains. In a re-tasting of the same wines 30 years later, the Santa Cruz Mountains took First Place. Now more than 70 wineries, most of them family-run, are producing wine within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The appellation can really be split into two different growing regions. The west side of the mountains faces the Pacific Ocean and is often covered in fog. This cooler region can be looked at as more “Burgudian” in style, with emphasis more on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The eastern side of the mountains is influenced by the warmer San Francisco Bay and is considered more akin to the “Bordeaux region”, where Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Merlot dominate. Needless to say, there are many micro-climates throughout the region, just as there are diverse soils. The soils include decomposed rock, clay, loam and limestone. The most sought-after soil, limestone, is present in many of the finer vineyards in the area. The soil’s overriding effect in most areas is a fresh, mineral character and an inviting acidity in the wines. Although the soil type is not uniform, the ocean fog influence is consistent and ties the appellation together. The challenges in growing wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA are numerous. Historically, grapes ripened in only three out of every ten vintages, and the wines were often described as rustic, chunky and tannic. Irrigation water is very limited or nonexistent, birds (all vineyards must be netted), deer (all vineyards must be fenced) and gophers are ever-present, top soil is poor in many sites, skilled labor is hard to find, and disease pressure, particularly downy mildew, powdery mildew and botrytis is everpresent. Modern viticultural practices including control of mildew, proper trellising, and canopy management have been instituted in the last several years by very experienced vineyard consultants. The result has been a noticeable trend toward dependable yields, (although still small,) and increasing quality of grapes, resulting in wines that consistently exemplify the unique terroir of the region.

2014 Varner “Hidden Block” Pinot Noir $38

Varner is a partnership between twin brothers, Bob and Jim Varner. Jim is a graduate of University of California at Davis and began his winemaking career in the Napa Valley. He longed for a cooler climatic region and found the current site of Varner Wines in the Skyline sub-region of the Santa Cruz Mountains just west of Palo Alto, 12 miles east of the Pacific Ocean and 10 miles west of the San Francisco Bay. The property Jim wanted to pursue is situated within a large parcel that is owned by Dr. Kirk Neely and his wife Holly. Jim’s brother, Bob, was studying genetics at the University of California at Berkeley when his brother invited him to see the property. He was immediately taken by the site and the two began planting the Spring Ridge Vineyard in 1980. The history of Spring Ridge Vineyard is the result of the efforts of the Varner twins, whose wines would earn a reputation for the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Named for the abundant springs on the 230-acre oak-covered property in Portola Valley, Spring Ridge Vineyard has become well known as a unique region of Northern California wine production. The vineyard extends from an elevation of 500 feet reaching up to 1700 feet above sea level. The Varner’s planted the property in blocks, naming each for aspects of their topographical traits and atmosphere (Picnic, Hidden, Bee). They started with Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer planted on their own rootstocks. Over the ensuing years, further blocks were added with cuttings taken from the original vineyard. In 1997, seven acres of Pinot Noir were planted (clones 115 and 777), and in 2006, the Gewürztraminer was grafted over to Pinot Noir clone 777, effectively resulting in 25-year-old vines. Bob eventually became the winemaker and Jim took over the sales and marketing of Varner Wines.

  The Spring Ridge Vineyard is farmed organically with no pesticides other than sulfur to control mildew. It is dry-farmed, non-fertilized, and hand-hoed. Native cover crop is grown on porous, young (1-3 million years-old) fractured sedimentary rock.

  The Varners harvest, vinify and bottle their various blocks separately, but vinification methods are the same. This magnifies the subtle differences between the microclimates and their wines. Very little (2% to 3%) whole cluster is used, fermentations are done using indigenous yeasts, aging is carried out in 24% to 30% new French oak barrels from several cooperages using oak from Allier and Nevers Forests All winemaking is by gravity flow with no watering back and no acidification. Bob works in the rows during each harvest, ensuring that sorting is done at the vine rather than at the winery. Rather than fining and filtering, the barrels are hand-racked, using a fontaine d’aspiration and a hand-cranked barrel lifting device. With this method, the lees are not disturbed and the wine is clarified without filtration.

  Varner 2014 Hidden Block Pinot Noir comes from 3 acres on a northeast-facing slope situated at 690-730 ft. elevation. According to Bob, “The Hidden Block was a gentle slope that was hidden by a band of poison oak when we started planting at the property. Jim and I called it the Hidden meadow. Over the years we cleared the poison oak and planted it”. The 17-year-old vines are Dijon 115 Clone and planted to 5C rootstock on sedimentary rock near the surface. In 2014, 370 cases were produced. The 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block is the most immediate and dense of the four Pinots in the Varner range. A core of sweet red cherry, blackberry and plum fruit fills out the wine's mid-weight frame effortlessly. Round, pliant and totally seductive, the 2014 has a lot to offer and will continue to improve over the next few years. Pinot Noir, as you know, can go with a wide range of dishes. Olive oil-poached salmon, roasted turkey, mild cheeses, charcuterie, and some spicy dishes like Moroccan tagine and curries are all wonderful pairings with this Pinot. It’s best not to open this wine until you are actually sitting at the table. Otherwise, the bottle will be empty before the food arrives.

2015 Folkway Santa Cruz Mountains Red $30

Lino and Anthony Bozzano are the 3rd generation of their family to be involved in California agriculture. Today, their main line of business is vineyard management. As caretakers of great vineyards, they have an inside line to great fruit. Anthony received a Bachelor’s-of-Science degree in Agricultural Business and a Minor in Viticulture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. After graduating, he did everything from sorting grapes and bottling wine to organizing winemaker dinners and events in order to learn all that he could about the wine industry. Lino took a viticulture position at Bien Nacido Vineyard, home to some of the most revered fruit and most respected winemakers in the world after graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in Crop Science in 1996. In 2009, Lino and Anthony created Folkway Wine Company, and using legendary vineyard sources at their disposal, started to produce Bordeaux style red and white wines that respect the traditions of the “Old World”, but showcase the terroir the Bozzanos call home.

Folkway’s 2015 Santa Cruz Mountians Red is a blend of 61% Cabernet Franc and 39% Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for this blend came from Camel Hill Vineyard, on Bear Creek Road, just above the Lexington Reservoir on Highway 17. The vineyard is within the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA, just outside the town of Los Gatos, and borders Black Ridge Vineyard. Owned by John Anderson, the vineyard is perched on a complex series of hillsides featuring a wide array of exposures and soil types. Though not well known, Cabernet Franc does fantastically well on this site contributing vivid aromatics of violets, black spice and blueberry fruit.

Regarding the 2015 Red the Bozzano’s said, “2015 was the only year that we worked with Camel Hill. We were actually contracted for 4 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1 ton of Cabernet Franc. When I arrived to drop bins the morning of the pick, I learned that the owner had allowed another winery to pick the sunny-side of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines, leaving us with only the less ripe grapes from the shadowed side. I made a last-minute decision to forgo all of the Cabernet Sauvignon that was from the shade, only take the ripe stuff, and take more Cabernet Franc instead. This wine took quite a while to come around - we were actually going to spill it all into another blend called Revelator, and then it suddenly turned a corner and became pretty after about 15-18 months, so we decided to bottle it.” Only 110 cases were produced.

The grapes for the 2015 were fermented in open top fermenters, allowing the grapes to start fermenting on native yeast, before eventually inoculating. Once dry, the wine was transferred to a mix of new American oak barrels and used French and American barrels.

A gorgeous example of a Santa Cruz Bordeaux red, the bright ruby red color is accompanied by aromas of bing cherry, black currant, moist tobacco, black licorice, cedar, and Tellicherry peppercorn. A full-bodied yet delicate mouthfeel slowly reveals sweet berry, espresso, cherry cream cola, and anisette, with a subtle, yet firm, silky finish. Try it with pasta with Bolognese, pan-seared steak with chimichurri, risotto with chanterelles and/or morels, or butternut squash ravioli with sage cream sauce.

Sonnet Wine Cellars Tempranillo $35

Owner and winemaker, Tony Craig, is a former Shakespearean actor. After moving to California from England and hoping to find work in Hollywood he soon realized that he needed to pursue another career. Down to about his last $50, he answered an ad in the newspaper for a cellar worker at David Bruce. He was hired, and within 14 months, he was a part of the winemaking team. He took to winemaking naturally, and eventually became head of the vineyard-designate Pinot Noir program. David Bruce Winery was a regular research center for Tony, and he was allowed to try many experiments with small lots of grapes. It was through these trials that he was able to hone his winemaking style. He likes to call himself a minimalist when it comes to crafting wine, and his winemaking goals are elegance and balance. The whole process begins with vineyard management. Flavors and aromas originate in the vineyard and you can’t influence those very much, so Tony focuses his winemaking on structure. One very obvious characteristic of every wine Tony makes is the intense, voluptuous color. Tony is adamant about his detest for outspoken tannins. He feels they get in the way of the velvety texture he aspires to in his style of winemaking. Instead of letting the wines go completely dry before pressing, as most winemakers do, he presses early to retain the color. In Syrah especially, he says, you don’t want to lose the color, and color chains fall out fast as fermentation heats up. The other method he employs is to stir the lees to bring out the silky, velvety character that he seeks to impart to all his wines.

Sonnet’s 2016 Tempranillo comes from the Gali Vineyard. Dr. Joseph Gali was born in Antioch, Turkey, and completed medical school, and set up his pediatric practice in the Bay Area in 1988. Joseph saw winegrowing as one of the greatest professions in the world. Drawn to the land, Joseph’s passion for cultivation began in his uncle’s orchard on the sunny Mediterranean coast as a child. California’s land has allowed him to hone his growing talents, producing everything from blueberries, persimmons, kiwis, and apples to quince, mulberries, and honey from his many beehives. Questioning conventional wisdom of common viticulture practices and craving a connection to the land that would require intense study and hands-on work, Joseph and his wife Janice planted ten acres of vines in 2013 on the land that they had owned for almost 20 years about four and a half miles from the Pacific Ocean in Corralitos. The 46-acres of rolling hills are studded with towering redwoods in the cool Santa Cruz Mountains. Ten acres of grapes began as bench-grafted two-year-old bare root plants, thriving in the weathered sandstone soil, covered by a topsoil layer of loamy shale that provides a perfect environment. As a south-facing vineyard with marine influence, morning fog, and steady afternoon winds, the vines experience a diurnal temperature variation of up to 35 degrees Fahrenheit each day leading to grape berries with thicker skins and more intense color. This unique environment produces wines with unparalleled complexity and depth of flavor.

The 2016 Sonnet Tempranillo is composed of 100% Tempranillo from the Gali Vineyard. Oncew fermentation was complete 38% of the wine was aged in Hungarian oak. The wine was then bottled unfined and unfiltered. Only 170 cases were produced. Tony writes, “In the 1980s, a summer had arrived and there was no acting work in sight, so I picked up my back pack and started hitch hiking throughout Europe. When I arrived in Spain, I came across a wonderful wine varietal, Tempranillo, and it had the most aromatic aroma I had ever noticed in any wine. Since I became a winemaker, I have been searching for a great Califonia Tempranillo vineyard and finaly found one a few years ago, and this is the first Sonnet offering from that quest. It shows an amazing depth of fruit, from plums and blackberry to hints of black cherry. It is a robust wine that has been aged for more than two years in oak barrels and will age gracefully in bottle for many years to come.”

Few food and wine pairings can top a delicious Tempranillo matched with grilled lamb chops. The Sonnet Tempranillo pairs nicely with medium to strong-flavored semi-hard and hard cheeses (Manchego), and dishes with tomatoes and tomato sauces. It also pairs beautifully with regional Spanish dishes such as caldo de temporada-Galician style pumpkin-chicken soup, smoked bacon, chorizo, potato and broccoli rabe, or costilla al vino tinto-Tempranillo-braised short ribs, confit potatoes and crispy leeks.

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