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Santa Cruz Mountains: high quality, low acreage

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Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.

The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”

I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.

The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.

The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.

In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.

Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.

I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.

 

  1. raley roger says:

    That’s funny that Jennings consider Rhys and Mount Eden the only two exceptional producers. I love it when writers make silly comments like that…leaves more great Pinot for the rest of us to drink. Clearly he’s never had Varner or Neely wines. More for me, I guess. And there are so many others.

  2. Morton says:

    I think the major limitation on growing Pinot Noir in Santa Cruz Mountains is Pierce’s Disease.

  3. Some nice catches here. I’ll echo the support for Varner, Windy Oaks and Fogarty. The others are still on my “to list.” I’m surprised Jennings misses anything because that guy gets out and tastes relentlessly. I think it shows how difficult it is to get a comprehensive take on this AVA.

  4. Steve,

    A couple of small corrections for your records. The spelling of La Questa has always been with a “Q”. We have records that go back to the turn of the centuruy, plus a number of medals, etc, received from E. H. Rixford’s family and none of them show a spelling with “C”.

    Second, while Woodside Vineyards still farms the remaining acre of the original vineyard, the winery has never been located there. For almost 50 years the winery was located across town on Kings Mountain Road. In 2010, the winery was moved to Menlo Park so we could accomodate an expanded production, but most of our grapes still come from 26 small vineyards which we maintain in Woodside – Portola Valley. The original Rixford stone winery building still stands just across the street from some of the remaining vines, but it was converted into a residence back in the sixties. BTW, on those occasional years when the sugar is sufficient, (about every second or third year) we produce 50 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon under the La Questa label which sells for $100 per bottle. On other years the La Questa grapes are blended into our Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Bob Mullen
    Founder

  5. Dear Bob Mullen, thank you for setting the record straight.

  6. Steve,
    I appreciate your kind words about my HuffPo piece this week. As you’ll note from its title (and content) it was only dealing with Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, not the region’s Cabernet or Chardonnay, which each have about the same SCM acreage as the Pinot. Frankly, I think SCM is better at Chardonnay than anything. Cabernet often doesn’t ripen sufficiently in most locations where it’s planted (even at Montebello, where it arguably does the best.) The HuffPo piece was also a condensed version of the longer piece that appears on my blog, which is linked on HuffPo. (I’m limited to about 800 words each week on HuffPo.) At any rate, if you’re statement that my piece on SCM Pinot was “a little incomplete” because it didn’t deal with the area’s good Cabernet Sauvignon, I think that’s hardly a fair criticism. (Here’s the link to the 5,000 word expanded post on my blog: http://www.rjonwine.com/california-wine/santa-cruz-mountains-pinot-noir/)
    And as to your comment about “sub-appelating” (not a particularly appealing new word) the SCM appellation, one such sub-appellation was designated back in 1988, the Ben Lomond AVA.
    I stand by what I said as to there being two Pinot producers that really excel in this appellation. I also mentioned several others in my piece that I thought do a very good job, including Windy Oaks and Beauregard. I didn’t include Fogarty on that list as my experience with their Pinots has been too variable–only a couple that I’ve scored highly over the years, with another dozen or so that have been middling to not very good.
    As to Raley’s comment above regarding Varner and Neely, I think their Chardonnays are exceptional (and I’m working on a post about a recent visit there, which included barrel tasting through their 2011s), but that the Pinots are variable and not as impressive.
    Warm regards,
    Richard

  7. Steve,

    About six-weeks ago, I wrote you an email asking why the wine media consistently overlooks the efforts of (most) producers in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which I termed the “Black sheep AVA”.

    The majority of your brief reply (direct quote) “I think the reason why SCM sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is because there are so few wineries and vineyards there….It’s certainly not a “black sheep” at least to me!”

    In your ‘response’ to Richard, you listed a handful of SCM producers you’ve had positive experiences with, but it’s my first known instance of mentioning them in any way on your blog; a search of your blog confirms for 90+% of them, it was the first. With your implied knowledge of this smaller AVA, why aren’t you more readily sharing with your readers quality up and coming producers such as House Family Winery? They are a direct neighbor of Mount Eden Vineyards and Jeff Patterson (winemaker at Mount Eden) is their winemaker – you and many others rightfully agree Mount Eden’s history and wines are some of the most significant in California. Not too surprising, House’s wine will out show many wines at their QPR.

    In addition, you slightly jab at Richard for listing Rhys and Mount Eden being the ‘only two exceptional producers’, but it seems at best you didn’t know of, or at worst omitted a widely recognized consistent high quality producer of SCM Pinot Noir and Syrah – Big Basin Vineyards. For example, all of their 2009 Pinots received scores of 92-94 points from Galloni, while Kosta Browne’s 2009’s received 88-92+ and cost 2-5x more. Where are more featured write ups on producers like that?! Varner, Neely and several others are also very worthy of a tip of the hat.

    As a passionate consumer/collector of wine, I am always looking to add (more) affordable, high quality, interesting wines to my cellar. I’m constantly scouring the net and asking around for inside leads to new producers. And I know I’m not alone!

    In the meantime, I’m adding solid bottles of SCM wine to my cellar on a regular basis while most of the wine media isn’t providing adequate insight, nor big picture inclusion of an AVA in the backyard of literally millions of (fairly wealthy) people – albeit Richard Jennings and a few select others.

    In short, please spend more time covering the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are some really great things going there with this generation of winemakers.

    -Matt

    *Disclaimer, I work for a Santa Cruz Mountains producer*

  8. Dear Matt: You ask, “why aren’t you more readily sharing with your readers quality up and coming producers such as House Family Winery?” The answer is simple and obvious: my day job is covering California wine for Wine Enthusiast Magazine. That is where you will find my reviews, interviews, reporting, producers, and so forth.

  9. Steve,

    Great to see some coverage of Santa Cruz! Just a note however, Clos la Chance, Cooper Garrod and Cinnabar are considered both Santa Cruz Mountains as well as Santa Clara Valley (which produces some outstanding wines as well), yet the latter is overlooked even more than the Santa Cruz AVA. From what I understand Clos la Chance was grandfathered in to the Santa Cruz AVA, even though their tasting room and Estate vineayards are in San Martin, and you have to drive past several Santa Clara Valley wineries to get to it if coming from the Santa Cruz area.

    As much as I love seeing Santa Cruz covered more in mainstream wine media, I think Santa Clara is just as much, if not moreso overlooked and should be given an opportunity as well. I have had some outstanding Cabernets, Malbecs, Cahrdonnay and Carignane from this area, yet people are completely unaware of the 30 or so winereies around them.

  10. Liking your blogs that dive into a particular wine scene. I call for a weekly dedicated post.

  11. Richard Jennings is one of the most thorough and talented citizen bloggers on the subject of wine normally taking what are excellent in-depth tasting notes on a very wide spectrum of wines. I have said it before that if he ever went pro I would certainly subscribe.

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