Planting vines in the cool, high altitude Santa Cruz Mountains is a quixotic endeavor. Trying to grow and make great wine out of notoriously fickle Pinot Noir in these climes is particularly challenging.
Nonetheless, a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.
Santa Cruz Mountains was recognized as an American Viticultural Area in 1982. It stretches from Half Moon Bay south to Mount Madonna. It was the nation’s first AVA to be defined by a mountain range, and its rules require a minimum vineyard elevation on the ocean side of 400 feet, with a minimum of 800 feet on the inland side.
Kevin Harvey surveying one of Rhys’s Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards
Vineyards are planted as high as 3200 feet, but the amount of land actually containing vines in this vast area is quite small—only about 1500 acres. Of that amount, about 25%, or roughly 375 acres, is planted to Pinot Noir. An equivalent amount of acreage is devoted to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the rest being planted to an array of other grapes.
The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association sponsors an annual event, Pinot Paradise, spotlighting the variety that represents about a quarter of the AVA’s production. I’ve attended four of these events over the years, and particularly enjoy the morning technical sessions, offered for the region’s grape growers and winemakers.
My tasting through wines from over half of the AVA’s more than 70 producers at this event last month reinforced a few conclusions I’ve reached about Pinot Noir from this region.
Unlike prime locations for Pinot Noir in California–e.g., Sta. Rita Hills and the true Sonoma Coast– where almost all the Pinot Noirs produced are at a very strong level, Santa Cruz Mountains currently has only two exceptional producers, Mount Eden and Rhys. There are several other producers making some very good wines, in limited quantities, which I will list below. The majority of Pinots from this region, however, score from average to below average.
By “average,” I’m referring to my average score for California Pinot Noir. According to CellarTracker, based on my 3,566 tasting notes so far on California Pinots, my average score is 89.35 points, so 89-90 points. The majority, or 44, of the wines at the Pinot Paradise tasting scored (for me) at that level or below. That’s significantly below the results compared to when I taste Pinots from other major regions (e.g., Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast). At a recent tasting of an equivalent number of wines from Sta. Rita Hills, for example, that were mainly but not exclusively Pinot, of the 72 wines I tasted, I scored 28, or 39%, 92 points or higher. At Pinot Paradise, of the 71 Pinots I tasted, I scored only 10, or 14%, 92 points or higher.
I think the reasons are a combination of factors, including the weather; the fact that Dijon clones may not be the ideal clonal material here as compared to heritage clones, such as the Mount Eden clone; and the fact that some of the area’s winemakers are primarily hobbyists, and not professionals, whose wines do not appear to be as “clean” as they should be. The latter, of course, tends to be true of many wine regions.
Winegrowing in this area started in the mid-1850s, but Pinot Noir didn’t arrive until nearly the end of the 19th century, when Frenchman Paul Masson imported budwood from Burgundy (reputedly from the Grand Cru Corton vineyard) for his hillside vineyard La Cresta, above the town of Saratoga.
Martin Ray purchased La Cresta in 1936. Following the advice of his mentor, Paul Masson, he subsequently sold the Masson Winery to Seagram’s and planted his own eponymous vineyard further up the hill from La Cresta, using budwood from La Cresta.
When Martin Ray lost control of his winery in the early 1970s, most of the vineyard he had planted went to the successor entity, Mount Eden. A small adjacent vineyard was, however, retained by the Ray family. This is the Peter Martin Ray Vineyard.
Most of the greatest Pinot Noirs from this region I’ve tasted over the years have some connection to Martin Ray: Martin Ray’s own Pinots from the ‘50s to the early ’70s, the Pinots from Mount Eden; and the Pinots that Duane Cronin, now deceased, made from the Peter Martin Ray vineyard.
The other greatest Pinot Noir producer in this region is a relatively new project, Rhys, owned by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kevin Harvey. I’ve written a few times here about Rhys, including this piece that describes the vineyards they’ve planted in the northern part of the AVA.
Two other very good producers weren’t represented at this year’s Pinot Paradise, McHenry and Windy Oaks. The producers responsible for one or more Pinots I rated 92 points or higher at this event were Beauregard, Big Basin, Clos LaChance, Mount Eden, Nicholson, Pleasant Valley, Silvertip, Soquel and Villa del Monte. For more information on each of these producers–two of which, Silvertip and Villa del Monte, were brand new to me, and may be new names even to others who follow the Santa Cruz Mountains wine scene–see below.
The best Pinots of the 71 I tasted at this event, which I scored 92 points or higher, were:
2010 Beauregard Byington Vineyard – 92+ points
2009 Big Basin Woodruff Family Vineyard – 92 points
2008 Clos LaChance Erwin – 92+ points
2009 Mount Eden Estate – 93 points
2009 Nicholson Peter Martin Ray Vineyard – 92 points
2009 Pleasant Valley Dylan David Willa Louise’s Block Lester Family Vineyards – 92 points
2008 Silvertip – 92+ points
2009 Silvertip – 92 points
2009 Soquel Estate – 92 points
2010 Villa del Monte Regan Vineyard – 92 points
For my complete tasting notes and ratings on all the wines, see below:
The Beauregard family has been growing grapes in the western edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, in what is now the Ben Lomond AVA within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, since Amos Beauregard purchased the family’s first property there in 1949. That original vineyard now comprises 13 acres planted mostly to Pinot Noir. Emmett (Bud) Beauregard took over when his father Amos passed away in the ’70s, continuing to grow grapes on a “purely recreational” basis. Jim Beauregard, who had previously run Felton Empire Winery in the late ’70s and early ’80s (Felton is now Hallcrest Winery) took over as viticulturalist when Bud retired in 2002. Jim had also been instrumental in the establishment of the Ben Lomond Mountain appellation in 1988. Jim’s son Ryan, the fourth generation of the Beauregards involved in the family business, made his first wine from family owned grapes in 1998. The Beauregard Vineyards family partnership for winemaking was subsequently established in 1999. Besides the original family vineyard, known as Beauregard Ranch, the partnership’s other three estate vineyards are Bald Mountain, Neyley and Nora’s. Bald Mountain, planted in 1993, is the largest vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 38 acres. Nine of these are planted to Pinot, and the rest to Chardonnay. Neyley is planted entirely to Chardonnay, and Nora’s is the most recent addition. Its 20 acres at an elevation of 1200 feet were planted entirely to Pinot Noir by Jim Beauregard in 2008. The first vintage from this vineyard will be 2011. In the meantime, the 2010 Pinot from the original Beauregard Ranch vineyard was very good, with floral qualities. It was the non-estate Pinot, from fruit purchased from Byington Vineyard, however, that most impressed me at this tasting.
Big Basin was founded in 1988 in Santa Cruz Mountains next to Big Basin Redwoods State Park on a site that had originally planted to grapes in the early 1900s but that had been abandoned as a vineyard since 1965. Bradley Brown is the owner and winemaker. I’ve been very impressed by his Pinot Noirs, intensely flavored Syrahs and red blends over the years. The estate vineyards include Rattlesnake Rock (planted to Syrah) and Homestead (planted in 2007 to Grenache, Roussanne and Syrah). They also source from other vineyards, like Woodruff Family and Alfaro Family, both located in the Corralitos region of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Fermentation is with indigenous yeasts in small, open-top fermenters. In the case of the Alfaro Family bottling, 8% whole clusters were used; for Woodruff Family it was 25%. The wine was then aged in French oak barrels, 50% new, for 16 months prior to bottling. Both bottlings were good, but I slightly favored the Woodruff, from vines originally planted in 1988, making it one of the older Pinot plantings in the area.
Bill and Brenda Murphy (nee LaChance) planted a few rows of Chardonnay in their Saratoga backyard in 1987. A few years later, when the wine made from these grapes proved to be of good quality, they decided to start a commercial winery. Their first commercial release, of only 200 cases, consisted of wine from the 1992 vintage. Their acreage has grown from the 3/4 acre backyard vines to 150 acres of vines, producing 80,000 cases of wine and employing 20 full-time employees. In 1996, the couple established CK Vines, a vineyard maintenance and installation company specializing in backyard vineyard development. Most of their vineyard acreage consists of backyard vineyards of various sizes for which they charge homeowners an installation fee (in 2004, that was $30,000 per acre) as well as an annual maintenance fee. The maintenance fee is more than offset by Clos LaChance’s per acre purchase price for the resulting grapes. Another large source of their grapes is a residential development in San Martin with 36 three-acre sites that was designed with these vineyards as part of the plan. There Clos LaChance installed and maintains the vineyards, at no charge to the residents, and processes the grapes. The homeowners don’t participate in any winery profits, but get to enjoy the beauty of the vineyards on their property. In 2008, along with bottlings of other varieties, Clos La Chance produced at least three Pinots. I was underwhelmed with the regular Santa Cruz Mountains bottling, which exhibited some of the smoke taint for which the ’08 vintage has become infamous, but the Biagini Vineyard designate was a major step above that and the Erwin bottling was one of the best of the tasting. The Erwin vineyard is a four-acre vineyard planted by owner Elmer Erwin in 1993. It’s at an elevation of 2,800 feet. Clos La Chance only releases an Erwin bottling when the grapes are in optimal condition—the last previous Erwin vintage was 2005. This one was aged for nine months in 33% new French oak. Stephen Tebb, who had previously been assistant winemaker at Artesa in Napa, is the Director of Winemaking and Vineyard Operations at Clos LaChance.
Heart O’ the Mountain
This is a new producer, which also makes a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Mount Eden’s Jeffrey Patterson is the winemaker.
I’ve devoted an entire post here to the wonderful wines of Mount Eden, including the vineyard’s original ownership and planting by California Pinot Noir pioneer Martin Ray. To view that post, click here.
Brian and Marguerite Nicholson, pictured above, are the proprietors of this winery, whose initial estate vineyard was planted in 1996. The winery was established in 2004. The estate vineyard has a southwest exposure at an elevation of 700 feet, and its four acres are planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also source additional fruit from other vineyards, including the famous Peter Martin Ray Vineyard, originally planted by Martin Ray. It was the bottling from this vineyard that most stood out at this tasting, but the Santa Cruz Mountains Cuvee was also a good buy at only $30.
Craig and Cathy Handley started this small, family-run production in 1996. Their two small vineyards, on five acres, are planted to Dijon clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Craig is the winemaker, and the wines are made and bottled on the family’s property. The wines are named after their grandchildren, grand niece and grand nephew. The bottling that most impressed me in this flight was from the Willa Louise’s Block of Lester Family Vineyards, which is planted entirely to Dijon clone 667. The pricing, however, is steep–from $60 for that bottling to $95 for the Reserve.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards
I’ve had some excellent Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards Pinots over the years, including a terrific 1979 bottling that was holding up remarkably well in 2008. I was also very impressed with their 2006 vintage. The wines here typically require some bottle age. The 2009 was quite appealing; the 2008 scored lower due to the brett level.
Silvertip was one of my two “finds” of this tasting–a producer I’d never heard of, that was only established in 2009. The owners are Paul Stroth and Philip Nelson. Stroth has been making Syrah and Zin under the Stroth-Hall label since 2005. I got to taste their wines at the morning technical seminar at this event, and was immediately attracted to their complexity and Asian spice characteristics. The wines are produced from a nine-acre vineyard with sandy soils planted at an elevation of 1700 feet near the top of Santa Cruz Mountains’ western slopes. That vineyard is planted to Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah. The 2008 was based entirely on clone 828, while the 2009 version included Pommard clone along with Dijon clones 828, 115 and 667. I definitely look forward to following this project.
Soquel is the winery that twin brothers Peter and Paul Bargetto started with their friend John Morgan in 1987, after the twins left the winery that their grandfather had started with his brother, Bargetto Winery. They are planting a four-acre vineyard on a site they recently purchased that had once belonged to their grandfather. In the meantime, they source the fruit for their wines from vineyards in Santa Cruz Mountains, the Russian River and Napa. They produce Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and a meritage, in addition to Pinot Noir. I appreciated the delicacy and precision of this Pinot, which sells through the winery for $40.
Villa del Monte
My other “find” from this tasting was Villa del Monte. John Overstreet and Neil Perrelli are the proprietor/winemakers here, having started this winery, named after their mountain subdivision, in 2007 following many years of participating in a neighborhood winemaking co-op. They purchase grapes from their neighbors and from vineyards from Santa Cruz Mountains up to Carneros. The floral Quenneville Vineyard bottling was good, but the Regan Vineyard bottling, with both floral and mineral qualities, was the real standout. Both are selling for a very reasonable $28 on their website.