Here is what’s fermenting at the local wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains
by Laura Ness
They are fairly anonymous and the majority are not open to the public. Their acreage is often small and they don’t benefit from the name recognition of places like Napa and Sonoma. Even still, a notable array of Peninsula vineyards have quietly made a reputation for themselves in recent years by producing coveted wines from their home base in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
So many excellent vineyards dot the hills above Woodside and Saratoga that it can be difficult to keep track of them all. Two of the largest and most famous, Ridge and Mount Eden, are practically household names because of their sizable production: Mount Eden is crushing 220 tons this year; Ridge, somewhere close to 510 total, including 220 from its revered Monte Bello vineyards.
By contrast, tiny Kings Mountain Vineyards in Woodside, for example, brought in 6.2 tons this harvest. That can seem like a drop in the wine barrel by comparison, yet what many of these smaller operations lack in size they compensate for in quality. This is why the Santa Cruz Mountains have begun to shape up as a dark horse of the wine industry, leaving many experts impressed with our local presses.
“What is the most overlooked terroir in California? It’s a question I am asked often. The answer is always the same: The Santa Cruz Mountains,” wine critic Antonio Galloni wrote. “These rugged hillsides just south of San Francisco are home to some of the world’s greatest vineyards and wines.”
To make these exceptional — though at times, obscure — vineyards more accessible, we put together this guide detailing the standouts wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Cheers!
Luchessi Vineyard in Saratoga
This gem of a vineyard is located in one of the sweet sunny spots in the Saratoga hills — in this case east of Mount Eden — where the warmth makes possible the ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that likes more heat than most of the Santa Cruz Mountains can muster.
Longtime winemaker Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard considers this dry-farmed vineyard one of the best Cab sources in the region and has been purchasing its fruit since 2005. “It’s beautiful, intense and age-worthy,” he notes, adding that he feared for the 2017 crop due to the record heat wave in September, which caused many bunches to shrivel. “Somehow, the vines magically found water during the cool-down and re-hydrated the grapes,” he explains. “They’re old and their roots go very deep. The fruit looked beautiful at harvest.”
Planted in 1987 by scientist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jerry Anderson and his wife Anne, Chaine d’Or Vineyards took its moniker from a term that Paul Masson and Martin Ray accorded the sunny string of vineyards — the “chain of gold” — that dot the mountains from the Woodside Hills to Lexington Reservoir. Some of these sites have been producing stellar Cabernet and Chardonnay since the 19th century, their perfect soils and sun earning them their illustrious nickname.
In line with this legacy, the two-acre Chaine d’Or vineyard is also planted towards the production of Chardonnay and Cabernet (as well as with smaller amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot employed to flesh out the Cabernet).
Since 2015, the vineyard has been cared for by Nicolas Vonderheyden, who also managed the vineyards at The Mountain Winery. He was raised on his family’s chateau near Bourdeaux, where generation’s of wine-making run deep. Vonderheyden fell in love with this place, located on Sunrise Drive just above the town of Woodside, and began making wine under a refreshed label in 2016. Chaine d’Or wines can be found at Robert’s Market in Woodside.
To visit, contact Nicolas Vonderheyden at [email protected]
On a bucolic private estate just beyond the town of Woodside you will find a scant acre of grapes of Kings Mountain Vineyards. Planted in 1992, it once produced Pinot Noir and all five Bordeaux varieties, but was eventually grafted solely to Pinot Noir in 2009.
Kings Mountain presently offers two Pinots. The first (which sports a label depicting the beautiful theater located on the property) is made entirely from the Martini clone, thought to have originated on French-born California wine pioneer Louis Martini’s storied Carneros property in the 1940s. The eponymous wine is profoundly earthy and complex. The other, called Bacchus, is a fruit-forward California-style Pinot that combines a small amount of Martini clone with the younger Clone 667, known for its dark fruit and substantial body.
Fortunately for oenophiles who can’t seem to cellar anything long enough to experience the pleasure of a properly aged wine, the folks at Kings Mountain have done it for you, and offer tastings of older vintages alongside current releases. Few wineries can offer such an experience.
Sign up for their mailing list to be invited to private tastings. www.kingsmountainvineyards.com.
In a sun-drenched bowl off Alpine Road west of Skyline, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are planted on a north-south orientation for maximum sun exposure at the Mindego Ridge home of David and Stacey Gollnick. Guided by the same vineyard consultant who advised Clos de la Tech, the couple planted 10 acres of vines in 2009 on the 40-acre parcel. Although the property is blessed with a creek, the Gollnicks are essentially dry-farming. About 300 cases are made yearly by the acclaimed winemaker Ehren Jordan, SF Chronicle’s Winemaker of the year in 2008 and a highly sought-after wine consultant in the Pinot Noir universe.
Some of the Pinot goes to winemaker Nathan Kandler of Thomas Fogarty, who makes a vineyard designate for the Fogarty wine club. Notes Kandler, “Mindego Ridge is a young but very promising vineyard. It is climatically very intriguing because of the huge diurnal shift; it is almost always in the 40s at night, but regularly warms into the 80s or 90s during the day. This produces very small berries with few seeds, giving wine with great color and structure. There is a certain intensity and power to the wines. There are a few other vineyards in the La Honda area, and they all share the same dark fruited, powerful nature.”
Find Mindego Ridge wines at Roberts Market or at the Saratoga tasting room it shares with Lexington (Fogarty’s second label). www.mindegoridge.com
Winemaker John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli has been garnering high praise and top scores for his stylistically understated wines, sourced mainly from an old vineyard in Corralitos (at the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountain range) called Split Rail. It is planted to heritage clones. Benedetti’s family ties to Pescadero, as well as his fondness for Thomas Fogarty Winery’s estate Pinots (located on Skyline), caused him to scout for a vineyard in this area.
Benedetti says the McConnell vineyard, at the top of Alpine Road and across from Rhys (more on that coming), complements his portfolio. It is planted to Swan clone and Clone 828, marrying the old and the new. Swan is considered one of the heritage clones. Like Martini, it predates all the younger Dijon clones that were developed in the 1980s to accelerate ripeness in cool, maritime-influenced climates. One of these, Clone 828, is known for dark, intense clusters that deliver powerful tannin.
“It’s an incredibly cold site,” says Benedetti. “Our last fruit to ripen, it gets more physiological ripeness than our other sites, and will have more lignification (wood) in the stems. The wine is inky, brooding and intense: the skins grow thicker up there.” He hopes to plant some Chardonnay at this vineyard eventually.
Sante Arcangeli has a tiny tasting room in Pescadero next to Duarte’s Tavern.
Right from their debut on the world wine stage, Rhys Pinots created huge buzz and impressed the media with their weightless grace, otherworldly balance and low alcohols, many in the 12 percent range. Josh Reynolds of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar awarded the 2008 Rhys Pinots the top scores of the vintage, as did esteemed Pinot Noir critic Allen Meadows of Burghound, who gave Rhys’s 2008 vintage the highest score ever awarded to an American Pinot Noir (95). Similarly, well-known wine critic Antonio Galloni has always been a fan, repeatedly calling Rhys among the finest wineries in the United States.
A ‘Goldilocks’ zone where soil is just thin enough to prevent too much vigor yet deep enough to sustain vines…
But Rhys is not just a producer of stellar wines with a reputation for balance and poise: it’s a collection of breathtaking vineyards strung along Skyline Boulevard like a giant cosmic choker made for an Amazon goddess. And it’s precisely those vineyards that are the keys to the kingdom of Rhys, a Celtic name common in owner Kevin Harvey’s family.
The winery itself is deep in the hillside, part of a 40,000-square-foot cave that took almost seven years to carve out of rock.
Winemaker Jeff Brinkman says that Harvey, an engineer, carefully studied the geology of the world’s best winegrowing regions and determined there was a “Goldilocks zone” where the soil, ideally sand and limestone or weathered clay, is just thin enough to prevent too much vigor yet deep enough to sustain vines. It is this geology that defines the area where the finest houses in Burgundy are found.
Harvey says his philosophy is “to make wines that have structure and depth but minimal weight, which is why we’re working with the least fertile sites we can plant, with minimal topsoil and steep grades.”
We visited three of their five vineyards in the Skyline area to gauge their unique pulses and personas.
The soils of the Skyline Vineyard, which Rhys calls the “home ranch,” can barely be called soils at all: they are pretty much rock, and the vines are spindly, like underfed waifs. The hills are so steep the vines must be tended by hand. This is a labor of insane love.
The Alpine Vineyard, near the top of Alpine Road, hugs the southwest facing hills like a shawl of possibility. Everywhere wildflowers bloom, clover glistens red and birds flit among the surrounding trees. There is a sense of serenity here that is borne of the nearby sea, glowering under cloud.
At Horseshoe vineyard, down a fir-lined road off Alpine Road between the Alpine Vineyard and the summit, the soil is light and porous, and there are signs of frostbite. A robust cover crop of crimson clover and rye are energetic cheerleaders, waving on the naysayer fog layer, trying to impart their life-giving nutrients to the vines. There’s an edgy energy at work here.
Rhys wines are inaccessible unless you are on their mailing list: www.rhysvineyards.com