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Hidden Gem: Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
By Rebecca Murphy
Sep 10, 2019
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A visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a step back in time to a more serene era in California wine country: no limos full of bachelorettes, wine trains or bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Vineyards and wineries, mostly family owned, are small compared to other wine regions.  In fact, many wineries in California have more vineyard acreage than the entire Santa Cruz Mountains AVA’s total.  The landscape is rugged and heavily forested.  The roads through the area are winding and treacherous.  While the next winery may only be a few miles away, it may take an hour to get there.  Cell phone service is unreliable, an annoying irony considering that you can see Silicon Valley from the higher elevations. 

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area), was recognized in 1981 and is among the first in established in the U.S.  The full size of the appellation is around 480,000 acres, with approximately 1500 acres of wine grapes and 60-plus wineries.  Its boundaries look like they were drawn by someone who had enjoyed too much of the local wine, but, in fact, they are defined by the fog line.  It starts near Woodside in the north and ends near Watsonville in the south.  Its highest elevation is around 2600 feet.   The western border faces the Pacific Ocean, and that’s the cooler side of the AVA where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive.  The inland eastern border is warmer, providing a hospitable environment for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Like many wine regions in California, grapes were first planted by Catholic missionaries in the early 1800s.  You may have heard the names of some of the early vintners like Charles LeFranc, founder of Almaden Vineyard and Wine Company, or Paul Masson, who brought cuttings from Burgundy to provide grapes for his The Paul Masson Champagne Company.  Masson befriended Martin Ray, who bought the Champagne Company from Masson and a few years later sold it to Seagram’s.  In 1943, Ray purchased a mountaintop property and planted vineyards for what is now Mount Eden Vineyards.  He was considered a maverick for making single variety wines labeled with the grape name at a time when wines were blended with names like Chablis, Claret or Burgundy.

In the 1960s he created a partnership of investors to develop more vineyards, but wound up losing the winery and vineyards to those investors in the 1970s.  After a few years of different winemakers, including Richard Graff of Chalone Winery and Merry Edwards.  A newcomer, Jeffrey Patterson, was hired as assistant winemaker in 1981.

Patterson discovered wine in the mid-1970s and fell in love.  At that time, he had no winemaking experience, so he went to U. C. Davis, where he studied wine production for two years.  In the summer of 1981, he was looking for a job.  He explained, “I landed here where they made the kind of wine I liked, with estate vineyards of notoriety, incredible history, and small scale, so I could be involved in all aspects of production.  It was everything I could ever want for a first job.”  After 15 months his boss left and the company board hired him and his wife, Ellie, to run the winery. 

Over the next decade, they replanted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards and Patterson developed his winemaking style.  As he said, “I learned what not to do.”  He focused on expressing the fruit, balance and ability to age. “The ability to age is fundamental.  If you charge a lot of money and they don’t age, that’s wrong.”

Late in 2007, Mount Eden acquired the Cinnabar estate and in 2008 they began producing wine under the Domaine Eden brand.  In that same year, the Pattersons, who had been gradually acquiring winery shares, became majority owners with their two children, Sophie and Reid.

Patterson describes Mount Eden’s Chardonnays as reticent in youth, so they spend two years in bottle at the winery before release.  The 2015 Chardonnay is tightly structured with citrus, ripe apple, vanilla aromas, intense lemon apple, pear fruit with a savory salinity and vibrant acidity that makes the wine sing.

I was intrigued by the savory spiciness of the Pinot Noirs from Domaine Eden and Mount Eden.  The 2015 Mount Eden had a beautiful nose with note of cumin to complement the elegant, linear structure with mouthwatering acidity finishing with lovely, fine tannins.

The founder of today’s Ridge Vineyards, Sea Perrone, bought 180 acres on Monte Bello ridge in 1885 and produced the first Monte Bello wine in 1892.  Ridge Vineyards was created by four scientists from the Stanford Research Institute in the early 1960s.  Paul Draper joined the winery in 1969 and was the guiding hand until he retired as CEO in 2016 and became Chairman.  His 1971 Monte Bello placed fifth in the original Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 and first in the 30th Anniversary tasting in 2006, a testament to the aging ability of Monte Bello.  

Draper decided to use American oak for the Monte Bello because he didn’t want to copy Bordeaux.  Monte Bello is a cool location; the Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t need more tannins from French oak.  I can also have some herbaceous character and American oak, when properly handled, has more wood sugars than French oak that serve to soften the tannins.  They do keep five or six French barrels in the barrel cellar to regularly compare the oak effects.  The Monte Bello usually has 92 to 95 percent American oak.

The winery practices what they call “pre-industrial winemaking,” eschewing additives and industrial processing.  They began moving to organic farming and as of July 2017, 315 acres of vines, including those outside the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, are certified organic.

They recently planted nine acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on land they acquired in a land swap with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.  Standing on one edge of the vineyard facing west, it is possible to view into the chasm of the San Andreas Fault and a beautiful terraced hillside that was an historic vineyard that was abandoned during Prohibition.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the region courtesy of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.  I met people who are dedicated to making wines that express the character of this unique area with its unusual combination of elevations and marine influence.  Many work their farms organically and have a non-interventionist approach to winemaking.  This is a cool climate expressed in a more subtle, linear structure than many have come to expect in California wines.  If you haven’t been there, I encourage you to go.  Visitors are welcome.  The association’s website, https://scmwa.com/, has great information about wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, lodging and wine trails.  The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a great place to visit.