Friday, October 23, 2009

My Visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains Appelation

Recently on a visit to Northern California for my real job, I had the opportunity to visit some wineries and tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation. This area is unbelievably diverse in its microclimates. At one point in my drive to my first stop, the temperature changed 8 degrees over the course of 3 miles. As a result of the many diverse microclimates, there is a pretty wide variety of grapes being grown here, although the predominant varietals that winemakers are having success with seem to be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The appellation itself covers over 350,000 acres and the vineyards range in elevation from 400 to 800 feet. Evenings tend to be foggy and cool with the sun burning off the fog every morning followed by higher temperatures. This allows the grapes to ripen effectively but slowly and results in a rather long growing season with a nice long hang time for the fruit. I should note that although all the wineries and tasting rooms I visited were in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not all of the fruit for every wine I tasted was from the appellation.

My first stop of the day was the only winery I was previously familiar with, which was Bonny Doon Vineyard. They have a very nice tasting room and restaurant right in the heart of Santa Cruz. Bonny Doon can best be described as a not so serious winery that makes some seriously good wines. Their leader, Randall Graham, a UC Davis grad, started Bonny Doon with the hope of making great Pinot Noir, but has since switched his focus to other grapes, most notably Rhone varietals. I tried a number of wines here including a Cinsault and an Albarino, which are pretty unusual for California, but the standouts here were definitely the Rhone style blends. The 2007 Le Cigare Blanc was a blend of 64% Rousanne and 36% Grenache Blanc. Pale in color, it had aromas of pear and melon with decent acidity, and it was a very good, refreshing wine. The 2004 Le Cigare Volant was a wonderful Southern Rhone style red with a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane, and Cinsault. Aromas of cherry, sour cherry, licorice, and spice worked together to create a wonderful and complex bouquet. In your mouth you got more of the same flavors with an incredibly long finish. This was some very good stuff for only $30 a bottle!

My second stop of the day was Storrs Winery. Here, owners and winemakers Pamela and Steve Storrs are crafting a number of different wines in relatively small lots. Both Pamela and Steve are UC Davis grads with a wealth of knowledge, and Pamela focuses on the winemaking while Steve focuses on the vineyards. This sounds like a perfect marriage to me. Their annual production is about 10,000 cases, and all their vineyards are sustainably farmed. They are big believers that wine is made in the vineyard and that the winemaker just has to gently guide what nature and good farming provides. They are also big believers in the Santa Cruz Mountains as a great place to make Burgundian style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

During my visit I tasted a number of different wines poured by the very friendly and knowledgeable CJ in the tasting room, but it was definitely the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that stood out here. Their 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay was a very good example of the potential this area has for Chardonnay. Pale straw in color, it was aged in French oak for 10 months. The nose was crisp with apple and pineapple and some well done, subtle oak that did not overwhelm the fruit. On the palate you had a nice mouthfeel with great acidity and minerality. The long finish displayed flavors of apple and pear with a hint of citrus. This was a very well done Chardonnay.

The other standout at Storrs was the 2006 Le Manoir Pinot Noir. Medium red in color, it had a great bouquet of cherry and strawberry fruit. On your palate you got much of the same great fruit flavors which were really nicely balanced by a very pleasant acidity. A lengthy finish followed to complete the experience with this very elegant and delicious wine.

My final stop in the day was a little further north at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, where I was greeted by the outstanding hospitality and knowledge of Jeanne in the tasting room. All wineries have a story, but this one has a pretty interesting one. Testarossa is essentially a hobby gone out of control for owners Rob and Diana Jensen who started making wine in their home. They slowly outgrew that and a number of other facilities before finally stumbling across the old Jesuit Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos that is one of the oldest wineries in the country and one of very few that made wine right through Prohibition. They now lease that facility from the Jesuits and have their winery and tasting room located there. As a graduate of a Jesuit high school, this place had some added meaning for me. .

The top wines I tasted at Testarossa were both Pinot Noirs. The 2007 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir was a beautiful light red color in your glass. The nose brought cherry and strawberry fruit with some great spice. On your palate the wine was fruit forward but it had some spice and nice acidity to balance things out. This wine belongs on the Thanksgiving table! The 2007 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir which has not yet been released was also outstanding. It had an absolutely wonderful bouquet that was bursting with cherry and strawberry fruit. In your mouth it had a very nice, elegant structure with cherry, strawberry, and some sour cherry fruit and a very subtle element of spice. Although I think it will need a couple years to fully develop, this has the potential to be an outstanding Pinot.

Well that’s about it for my brief visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Not knowing much about the area or its wineries heading into my visit, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines that I found.

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