Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Santa Cruz


I will revisit the Santa Cruz appellation this summer, but meanwhile some background from my piece in Saveur:

One of California's best and most beautiful wine regions,
the Santa Cruz Mountains, also happens to be one of its
least known. That's perhaps because it's horizontally
challenged, a kind of oenophile's Bhutan, where wine pilgrims
get hopelessly lost amid the winding roads and vineyard
managers worry almost as much about shifting tectonic
plates as they do about the state of their vines. There exists little level land for planting in the Santa Cruz
Mountains (SCM) appellation, where I went in search of the
defining character of the terroir. Here, winemakers must
consider countless variations of slope, exposure, and altitude.

Established in 1981, the appellation extends into parts of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties but comprises only about 1,600 acres of vineyards; those located here are required to be at least 400 feet above sea level on the western side of the mountains and 800 feet above on the east. At any elevation, the soils in the SCM are surprisingly diverse, made up of sand, clay, and other elements. Add to these factors widely fluctuating temperatures and sunlight that ranges from intense to spotty. These conditions are ideal for some grapes; the question is which ones. Even as winemakers experiment, they're producing good, varietally diffuse wines, some of which can be counted among California's best.

Located just south of San Francisco, the mountains overlook the Bay on the east and, on the west, the cold Pacific Ocean, frequently shrouded in shifting mists like an image from a Japanese block print. The art of winemaking has been practiced here since the 1850s, but until recently there were only a few dozen wineries; now there are more than 60. Santa Cruz has long been known for a certain countercultural verve, which I remembered from my first visit here, 20 years ago, and some of that spirit lingers despite today's sophisticated winemaking and marketing techniques.
"Is this wine going to make the world a better place?" asked Randall Grahm, founder of the famed Bonny Doon Vineyard, reflecting remnants of Aquarian idealism. Winemaker David Bruce, one of the largest producers in the SCM, was a true "garagiste" before the term was coined. Bruce was known for his experimental, assertive pinot noirs. I found him in his namesake winery and listened to him explain why he chose the SCM in the first place: "Here the wines talk to each other."

If that's true, the region is a vinicultural Babel going back to the time of Martin Ray, California's legendary mid-20th-century winemaker. The temperamental Ray learned the rudiments of wine
from another larger-than-life personality, the Frenchman Paul Masson (an early advocate of what later became the SCM), and Ray eventually acquired his own vineyards in the Santa Cruz. He argued constantly over his contention that local producers should make only 100 percent varietal wines, and he charged what were, at the time, enormous sums for his vintages. From his notorious dinner parties, held in his concrete aerie above the Bay, he was known to expel guests who expressed opinions about wine with which he didn't agree. Embroiled in several years' worth of battles with investors, Ray lost the property in 1972, with Mount Eden Vineyards to be
overseen by Eleanor and Jeffrey Patterson.

Most mornings the
Pattersons enjoyed a stunning view from Ray's old porch. Some mornings, though, a sea of fog below appears to swallow the San Francisco peninsula whole. Later in the day, when the fog rises, temperatures up here plummet while those on the formerly dank valley floor will climb, a reversal that confuses visitors but suits the grapes just fine. Struggling on slopes of quickly draining Franciscan shale, the berries tend to be small but intensely flavorful. Jeffrey also supervised the production of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, but his estate chardonnay is his best-known wine, although fewer than 4,000 cases were made back in 2001. It was a balanced wine built to last without exhibiting a Californicated oakiness, and it presented a stunning example of what the SCM is capable of.

Another early disciple of the hands-on, Burgundian style of winemaking, Ken Burnap, bought land on the western side of the SCM in the '70s and established Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard
after traveling California in search of the perfect place for growing the temperamental pinot noir grape. If pinot noir was a person, Burnap once told an interviewer, "it would be committed,"
meaning institutionalized. Working with Jeff Emery, a geologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Burnap dry-farmed and punched down the fermentation cap by hand. Emery took over from Burnap in 2004 and drew from a vineyard that's just two miles away from the original.

If any qualities are common to Santa Cruz pinots, it's deep color and full body; the challenge is to bring out the grape's subtleties. One winemaker who has worked with pinot for years, Michael Martella, produces wine under his own label; he was also the winemaker for the Thomas Fogarty Winery, established in 1981. Martella dipped into the traditions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the
Rhone Valley, producing syrah and cabernet blends. Martella considers the SCM appellation unique. "Part of it is the soils and cooler climate," he said, but it's also the community.

More to come on Santa Cruz.

conawayjim@gmail.com

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