One of the greatest joys in my life remains the feeling I get when stumbling upon a small winery whose name rings no bells, but who produces excellent wines. I don’t know why this is, exactly, but it has replaced the childish joy I used to experience as a young boy when finding a small crystal on a hike, or setting a new personal record for stone skipping on a pond.
Little wineries with high quality wines are like buried treasure, I guess, but these days my goal is not to hoard but to share as widely as possible.
Which brings me to my latest find: Cooper-Garrod Vineyards, a 3,000 case production winery nestled in the hills above Saratoga, CA. I discovered this winery as I have several others — at a trade tasting, moving from one table to the next. I make a point to taste wineries that I have never heard of at such events, especially when the tasting is a manageable size.
So there I was at a Santa Cruz Mountains Wineries Association tasting, standing in front of a table with a lineup of bottles with rather non-descript labels, holding out my glass for a pour. About halfway through the lineup of bottles I started to realize that these wines were all well above average in quality, some were truly excellent, and all of them had a personality that spoke of meticulous winemaking with very little fancy technique. By the time I finished all the wines, I was pretty excited.
Cooper-Garrod Vineyards represents the agricultural legacy of the Garrod Family, who purchased a modest 120 acres of land in 1893 that looked down on the spreading orchards that covered much of what is today known as Silicon Valley. The land they purchased was itself orchard land, and the family settled down to making a living growing apricots and prunes like many of the other farmers in the area.
Exactly 100 years later, the granddaughter of those early farmers, Louise Garrod, along with her husband, George Cooper, established a commercial winery on the property. The farm had been planted with grapevines since 1973 when George, a WWII fighter pilot and NASA test pilot retired and decided to keep himself busy making a little wine for the family. Cooper was lucky enough to befriend legendary winemaker Martin Ray, who was one of the pioneers of single varietal winemaking in California, and helped establish the Santa Cruz Mountains as a serious winemaking region in the 1930’s and 40’s. With Ray’s help, Cooper became more than competent as a winemaker over the next twenty years, and in 1993, with the help of his eldest son, Bill Cooper, and his nephew Jan Garrod, the family established the small winery that they still run today.
The family estate is planted with 28 hillside acres of completely dry-farmed grapes, a little less than half of which are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with the rest split somewhat evenly between Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Syrah with a tiny bit of Viognier and Merlot thrown in. As with many such family operations, the grapes are all picked by hand before being meticulously sorted, destemmed and crushed. They are fermented in small lots, often with “native” yeasts and the red wines are laboriously punched down by hand (a process in which the floating fruit and skins are pushed down into the fermenting juice to circulate air and extract color from the skins) at least four times daily. I also believe most are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
The winery produces several wines, including a Chardonnay, a Syrah, and four Cabernet and Cabernet Blends, which they release “when they’re ready.” Perhaps influenced by Martin Ray, who was a proponent of extended aging, George and Bill Cooper tend to let their wines sit a bit longer both in Oak and in bottle before release.
Cooper-Garrod’s wines are generally made in what most would consider an Old World style. They are restrained rather than brash, and some might even be mistaken for French Bordeaux if tasted blind. Anyone interested in honest wines that are good values and testaments to the quality of modern winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains should most certainly seek them out.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
Click the wine name for purchase sources
2005 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Randall Grahm Clone” Viognier, Santa Cruz Mountains
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine is a glass full of aromas of peaches and cream drizzled with honey. The wine sits weighty and oily on the tongue as is typical for this grape, but escapes the common pitfall of flabbiness with excellent acidity to balance the rich flavors of apricots, dried peaches, and buttercream that dominate the wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $20
2004 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Gravel Ridge Vineyard” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of dried tropical fruits and sultanas, with a slightly oxidized quality that made me wonder if this might be a slightly off bottle. In the mouth it tasted pleasantly of old parchment, spiced baked apples, and wheat. After a few sips I decided that this was probably just the style of the wine, which was somewhat appealing to me, but might not appeal to everyone. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $14
2002 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Finley Vineyard” Merlot, Santa Cruz Mountains
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of red licorice and anise. In the mouth it is spry, with excellent acidity that counterpoints a rich earthiness of dirt and leather flavors wrapped in a cloak of plum, cassis, and a hint of blackberry. The wine finishes long and beautifully on the palate. Score: around 9. Cost: $24
2002 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Finley Vineyard” Syrah, Santa Cruz Mountains
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cassis and black pepper aromas. In the mouth it is juicy with rich, but slightly tart blackberry, mulberry, and plum flavors which mix with a hint of sawdust. Zingy acidity contributes to the impression of tartness, and very light tannins sneak through the wine and linger. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24
2002 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Valley Vineyard” Cabernet, Santa Cruz Mountains
A bright, medium ruby color in the glass, this wine has a very expressive nose of candied fruit, bacon, and saddle leather. In the mouth it is incredibly smooth, with a tautness to the core of cherry fruit dusted in fine, powdery tannins. Made in a medium-bodied, claret style, the wine gives an impression of clarity, like an impeccably dressed gentleman who always says the most interesting things at parties. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28
2000 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet, Santa Cruz Mountains
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has an amazing nose of intense cedar , cherry and leather aromas that leapt out of the glass before my nose even got near it. This leaping sensation continues on the palate, as the wine dances with perfect balance and gorgeous acidity through flavors of cherry, espresso, and tobacco. Beautiful, lace-like tannins lift this medium-bodied wine into a lingering finish that has notes of tart plum and cedar forest. Yum. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35
2002 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “RV’s Fine Claret” Bordeaux Blend, Santa Cruz Mountains
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and tobacco. On the tongue, light tannins and excellent acids buoy flavors of cherry and tobacco which float with light steps into a pleasant finish. This wine resembles the Cabernet Sauvignons produced in California the 1970s more than it does most modern wines, and is all the better for it. Score: around 9. Cost: $32
2004 Cooper-Garrod Vineyards “Francville Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, Santa Cruz Mountains
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a typically floral nose of geranium flowers and candied cherry. In the mouth it is light on its feet, with pleasant, uncomplicated flavors of cherry that make it quite easy to drink, though lacking some of the complexity of its brethren. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23