Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets

It sounds like the beginnings of a joke: how do you hook a wine writer? The answer, it turns out, at least in my case, involves offering to put on the most comprehensive tasting of Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet ever held. When the Santa Cruz Mountains Winery Association made the offer, I suspect they knew I would have a hard time refusing.

Just in case it was a trap, I brought my friend Elaine with me (you can read her writeup of the event here).

As it turns out, the event was a trap, and a cleverly designed one at that. An offer designed to be irresistible to yours truly. But it was one I was happy to have sprung on me. There’s nothing quite like the opportunity to sit down and comprehensively contemplate a wine region and its products.

Indeed, such opportunities are rare, if only because so many wine regions are far too large to reasonably taste through even over the course of several days, and even if you did focus on a single grape variety.

But the Santa Cruz Mountains remain something of a frontier in California winemaking, a place to which people can still retreat if they want to get away from it all, and perhaps make some wine while they do it.

The Santa Cruz Mountains can claim a history of winemaking as old as nearly anywhere else in Northern California. The first grapes to be grown in the region were almost certainly those cultivated by the mission who lent its name to the town and the mountains. The first commercial vines were planted in the early 1850s, about the same time that vines were going in all over Northern California.

For Santa Cruz, the grapes, along with other fruits and nuts were easy ways to fill the open space left after the logging companies came through the area, which was a major source of timber for Gold-Rush-era San Francisco.

According to writer Ross Eric Gibson, the Santa Cruz area was home to 16 different wineries by 1870, enough to form a winery association. Winemaker and entrepreneur Paul Masson truly put the Santa Cruz region on the map when he moved into a winery facility above Saratoga now known as The Mountain Winery.

Following the repeal of prohibition, winemaking became more serious, with wineries such as Martin Ray, Mount Eden, and Ridge Vineyards gaining national and even international attention for their wines.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area) was approved in 1981 and was unique in several respects. Though it seemingly was placed smack dab in the middle of both the San Francisco Bay AVA and the boundaries of the huge Central Coast AVA, Ridge winemaker Paul Draper never fails to point out, given the chance, that it is actually a separate AVA and is technically not contained within those neighboring AVAs (which were established later). While it is easy to see this as a technicality, the nature of the AVA’s definition may provide some indication of why Draper presses this point. The Santa Cruz AVA was one of the first in the United States to be defined not strictly by geology, watersheds, or county lines, but by elevation, marking it as decidedly different than its neighboring regions.

Today this mountainous region is home to more than 70 wineries and many more winegrowers who make a surprising array of wines, ranging from some of the coldest climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California, to robust Zinfandels, Syrahs, and yes, Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been planted in the region for more than 100 years.

Trying to characterize the climate of the Santa Cruz Mountains region as a whole proves immediately problematic given its mountainous nature, it’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and its significant spread from north to south. Elevation and exposure play critical roles in determining the microclimate of a given vineyard site. A vineyard on the east side of the mountains with southern exposure, for instance may be able to easily ripen Bordeaux grape varieties, while a few miles away on the other side of the ridge, a western-facing vineyard may be hit with the brunt of Pacific fog and struggle to ripen even the most cold-tolerant varieties.

The wineries that populate this landscape seem to mirror its variegated topography, from Ridge Vineyards, arguably one of the nation’s finest producers, to garage-scale operations. Quite interestingly, some of the oldest producers in the region have long remained at their relatively tiny size, seemingly sustained by a combination of their proprietors’ force of will and a loyal following of local customers.

This variance may have much to do with the variability in the quality of the region’s wines. As my notes below demonstrate, the gap between the best and worst appears significant. This is not necessarily surprising, as many of the smaller estates in the region are little more than hobbyist vintners turned “semi-pro.” Some have not had formal training in winemaking, and some don’t make enough wine to face any problems selling it on a competitive basis.

Having said that, I must admit some dismay when comparing the asking prices for some of these wines and their level of quality. Thanks to the boom of Silicon Valley, and the proximity of very wealthy suburbs such as Los Gatos, Portola Valley, Woodside, and Saratoga, the region has seen its share of wealthy executives who move in and think it might be fun to make some wine off their properties.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, and heaven knows there are some fantastic wines made in Napa that are the product of just these kinds of situations, but their quality tempers any sense of hubris behind them. Not so for some of the producers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at least when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon.

So what about Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon? Ridge’s Montebello bottling long ago put to rest any questions about that grape’s potential in the region, especially when it triumphed in the re-match of the Paris Tasting 30 years after the original 1976 event.

So it’s quite clear, then, that Cabernet Sauvignon can reach extraordinary heights in the region, and there are a few producers who have been exploring those upper reaches along with Ridge. But for now, these remain a precious few.

I’m not in a position to provide advice to winemakers, but I can stand by an assessment that there’s a lot of room for improvement in these wines, especially in the use of new oak. I’d level the same criticism at many Napa and Sonoma producers as well, of course. Ripeness is another area that needs, well, at least some exploration. The amazing variations in geography described above notwithstanding, the region seems capable of generating fantastic fruit at quite reasonable levels of ripeness, so it can be quite painful to encounter wines that are so heavily raisined and pruney.

But when things go right, they really can sing. The best wines below share a wonderful brightness and earthy complexion. I’m quite wary of any person or organization who likes to suggest that an entire region shares a common flavor. I’ve been to enough tastings organized to supposedly demonstrate the common flavor profile of a region to believe such efforts can only yield the grossest generalizations. So you won’t find me making specific pronouncements about what the Santa Cruz Mountains taste like even when viewed through the narrow lens of Cabernet Sauvignon. There are too many variables at play, from the micro-climates and altitudes of individual vineyard sites, to the clonal material of the vines, to the hand of the winemaker.

What I can say, however, is that when the wines are good, they are really good. From the older vintages in the 80s to some of the newest wines to bear the name of the AVA, Cabernet Sauvignons from the Santa Cruz Mountains are distinctive and delicious. The region may still be a bit of a frontier, but it is a frontier well worth exploring, especially for anyone looking to discover a hidden gem or two.

The tasting notes below were made, non-blind, on a single day a few weeks ago. In some cases, second bottles of the wine were tasted when wines showed obvious faults or spoilage. The prices indicated were provided by the wineries.

Enjoy.

Woodside Vineyards

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The oldest winery in San Mateo County, Woodside Vineyards traces its roots back to pioneer E.H. Rixford, who planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Woodside in 1884 and managed to win some awards for it before Prohibition had its way with most of California’s wineries, Rixford’s La Questa winery being no exception. 45 years later, in 1960, Bob Mullen began making wine from those same vines. Woodside Vineyards has remained a boutique winery ever since, though Mullen sold a controlling interest to a couple of local investors and car enthusiasts in 2010, who have moved the winery to Meno Park where visitors can taste wine alongside exotic sports cars. The winery produces a number of bottlings, from an off-dry sparkling wine that persists in using the word Champagne on the label, to Pinot Noir, to Cabernet Sauvignon, around 3000 cases in total. The wines are made by winemaker Brian Caselden.

2007 Woodside Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and oak and dried cherries. In the mouth, flavors of oak suffuse dried cherries and graphite and forest floor. The tannins are slightly drying but fine grained. Good acidity. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2008 Woodside Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of high-toned cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, somewhat bitter flavors of cassis and black cherry mix with the flavor of alcohol and oak, surprisingly given the low 13.3% alcohol. Angular acidity and fine grained tannins. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $40.

2009 Woodside Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark ruby in color with a surprisingly brown tinge given its relative youth, this wine smells of raisins and prunes and cocoa powder. In the mouth, thick, powdery tannins coat the tongue while flavors of prunes, raisins, and dried cherries seem a bit tired on the palate. Not much of a finish. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $40. click to buy.

Kathryn Kennedy

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Kathryn Kennedy, shown above tending her vineyard in 1974, fell in love with wine the way that many do: tasting a remarkable bottle and then seeing first hand the soil that gave that wine life. She moved to Saratoga in 1949 with her young family, and decided to plant a vineyard in 1973. She attended classes at U.C. Davis long enough to learn what she needed to plant her vineyards, which she did with the help of friends and family. After selling grapes to neighboring Mount Eden vineyards for a couple of years, she established her own brand in 1979, as one of the first women whose name would grace a wine bottle in the United States. The Kathryn Kennedy estate has been producing Cabernet Sauvignon ever since in small quantities, and the estate vineyards have been Certified Organic since 2007. Winemaker Marty Mathis (Kennedy’s son) has been making the wine since 1981, including a small production sparkling wine that is quite good, if you ever run across a bottle.

2008 Kathryn Kennedy “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of ripe and dried black cherries and a hint of alcohol. In the mouth, silky, high-toned flavors of cherry, chocolate, and oak have a faint minty quality to them along with flavors of oak. Good acidity and brightness, with faint, grippy tannins that hang back until the wine has finished its flavors. While the wine has no heat on the finish, it leaves an overall impression of alcohol on the palate. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $185.

2009 Kathryn Kennedy “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry and oak. In the mouth flavors of black cherry and cassis are juicy with excellent acidity. The oak is quite present, but pretty well integrated, and with time will likely be a seamless component to the wine. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2010 Kathryn Kennedy “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and wet earth. In the mouth, beautifully dark black cherry and wet earth flavors have a gorgeous stony minerality to them and very little trace of oak. Lithe but powerful tannins wrap their way around and through the fruit. Excellent acidity and fantastic length that includes a citrusy sour cherry kick after 20 or 30 seconds. When asked why the price for this wine jumped from its normal $125 to $320 a bottle, winemaker Marty Mathis said, “Because it’s the best wine of my life! That’s just one man’s opinion, of course.” I haven’t tasted the wines consistently enough over time to pass that kind of judgement, but this is a damn good wine. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $320.

2011 Kathryn Kennedy “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, raisins, and dried flowers. In the mouth juicy and bright black cherry and chocolate covered raisins are clutched by a pasty fist of thick, but fine grained tannins. Excellent acidity and length. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $185.

Cooper-Garrod Vineyards

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The Garrod Family 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. With the help of local wine personality Martin Ray, 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 Cooper-Garrod winery that they still run today. The winery produces a number of different wines off their 28 acres of vineyards, with total production running to about 3000 cases.

2006 Cooper-Garrrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in the glass headed towards ruby, this wine smells of cedar and dried cherries. In the mouth, quite pretty cedar, leather, and cherry flavors have a faint minty tone to them and a wonderfully sweet aromatic character that lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity and length with fine grained tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35.

2007 Cooper-Garrrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mint and chocolate and black cherry fruit. In the mouth flavors of black cherry and chocolate have a hint of menthol to them as powdery but muscular tannins coat the mouth. Burly but not overwhelming. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35.

2008 Cooper-Garrrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries and prunes. In the mouth, dried cherries and black cherries mix with leather and fine grained tannins. Good acidity but the fruit is quite dried. Notes of carob and leather linger in the finish. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $39.

2009 Cooper-Garrrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of tempera paint, black cherries, and a hint of mint. In the mouth, lean flavors of black cherry mix with leather under a fleecy blanket of tannins. Minty notes accompany the fruit through the finish. Good acidity. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45.

2010 Cooper-Garrrod Vineyards “George’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of stony black cherry and cassis with a hint of menthol. In the mouth the wine is wound quite tightly on a spool of fine grained tannins. Good acidity and length, but presenting a stony darkness at the moment that is slightly impenetrable. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45.

Ridge Vineyards

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A select few wineries in California need little introduction to most wine lovers around the world, and Ridge Vineyards is certainly one of those. Founded in 1962 by three partners from the Stanford Research Institute, the winery came into its own under the winemaking prowess of Paul Draper, whose third vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from the storied Montebello vineyard was selected by Stephen Spurrier to include in the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. The heart of the winery continues to be the “middle vineyard” of the Montebello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon plot planted by pioneer William Short in 1940, four years after the repeal of Prohibition. Ridge has become synonymous with Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, for good reason, as its Montebello bottling remains one of the finest Bordeaux blends made in the country. Draper is still in charge, though day-to-day winemaking is done by Eric Baugher who oversees a large portfolio of wines.

1985 Ridge Vineyards “Montebello” Red Blend
Medium blood red in the glass with a hint of brown cast, this wine smells of cedar and forest floor with notes of raspberry and dried cherry. In the mouth, smooth dried cherry forest floor and very stony mineral quality that is gorgeous. Long and beautiful. Score: between 9 and 9.5. click to buy.

2005 Ridge Vineyards “Montebello” Red Blend
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, a hint of coconut, and wet earth. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy black cherry fruit has a plush velvety texture thanks to beautiful tannins that wrap around the dark core of fruit tinged with wet earth. The whisky barrel note of American oak lingers through the finish with earth and juniper berries. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.

2006 Ridge Vineyards “Montebello” Red Blend
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis and the faint hint of pine boughs. In the mouth, gorgeously plush flavors of black cherry, juniper, dried flowers, and wet earth meld seamlessly with extremely fine grained tannins. Fantastic acidity and great balance. A blend of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $275. click to buy.

2007 Ridge Vineyards “Montebello” Red Blend
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherries and a tiny hint of barnyard layered over wet earth. In the mouth. Juicy flavors of black cherry and cassis have a nice sour quality thanks to excellent acidity. Peanut-butter-thick tannins wrap around the core of the wine, lingering with a wet wood quality through the finish. A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $200. click to buy.

FERNWOOD CELLARS

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Established on the site of an old metaphysical retreat popular in the 1800’s (and the site of one of California’s first outdoor swimming pools), Fernwood Cellars was established in 1999 by winemaker Matt Oetinger, the 5th generation of family owners for the property. Farming the grapes planted on the estate by his mother in 1991, Oetinger eventually transitioned to managing the estate full time after stint in vineyard management at Clos la Chance winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The estate produces a number of wines from estate-grown fruit including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Oetinger’s father also has long owned the Hummingbird Hill vineyard in El Dorado County, and consequently Fernwood also offers some wines from that region as well.

2008 Fernwood Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Medium to dark garnet in color but making the transition to ruby, this wine smells of roasted plums, prunes, and chocolate covered raisins. In the mouth, the wine has a faint sweetness to it, with cedar, plum, and chocolate covered raisin flavors that are quite tasty. Obviously ripe, with leathery tannins, the wine nonetheless is quite pleasurable. A faint alcoholic heat lingers in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40.

2009 Fernwood Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet wood, barnyard, and black cherry. In the mouth, thick putty-like black tannins wrap around flavors of graphite, barnyard, cassis, and black cherry. Heavily extracted and rich, with the Brett doing it no favors. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2010 Fernwood Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit and a slight plasticky aroma. In the mouth rich, ripe cherry fruit has an alcoholic quality to it, while aggressive, thick tannins claw at the edges of the mouth. Good acidity keeps the wine bright, but the fruit and tannins are blocky and disjointed. 14.6% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $40.

2011 Fernwood Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of quite candied, jammy black cherry aromas. In the mouth, high-toned flavors of black cherry and cedar are wrapped in a thick, leathery blanket of tannins. Good acidity, but somewhat angular. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $45.

McCarthy Family Vineyards

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The McCarthy family was an early landowner in the Silicon Valley, and by early, I mean early 19th Century. The family’s fortunes have been tied to Bay Area real estate ever since. In 2005, after a thirty-year career in real estate, Joe McCarthy established McCarthy Family Vineyards, which dry-farms 6 acres of organic vineyards above Los Gatos, and makes a single Cabernet Sauvignon from those grapes.

2008 McCarthy Family Vineyards “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of high-toned cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, bright black cherry and cassis flavors have a rubbing-alcohol quality to them and an angular sharpness that doesn’t smooth out through the finish, though it does sweeten a bit. Somewhat disjointed. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $59.

2009 McCarthy Family Vineyards “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stewed fruit with a hint of funk. In the mouth very ripe flavors of black cherry and raisins have a somewhat simple complexion, with faint tannins. The acidity has a grainy quality to it. Disjointed.14.6% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $59.

2010 McCarthy Family Vineyards “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of high-toned black cherry. In the mouth the fruit flavors seem compressed and narrow, with high toned notes of cherry and cedar. Earthy notes linger in the finish. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $59.

Burrell School Vineyards

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Named after the one-room schoolhouse that still stands on the property Burrell School Vineyards was founded in 1973 by Anne and David Moulton, who continues to make the wines today. While the estate began with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it has expanded into the Bordeaux varieties over time and now makes several in addition to its Burgundian varieties. All wines are unfined and unfiltered

2007 Burrell School Vineyards “Luchesi Vineyard – Dean’s List” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, chocolate, and raisins. In the mouth juicy black cherry and dark chocolate flavors are dusted with fine grained tannins. There’s a faint aromatic sweetness to the finish which adds some very nice charm to the wine. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9 . Cost: $44. click to buy.

2008 Burrell School Vineyards “Luchesi Vineyard – Dean’s List” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, herbs, and a hint of jalapeño chilies. In the mouth, dried black cherry and cherry flavors mix with cola nut, and cocoa powder under a gauze of powdery tannins that linger in the mouth along with a cedar and green herb note in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $44. click to buy.

2009 Burrell School Vineyards “Luchesi Vineyard – Dean’s List” Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried cherries, forest floor, and a bit of rubbing alcohol. In the mouth, powdery tannins wrap around flavors of black cherry, plum, and wet earth. There’s just a touch of aromatic sweetness to the finish. At its current state of evolution the wine is just slightly gangly, as if it hasn’t grown into its own skin. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $44.

2010 Burrell School Vineyards “Luchesi Vineyard – Dean’s List” Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of canned green chilies, jalapeños and a dusty road. In the mouth fine grained tannins wrap around a core of green bell pepper, green chilies, and some red fruit mixed with a deep earthy forest floor quality that is quite compelling the longer it lingers in the finish. By all accounts this very cool vintage is making itself known in the strength of this wine’s greenness which may well be too much for most palates. Otherwise, quite well balanced. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $44.

Mount Eden Vineyards