The Stars of Santa Cruz

The Stars of Santa Cruz

These once hidden hills have arrived as one of California’s prized winemaking regions, though little land is left for grapes.

The Santa Cruz Mountains, just 50 miles to the south of San Francisco, has always been a mysterious place. Long the rumored abode of gangsters, trappers, and squatters, its wooded slopes have provided refuge to those whom for whatever reasons wanted to be left alone.

Up until the 20th century few roads traversed the 3,000-foot range, and even when the fogs lifted, the sun couldn’t penetrate the dense 2,000-year-old redwood forests. But it was the redwoods, ironically, that brought people to the area, by launching the mountains’ earliest industry, lumber. By 1880, large tracts of land were left barren by logging operations. In the wake of the loggers came fruit growers, including vintners.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the Santa Cruz Mountains achieved renown for wines made in the European style. Late 19th-century advertisements touted “claret, Burgundy, and white wine from the Coast Range of Mountains” in Santa Cruz. The earliest references I have found to specific varietals were 1883 mentions of Zinfandel, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc, in addition to something called, intriguingly, “Petite Pinot.”

That same year a Scottish physician named John A. Stewart, who incidentally was
the president of the Santa Cruz Viticultural Commission (such as it was), planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot at Scotts Valley. Something called “White Burgundy” was produced by 1890; it could have been Sémillon, Folle Blanche, Burger, Verdal or, less likely, Chardonnay. The earliest solid mention of Chardonnay isn’t until the 1930s; for Pinot Noir, the 1890s. But without a doubt, the first really famous wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains was Cabernet Sauvignon.

That was Emmett Rixford’s La Questa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, made in Woodside, now a wealthy bedroom community above Silicon Valley. By 1900, La Questa was the most expensive wine on California restaurant wine lists. It was produced for many years, although there was a lull during Prohibition. Gerald Asher, the writer and critic, was lucky enough to taste a half-bottle of the 1936 vintage when it was almost 50 years old; it was “among the best wines of the Cabernet Sauvignon genre that I have tasted,” he wrote.

Harry Waugh, the renowned English wine man, similarly called the 1938 “extraordinary” after tasting it in 1969. But Bob Mullen, who has farmed what is left of the old vineyard, a mere acre, for the last 40 years, tasted the ’37 and ’38 in the 1970s and says he found them “good, but not great.” Today he sells a La Questa Cabernet Sauvignon from his Woodside Vineyards tasting room for $60 a bottle.

The region’s next famous Cabernet came from the Montebello Vineyards winery, which was established in 1886. Its Miravalle clarets won many medals at competitions. Montebello/Miravalle received a name change, to Ridge Vineyards and Monte Bello, after the vineyard was sold, in 1959, to a group of research scientists including Dave Bennion, who ten years later hired the estimable Paul Draper to make the wines. Since then, Ridge and Draper have become synonymous with Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon probably shares the depth and richness of those early bottlings, although it undoubtedly is richer and more refined. It is a wine that defines Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet in terms of sheer mass, depth and longevity. But the appellation is a large one, encompassing 112,000 acres and extending 80 miles from northwest to southeast. In between, one encounters myriad microclimates.

Milan Maximovich, a former rocket scientist and home winemaker, founded his Thunder Mountain label in 1994

On the ridge
The easiest way to understand the region is in terms of a cooler Pacific-facing western part, which is often shrouded in fog, and a warmer San Francisco Bay-facing eastern part—the former Burgundian, the latter Bordeaux country. The Monte Bello Vineyard, which reaches an elevation of 2,600 feet, looks to the east-southeast, above the fogline, warmed all day by the sun. A case can be made that Monte Bello is California’s best, and certainly its most consistently great, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ridge’s story has become the stuff of California legend. It is isolated and hard to get to, which makes it romantic. By the 1960s Ridge was very well known to the connoisseurs who formed the nucleus of California’s wine community, and when Waugh, then a director of Château Latour, visited California in 1969, his hosts served him Ridge Cabernets from 1960 and 1964. He described the latter as “a robust and powerful wine which needs time to develop,” still an apt description of a young Monte Bello Cabernet.

Draper continues at the helm some 30 years later. Although Ridge was bought by a wealthy Japanese collector in 1987, Draper has been pretty much left alone to do his own thing. Someone once said that Draper, an iconoclast who majored in philosophy at Stanford and counts Buddhism and mythology among his interests, gets more pleasure from producing Zinfandel than from making great Cabernet, and it may be true. “Let me put it this way,” he says, “I came to Ridge because of Monte Bello [Cabernet] and once I arrived here I discovered Zinfandel.”

It was love at first sight. Draper compares and contrasts the two red wines: “I love Cabernet because of its history. It’s a classic grape that has produced great wine for a century and a half. But with Zin, you’re free. It’s more intense, less tannic, and a more sensuous wine.” But he leaves no doubt that he considers both wines his “children.”

Along with a few other wineries, Ridge helped put California Zinfandel on the map as a serious wine. The grape had long been planted in the state, but it had confounded critics because it was made in such a wide range of styles. In the early 1970s, Leon Adams, who founded the Wine Institute, wrote that the best “Zinfandel rosé” he ever had came from the David Bruce Winery, while the best “late-harvest Zinfandel” was from Ridge—both of them Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, although Ridge’s was from Lodi grapes.

This suggests the eagerness with which Ridge has always sought out the most interesting Zinfandel vineyards it could find across California. But except for a tiny plot of Zin in its Jimsomare Ranch vineyard—enough to produce only 100 cases annually, and sold only at the winery—Ridge grows no Zinfandel of its own in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Clos LaChance winemaker Jeff Ritchey and owner Bill Murphy have together raised the image of a winery that prior to a couple of years ago was little more than a backyard operation.

The peak of Pinot
If Cabernet and Ridge define one stream of Santa Cruz Mountains wine, the other is Pinot Noir, and with that grape one pioneering name stands out: Paul Masson, the Frenchman who co-founded Almaden but went off on his own, in the early 1890s, to make Champagne-style wines fermented in the bottle. “Paul Masson of San Jose was up yesterday to look over his property,” reported a local area newspaper in 1896.

That property was a vineyard in the cool Mount Eden area, and Masson’s Oeil de Perdrix blend of Pinot Noir and (possibly) Chardonnay was one of the first wines—sparkling or still—to proudly bear the Santa Cruz Mountains name on the label. In 1936, Masson sold the winery to Martin Ray, who began making still wines (now definitely including Chardonnay) so good that in 1940 a wine critic, Julian Street, called Ray’s 1936 Pinot Noir “the first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure.”

The next great development in Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir was the advent of Dr. David Bruce, a dermatologist who had worked for Martin Ray and then helped crush Monte Bello grapes for Ridge in 1961, before founding his own winery in 1965. Bruce, a Burgundian by heart, opted for Pinot Noir; his wines over the decades have been controversial, but recent vintages have been superb, among the most layered and nuanced in California.

The center of gravity for Pinot Noir shifted away from the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1980s, but the region continues to attract serious Burgundians, like Milan Maximovich, a former rocket scientist who worked on “black programs” so secret he still isn’t allowed to talk about them.

Maximovich has been a wine lover for decades, and a firm believer in the Burgundian concept of terroir. Yet unlike most Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers who came down solidly in favor of either Burgundy or Bordeaux, Maximovich decided to straddle the fence at his 4,500-case winery, Thunder Mountain, which he started after he retired from Lockheed in 1994. Currently he is making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the western side, and Cabernet Sauvignon from the eastern side of the ridge.

How does one explain such divided loyalties? Maximovich’s love of Pinot Noir was inspired by a glass of 1860—that’s right, 1860—Chambertin he tried in 1974: “It opened my eyes to Burgundy.” Before that, Maximovich had been a confirmed Bordeauxphile, and had fallen in love with—what else?—Ridge’s Monte Bello, in the early 1970s, when none other than Dave Bennion gave him a taste.

Maximovich had been an amateur winemaker since the late 1970s and knew that as he approached retirement, he wanted to get more serious about wine. Living and working in nearby Silicon Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains seemed like the logical place. Maximovich remembers his first view of the 2,000-foot-elevation property, in 1990, and how he came to name it. “A tremendous storm was brewing. We looked up at the surrounding redwoods, thousands of years old, and you could see that the tops of almost all of them had been blasted by lightning over the centuries. So I thought, ‘This has got to be Thunder Mountain’.”

Maximovich owns no vineyards, but instead contracts with local growers who have planted tiny microplot vineyards throughout the mountains. What he’s looking for, he says, is “the individuality of each of the little vineyards we deal with.” That individuality is dramatically illustrated in Thunder Mountain’s three single-vineyard Chardonnays from the appellation—Bald Mountain, Ciardella and Beauregard—and its two single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Ciardella and Veranda. It’s hard to imagine greater differences in similarly composed wines, especially when you consider that the vineyards are located close to each other and the winemaking techniques employed by Maximovich are identical.

Take, for example, barrel samples of Thunder Mountain’s two 1999 Pinot Noirs, which will be released next year. The Ciardella is very light in color, almost pale, with delicate, just-developing aromas of raspberry and black cherry. Yet there’s no mistaking its spicy complexities. The Veranda, by contrast, is as dark purple in color as a young Cabernet Sauvignon, and oozes tremendous aromas of plum, grilled meat, chocolate and violets. A wine of immense power and tannins, it’s a sure bet for a long life in the cellar.

The three 1999 Chardonnays, all tasted from barrel, also are dramatically different from each other. The Bald Mountain, from a 2,000-foot vineyard, has massive concentration, high acidity, and great complexity; Maximovich likens it to Puligny-Montrachet. The Ciardella offering, from 900-foot elevations at the southerly part of the appellation, is much more restrained, almost Chablis-like; it is earthier, and with what the French call goût de terroir, or a “taste of the earth.” The vineyard faces west-northwest, and it may be the coolest of the three. Beauregard is the most distinct of the trio, with overwhelming aromas of bosc pears and anise; it’s completely different from the other two.

Maximovich attributes these almost inscrutable differences to the jumbled terroirs in the mountains, not just variations in exposure to the sun and prevailing winds, but the extremely fractured geology. After all, the San Andreas Fault runs underneath the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of whose peaks, Loma Prieta, was the epicenter of the terrible 1989 earthquake.

Maximovich would never dream of blending his wines. “I want to emphasize those individual characteristics,” he insists. And his Burgundian philosophy prohibits the amalgamation approach. “It’s hard to put into words what makes a wine smack of terroir, but you know it when you encounter it. Instead of a generic quality, however good, the wine is utterly singular, even eccentric. You feel you could pick it out in a blind tasting among dozens of other wines. Mine are the kinds of wines you want to open up for your friends and say, ‘What do you think of this’?”

Murphy’s law
Larger in production than Thunder Mountain, but operating along similar philosophical lines, is Clos LaChance, which also contracts to buy most of its grapes. The winery began, as many other California wineries did, as a home winemaking outfit, but evolved into a commercial venture. This 15,000-case operation makes a wide range of different varietal wines sourced from different parts of the state, including Chardonnay from Napa Valley and Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills. But owner Bill Murphy’s heart is firmly anchored in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

It was back in 1987 that Murphy, who recently retired as director of Internet marketing for computer-giant Hewlett-Packard, decided to plant some Chardonnay grapes in the backyard of his Saratoga home. Saratoga is one of those preternaturally perfect little northern California towns, tucked between the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the flatlands of Silicon Valley, and Murphy thought its benign climate would grow good Chardonnay. It did; so good that it wasn’t long before people were offering him money for his small crop. “So we formed Clos LaChance as a company,” says Murphy. (In French, a clos is a small, walled-in area. LaChance is his wife, Brenda’s, maiden name.) The first commercially released wines were from the 1992 vintage.

Murphy concedes that things were less than spectacular during those first few years. “We were very small, and making wine as a kind of glorified hobby, with part-time folks and consultants. But then we made the decision to get serious.” That led, in 1997, to his hiring a young winemaker, Jeff Ritchey, a U.C. Davis graduate who was working in the lab at Gundlach-Bundschu in Sonoma County. “He was excellent technically, but he was also creative and innovative,” Murphy says.

Of all the tough times to come aboard, Ritchey joined the Murphys during the gigantic 1997 harvest, and he remembers the challenges of that record-breaking vintage. “We had so much wine, we didn’t have tank space or barrels to take it all in.” He would also be charged with helping to market the wine, organizing the business side of things, and improving quality. “It was a bit of a risk coming to Clos LaChance, because it was unknown at the time. But I thought there was a good chance we could make it work,” Ritchey says. Now, after three years, he says the hardest part of making wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains “is it’s so difficult to figure out. It’s vastly different from most other areas in terms of having so many little microclimates and spread-out sources [of grapes].”

Like Thunder Mountain, Clos LaChance owns no vineyards, except for that little backyard plot of Chardonnay. Instead, Murphy buys his grapes from microvineyards scattered throughout the mountains—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from cooler areas, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from warmer ones.

The two Santa Cruz Chardonnays, a regular bottling and a pricier reserve, are made from grapes from up to 15 different vineyards. The top-of-the-line Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is the vineyard-designated Erwin Vineyard, located close to Loma Prieta. The winery also bottles a blended Pinot that contains a substantial amount of Erwin Vineyard fruit. Beyond Burgundian wines, Clos LaChance also has received critical applause for its Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, grown at the warm southeasterly limits of the appellation, close to the “world capital of garlic,” Gilroy.

Murphy credits the excellence of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ terroir to a variety of influences but believes one of the most vital is the huge temperature swings, as much as 40 degrees during a typical 24-hour period in the growing season. “The grapes hang longer, and tend to be more flavorful, with higher acids, and more structure and backbone.”

As Clos LaChance evolves, its Burgundian focus will remain in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Murphy is now planting vineyards just outside the appellation, in a warmer area to the southeast (the probable appellation will be San Francisco Bay). Here he will grow his own Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Sémillon, and possibly other warmth-loving varietals. He plans to label these under the Clos LaChance estate-bottled Cordevalle brand; the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will continue to be purchased (except for Murphy’s backyard Chardonnay) and released under the Clos LaChance label. Production eventually will level off at 50,000 cases.

Murphy knows that depending on purchased grapes can be a risky long-term strategy, so he has formed a company that en- courages Santa Cruz Mountains homeowners to plant vineyards on their property; CK Vines, Murphy’s company, does all the physical work and maintenance in exchange for the owners selling the grapes to Clos LaChance. Murphy describes the people taking advantage of this offer as “Silicon Valley elite who like to have a tiny vineyard on their estate.” For example, Peggy Jenkins (formerly Peggy Fleming of Olympic figure skating fame) and her husband, Greg, just last year had a Chardonnay vineyard planted behind their house in the hills above Los Gatos.

There is indeed a lot of wealth in this neck of the woods, and the French-style chateaus, Italianate villas, Asian pagodas, and enormous redwood “cottages” are sprawling up the flanks of the mountains, which suggests some of the growth pressure this once rugged region is now experiencing.

This microchip-fed expansion is rapidly changing the Santa Cruz Mountains, and while there are still wild, scenic places that seem a million miles from anywhere, the colorfully shady characters of years ago are mostly gone (although there are still certain outposts along aptly-named Skyline Boulevard that you might want to avoid at night). But even there, the sense of isolation is deceiving.

Real estate prices are skyrocketing to absurd levels, making land too costly for anything except housing. Many of those new mansions and condos will sit on sites that could potentially grow world-class wine, but never will. As a result, it is unlikely that more than the nearly 1,000 acres of grapes that currently exist in the region will ever be planted, except for the occasional backyard microplot vineyard.

Fortunately, while grapes may be in short supply in this region, great winemakers are not, leaving the focus on quality, not quantity.

Published on September 1, 2000
Topics: California, Santa Cruz

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