On the Trail

California Winemaking on Top of the Bay

David Driscoll

While most Bay Area locals head north into wine country, over the bridge and into Napa County, I headed about thirty minutes south of the Redwood City store today to visit one of the state's premier cabernet producers—right in our own backyard. High on the hill in Saratoga sits Mount Eden Vineyards, the original brainchild of Martin Ray—a former stockbroker who originally planted on the site back in 1936. Ray was influenced by a Burgundy ex-pat named Paul Massan who, at the turn of the 20th century, had planted his native pinot noir and chardonnay varietals on the slopes nearby, recognizing the region's potential for terroir-driven wines. The Martin Ray winery was eventually renamed Mount Eden after Ray was kicked out by the company's shareholders in 1972. A decade after the coup d'état came Jeffrey Patterson, a young Berkeley grad who had done some additional wine education at UC Davis, looking for an assistant position at the mountain winery. Almost thirty-five years later, Jeffrey's still at Mount Eden. "I'm kind of an oddball in this business," he said as we talked at his kitchen table. "Whereas most young winemakers bounce around from property to property when they're starting out, I started here and I'm going to finish here." His dedication to Mount Eden mirrors the longevity of the wines themselves. 

As if the drive up Mount Eden Road isn't daunting enough, once you reach the winery driveway it's another two-plus miles up a long and winding loop—half of it paved, the other half dirt and gravel. The top of the hill, however, is quite spectacular, especially when the view is clear. The vineyards curve down the slope of the mountain and give way towards the southern tip of the bay. On a cloudless day you can see all the way to the city. I was dropping by Mount Eden today to talk with Jeffrey about our recent allocation of library wines—vintages from the reserve stocks of the winery that are allocated at the end of each year to various accounts around the country. "I met Jean-Guillaume Prats back when he was still the head of Cos d'Estournel and I asked him how much of his library stocks he released each year. It was a lot more than we were releasing, which at the time was only a couple of cases annually. We bumped it up to almost a pallet after that," Jeff explained. Because the wines of Mount Eden are so long-lived and age-worthy, the winery holds back a number of expressions from each vintage that years later are released to top retailers and restaurants. K&L had just received the estate cabernet, chardonnay, and pinot noir reserves from 2006 to 2011—a treasure trove of classic bottlings that were sure to whip up a frenzy with our California collectors.

While I've long been a fan of Mount Eden and its old-school winemaking style, I had never visited the property, nor had I ever met Jeffrey and his wife Ellie who are now the principle shareholders of the winery. I liked Jeffrey right away. He's a curious guy who asks questions more than he talks about himself (a courtesy I often have to force myself into). I kept trying to dig into the details, but he wanted to know what was going on at K&L. How's the new store? What's the situation with the spirits department? Any new Armagnacs? Jeff had an apple pie in the oven, so the whole place smelled like holiday magic. I was inspired to ask about the magic of Mount Eden—why the wines have the incredible potential for aging, achieving a complexity and intricacy that most Napa wines could only dream of. "There are only two producers that make coastal mountain range estate cabernet—us, and Ridge," he said. "Back when Ray was making wine here they had no water, no irrigation, no market for the wines, and a long drive up a steep road each day." There must have been a reason he was so driven to make wine at this location, right? There's something special about this particular spot that Masson recognized more than a century ago.

It's because of the sense of place that these Santa Cruz mountains offer to varietals like cabernet, pinot noir, and chardonnay that Jeffrey chooses to make soil-driven wines rather than fruit-driven styles. "Within the spectrum of California," he said, "fruit-driven wines are for warmer climates. The Eden wines are balanced in alcohol. After about ten years they show secondary flavors. The cabernet is almost angular, deriving its complexity from the soil. There are graphite/lead pencil flavors that are more old world in style." I asked him about the chardonnay as well. "The goal there is to make a long-lived wine. We pick the grapes earlier for higher acidity and we use a lot of new oak to impart tannins," he explained. The pinot noir? "Right past six years or so is when the magical complexity evolves. We do one-third whole cluster fermentation with stems." I asked him the wines had been received lately. "The 2012 Chardonnay was just ranked #5 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list for the year." I had missed that announcement somehow. Things are going pretty well for Jeffrey and Ellie up on top of the Bay. Things should be going pretty well for our customers too once they dig into some of the Mount Eden library editions we just received.

-David Driscoll