The Santa Cruz Mountains with Rhys, Mount Eden and Ridge Vineyards
One thing I’ve learned from working at K&L is that if you’re going to get into a discussion about wine, expect it to be thorough. So when Ryan Woodhouse scheduled an after-hours staff tasting on the Santa Cruz Mountains, I should not have been surprised when three heavy hitters from the region showed up to talk about their AVA and their wines. Assistant Winemaker at Rhys Vineyards, Sean Castorani, Winemaker and Owner of Mount Eden Vineyards, Jeffrey Patterson and Head of Viticulture at Ridge Vineyards, David Gates, graciously stopped in last Tuesday night to share their wines and insights on this unique growing region.
Defined by its mountain topography, the Santa Cruz Mountains has a wild, rugged allure, influenced by its dramatic soils and capricious climate. The AVA, which is bound by a minimum elevation that follows the fog line, reaches from Woodside in the north to Watsonville in the south, with the San Andreas Fault running like a vein down the middle. This fault has heavily influenced the region, not only by creating the great mountains themselves, but by shifting, upheaving and depositing a wide array of soils. Up here, the distance of a few feet can mean the difference of tens of millions of years in geology and parent materials.
The climate, which is influenced by both the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, is defined by its prevalent fog. Vineyards experience large diurnal fluctuations, with warm days followed by very chilly nights. Some sites can vary as much as 40-50 Fº in one day. The unpredictability in the weather keeps winemakers on their toes, often reducing yields and contributing to concentrated flavors. Late-ripening varietals do well here, and it is one of the few AVAs that can grow both Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals.
Sean Castorani, from Rhys Vineyards, kicked off our tasting. This was an excellent place to start since Rhys Vineyards creates highly expressive, soil-driven wines. Relatively new in the region, they have some exciting vineyards that show the breadth and depth of this mountainous region. Each site has been selected for its distinctive soils, then crafted with minimal intervention to showcase the character of that unique place.
We started with the 2013 Rhys “Horseshoe Vineyard” Chardonnay. Planted in 2004, the vineyard sits at an elevation of 1,500 feet, facing the ocean. A beneficial ridge prevents the fog from enveloping the vineyard daily, but allows a pleasant cooling influence. More importantly, it has an extremely unique geology for the Santa Cruz Mountains. The vineyard sits on a ridge of sedimentary shale called Monterey formation that made its way to the surface over the millennia. This lightweight, brittle rust-mottled shale allows for low vigor and outstanding drainage. This combination of climate and soil produces a distinctive minerality and vibrant acidity. The hands-off winemaking approach, which allows for native fermentation and very little oak, captures the distinctive profile of the site, with vibrant passion fruit, lemon curd, grapefruit and steely minerality.
This singular vineyard focus and the almost nerdy obsession with terroir is immediately apparent in the 2014 Rhys “Alpine Vineyard” Pinot Noir, which we tried next. Immediately, the wine displays a distinctive purity of place and an elegance that comes with small-batch, uber-attentive winemaking. Although only five miles from Horseshoe Vineyard, the soil is about six-million years younger, with bright white bedrock made of chalky Purisima Formation. The vineyard is divided into very small half-acre parcels that are tightly planted in 6’x4’ rows, with sixteen different clones of Pinot Noir. Each parcel is then vinified individually in small, one-ton stainless steel tanks that Sean affectionately called “tank-itos.” The wine showed a purity and elegance, with bright red fruits, black cherries, subtle smokiness and minerality. Focused and tightly-knit now, it promises great aging potential.
Lastly, we got a sneak peak at the 2017 Rhys “Mt Pajaro” Pinot Noir, which is the newest wine for Rhys Vineyards and releases in September. A young vineyard, it has only been producing fruit for a few years, but it is already showing great potential. The wine combined bright cranberry and red fruits with savory spices, and Rhys’ signature tension and purity.
Following the new kid on the block, we moved to one of the oldest wineries in the area, Mount Eden Vineyards. Jeffrey Patterson, the Winemaker and Owner, has been making wines here for almost fifty years. Originally founded by Martin Ray, Mount Eden is one of the first boutique wineries in California, and boasts the longest estate-produced wines outside of Burgundy. Patterson joined Mount Eden in the mid-1970s, has continued the philosophy and the passion of the estate ever since. As he talks about the wines, his devotion to this unique corner of the world simply radiates from his body. We watched and listened attentively as his arms swung in the air and the stories spilled out of him.
We started by tasting the 2015 Mount Eden “Estate” Chardonnay. Extremely well-balanced, the wine is a beautiful example of California Chardonnay, loaded with layers of tropical fruits, citrus, hazelnuts and spice. Patterson referenced White Burgundy Grand Crus as an inspiration, emphasizing balance of power and acidity, with a low pH. The dry-farmed vines, bedded on old Franciscan Shale, contribute to the length of flavor that extends on the finish. Patterson is adamant about making long-lived wines, even for his Chardonnays, and this wine promises to age for awhile.
The next two wines were also from the estate vineyard, illustrating the extreme diversity of this unique site. The 2015 Mount Eden “Estate” Pinot Noir comes from high-density, dry-farmed vines that produce low yields for a complex wine that marries deep, dark fruits and savory spices. It has a wild, “je ne sais quoi” character that speaks to the vineyard and the whole-cluster treatment during winemaking. The 2014 Mount Eden “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon has an Old-World style that Bordeaux drinkers will love. As Patterson says, “it’s grown on the craggy edge of what’s considered right,” in a site that combines both cool climate and high elevations. But for all those reasons, it is an absolute stunning wine. Dark, juicy fruit supports a velvety core, deeply layered with seductive spices and framed by ripe tannins.
Lastly, David Gates, who heads up the vineyard operations for Ridge Vineyards, led us through his wines. Gates has a soft-spoken, no-nonsense way of sharing his passion for the area. Intensely knowledgeable, he explained the delicate balance of growing high-elevation vines that are precariously sandwiched between the chilly Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. Ridge’s estate vineyard, which is planted on the side of the hill facing the San Francisco Bay, receives cool air, but not as wind-whipping and bitter as the breezes can be from the coast.
We started by tasting the 2017 Ridge Vineyards “Estate” Chardonnay. For a winery known for its red wines, the Chardonnay has long been one of their best kept secrets. Juicy pineapple, orchard fruits, honeysuckle and citrus are balanced by rich complexity and layers from a long, slow barrel fermentation and small amounts of batonnage. A very light hit of new American oak adds subtle layers of spice. As Gates says, “this wine was made for the pleasure spectrum,” and I think he’s got that right.
One of my favorite wines of the tasting was the 2016 Ridge Vineyards “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon. A “baby brother” to the Monte Bello, the fruit comes from the same vineyard, but from parcels that show earlier expression and drinkability when young. While Monte Bello is meant to lay down for a few years, the Estate Cabernet is meant to enjoy now. Made with 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 2% Petite Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc, it just barely makes the varietal designation and shows the depth and complexity of a true Bordeaux blend. It’s dense and layered with dark fruits, violets and exotic spices. Equally concentrated as it is elegant, the flavors extend through the palate and into a long, complex finish.
To finish the tasting and lend perspective, we opened a few library wines from each producer, including a 2012 Rhys Estate Chardonnay, the 2002 Mount Eden “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1995 and 1996 Ridge “Monte Bello,” and a 1978 David Bruce Santa Cruz Pinot Noir. Not surprisingly, every one of these wines was outstanding.
Throughout our tasting, it became very clear the incredible diversity and beauty of this under-the-radar region. Perched high in the mountains, on undulating hills with the cool fog at its feet, these vineyards produce a wide range of wines, each striking in its own personality, and all exemplifying the amazing versatility and potential of this region.
- Megan Greene