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The "Somewhere-ness" of California's Santa Cruz Mountains

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Overlooking Mount Eden Vineyards from Martin Ray's old house, December 2010.
Overlooking Mount Eden Vineyards from Martin Ray's old house, December 2010.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Santa Cruz: the last frontier of weird California coastline and virtually all that remains of the artistic, free-spirited eccentricity so definitive of the CA beach towns of the 60s and 70s. To stand on the city's famous wharf, facing the beach—one of the country's most iconic surf spots to your left, the West Coast's creepy take on Coney Island to your right, and the expanse of the Santa Cruz Mountains lining the sky like poorly laid hunter green shag—is an introduction to the unmistakable sense of place that is definitive of this town, and ultimately, of the wines that lurk within its namesake mountain range.

The current Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area, a designation used to classify the state's wines) is a broad swath of diverse mountainous topography that covers the roughly 350,000 acres from Half Moon Bay down to Watsonville, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the cradle of technological everything—Silicon Valley—on the other. It's now home to over 70 wineries and is the first AVA (est. 1981) to have had its boundaries determined by terroir alone.

Previously, California AVAs were based on loose political considerations that did not take climate, topography, or soil into account. But today, despite it being the vanguard region for cool-climate viticulture in the state, the region has managed to elude the stardom it enjoyed in the early 1900s. However, as California's stylistic pendulum swings toward more restrained wines, the cool-climate wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA are elbowing their way back into the spotlight.

Pre-Prohibition Mountain Wines
Winegrowing first made its way to the region in the 18th century, when Franciscan missionaries, who had already been pumping out sacramental juice for a half century down south, moved north. They arrived bearing their beloved Mission grape—a variety of Spanish origin that made its way to California via Mexico and Central America—which was, at the time, the most widely planted variety in the state. Between 1804-1807, the monks dropped their first anchor in Harvey West Park, just above the current city of Santa Cruz, and began planting vines.

Winemaking flourished in these foothills until the mid-1800s, when widespread deforestation drew winemakers to higher elevation plots. With the advances soon made with rootstock grafting, Vinifera varieties became immune to phylloxera and began to yield wines with great potential. By the late 1800s these mountains, and California as a whole, were at the door of their first renaissance.

Napa's Inglenook property and its Bordeaux-style wines were busy laying the groundwork for what would become the dominant Napa Valley wine style, and Paul Masson—a Burgundian import born into a family of winemaker—was making methode champenoise sparkling wines some 2,000 feet above sea level in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over the next few decades, the Chaine d'Or, a ridge that stretches from Woodside to Los Gatos, was considered to be the finest place to grow wine in America. Its pioneers — people like Emmet Rixford (winemaker and author of 1887's influential book The Wine Press and the Cellar) and Paul Masson — would continue to influence winemakers well into the 20th Century.

Enter Martin Ray
In 1936, via a third party, Martin Ray—a former stockbroker—purchased Paul Masson's 40-acre "Champagne"-producing property. He planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon—three varieties that remain the region's calling cards to this day. Though these grapes were already in production in the area, Ray's great contribution was his adamant quest to make varietally pure wines—a view at odds with the California penchant for labeling wines "California Burgundy," "Champagne," and "Chablis."

Ray's vision was not to market in the shadow of France, but rather to produce wines that would rival their European counterparts. Over the years he would make great wines, and some not so great wines—a testament to the variability and challenge of the mountainous climate—but his enthusiasm for the growing region and his vision of producing varietally pure wines would become the enduring legacy of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

That "Somewhere-ness"
Today the property that was passed from Masson to Ray is now Mount Eden Vineyards, arguably the Mountains' foremost producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Mount Eden's vineyards surround Martin Ray's old house, where its current owners, Winemaker Jeffrey Patterson and his wife Ellie, now live. It stands at the top of a screwy mountain road, one of the many that make navigating the Santa Cruz Mountains something akin to playing Chutes and Ladders with a car. Up here Jeffrey Patterson is producing some of the finest wines in America and has been for almost 30 years.

His style offers a nod to Burgundy: the wines are low in alcohol, mineral-driven, and built for the cellar. They taste nothing of the style of California wine made popular in the 1980s and 1990s in Sonoma and Napa Valley. Instead, these wines favor the kind of restraint that has allowed them the opportunity to express what the inimitable wine writer Matt Kramer would call a "somewhere-ness" For those California winemakers who are now pumping the brakes when it comes to ripeness and high alcohol, Mount Eden has once again emerged as a great inspiration.

The same is true for the Mountains' most famous winery, Ridge. Paul Draper's Monte Bello vineyard lies at 2,400 feet above sea level on a rare patch of limestone overlooking California's infamous San Andreas Fault Line, where for over 50 years this plot has produced one of the state's most iconic Cabernets. In 1976, at the famed Judgment of Paris, Ridge's 1971 Mont Bello first made waves when it placed among the top American wines, beating out some of Bordeaux's best. The approach of Paul Draper and current winemaker Eric Baugher is like that of Mount Eden: applying European techniques to California fruit and favoring acid over extraction.

As a result, Monte Bello generally hovers around 13% alcohol (child's play in comparison to some of the blow-your-head-off Cabs that clock in near 16% in Napa), which just goes to show how hard Cabernet has to work to ripen at this altitude, caught between the dual influence of the San Francisco Bay (warming) and the Pacific Ocean (cooling). Over the years Ridge has become synonymous with a style of California wine that was once king in the 1970s, but then fell out of favor with the rise of influential fruit-mongering critics. Despite the fame of Monte Bello, however, Baugher believes that the majority of consumers still simply assume that their wine comes from Napa Valley. The Cabernet + California = Napa equation is, after all, tough to rewrite.

Lottery Winnings Required
Even after more than two centuries of winemaking and plenty of inspired wines, the potential of the Santa Cruz Mountain range is still yet to be actualized, mostly because its "somewhere-ness" comes at a premium. A very small percentage of land is owned by growers who are willing to sell fruit (the opposite of Napa's model) and in order to produce a significant quantity of wine up here, you have to own your own vineyard. And, given the proximity of the Mountains to the Silicon Valley, the land prices tend toward exclusionary, a fact that has mounted a question mark above the AVA and its future.

Hence, many of the Mountains' newcomers are practically required to have cashed in at one Silicon boom or another. Consider Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyards: he has brought a whole new excitement to the Mountains with his Burgundian-style wines (easily some of the best new California wines), but the investment his success required would be enough to pull a small African country out of poverty.

The Rhys wines make one yearn for the influx of new talent that areas like Napa and Sonoma are currently experiencing. It's a brilliant place for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and if one has the stomach for it, Cabernet. It's also one of the few terroirs in California that can actually claim a cool climate, but what will become of this AVA over the next decade is unknown. Prices will either have to come down or more tech entrepreneurs will have to develop a knack for winemaking or an eye for talent. Thankfully what's already there is enough to tide us over.

-Talia Baiocchi

"Terroir is a composite of many physical factors?as well as more intangible cultural factors. Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as 'somewhere-ness' and this I think is the nub of the issue. I believe that 'somewhere-ness' is absolutely linked to beauty, that beauty reposes in the particulars?" - Randall Grahm, winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz

Wineries of note:
· Mount Eden Vineyards
· Ridge
· Rhys Vineyards
· Kathryn Kennedy
· Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard
· Varner

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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