This is a longer version of an article published by the Financial Times.
See also my detailed tasting notes.
Imagine a wine region where you can find a serious rival to first-growth bordeaux grown within a mile and a half of vineyards clearly capable of challenging grand-cru burgundy. That is the extraordinary reality of the wooded tangle of the Santa Cruz Mountains between the Pacific and Silicon Valley.
If you stand in Ridge Vineyards' historic Monte Bello vineyard, world-famous for its sterling performance in both 1976 and, especially, 2006 iterations of the Judgment of Paris France v California taste-off, you can see the Rhys winery on the next ridge towards the Pacific. Below is the view of Ridge Vineyards from Rhys. Rhys's obsessively planted and tended vineyards are currently producing some of the most ambitious Pinot Noir being made anywhere in the world. Some fine Chardonnay too.
This shouldn't really happen. The Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Monte Bello, way up at 2,600 feet (almost 800 m) elevation, is a late-ripening variety that generally demands a warm climate while the early-ripening grapes of Burgundy need a long, cool growing season. As along so much of the Pacific's eastern rim, it is proximity to marine fogs that makes the difference. And the fact that the San Andreas Fault runs between these two properties, as Ridge's CEO Paul Draper (left, with Harvey in the Skyline vineyard above right), who lives above the fog line on top of 'his' ridge, knows from dramatic personal experience.
Because some parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation are underpinned by the Pacific Plate and others by the North American Plate, plates that are far from quiescent, there is far more variation in geology and topography in these steep hills than one would expect for such a relatively compact area. (And unusual social variation too, from hippies squatting in the backwoods to those most obviously spending software fortunes on real estate.) Because there are no convenient flat expanses, and because it is in Bay Area commuter country, for many years Santa Cruz Mountains had only a handful of grape growers, most with long histories. But nowadays a significant proportion of those dotting the landscape with brand new mansions are choosing to plant hobby vineyards next to them – and sometimes not so hobbyist such as Clos de la Tech founded in 1994 by Cypress Semiconductor founder T J Rodgers. The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association now has more than 60 members.
Kevin Harvey (below in the antler-decorated dining room he has turned into Rhys's tasting room), who gave his wine enterprise a Welsh family name, Rhys - Harvey having been taken - is likely to remain the most successful of the new wave of vignerons even if he is hardly new. He planted his first vines in 1995 just below the 400-ft lower limit of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, so the wines from these vineyards have to be sold as San Mateo County. Initially he made wine effectively in his garage with his first commercial vintage in 2004. But he has the air of a man so firmly in the grip of Pinotphilia that he will continue to lavish a major part of his venture-capital fortune on his quest to make ever more convincing ripostes to grand cru burgundy in California.
I was taken to the Rhys HQ, the mock baronial hall on the Fault that is visible from Monte Bello, by Paul Draper of Ridge. Before tasting we were ushered by Harvey and his affably quizzical winemaker Jeff Brinkman into the cellars they have drilled into the mountainside. We were whisked past pallets of the surprisingly reasonably priced wines awaiting shipment to the growing ranks of Rhys fans, past serried ranks of fermenters of all shapes and sizes, the better to understand and express every block of vines, past the neat Burgundian barrels shaped from oak air-dried in France for a full four years, to admire a geological map of Santa Cruz Mountains more complex than Draper had ever seen.
Like any rabid Pinotphile, Harvey knows Burgundy well and claims that his region has 'much more diverse geologies than the Côte d'Or. We're seeking out very cool sites with shallow rocky soils. Our Skyline vineyard is basically a big rockpile.' My notebook has '32myr' scribbled next to this quote, a reference to the age of that rockpile: 32 million years. Their Alpine vineyard is between one and three (million years old). Horseshoe Ranch is 11. They have also planted the Pajaro vineyard in the far south of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation and are developing the Bearwallow vineyard in another notably cool corner of northern California, Anderson Valley, well over the Golden Gate Bridge in Mendocino.
But the really extraordinary sight was the vineyard design in Skyline, virtually on top of the winemaking caves. Partly to save water in this increasingly dry state, the vines are so tightly spaced - 17,000 per hectare, or the produce of a full eight vines in each bottle - that those who were currently hand-hoeing every inch between the vines presumably had to choose the exact width of their hoes with care. Draper, no viticultural slouch himself, was clearly astounded by the attention to detail, although Harvey batted back the most obvious question, claiming that he 'couldn't recall' his costs per acre.
Rhys is now producing an average of about 10,000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and a tiny amount of Horseshoe Syrah) a year, with the major focus on single-vineyard bottlings, and even bottlings of special parts of individual vineyards. Every single one of the thirteen 2012s and even better 2013s we tasted was unusually precise and pure in its expression, but the special Hillside 2013 Pinots from the steepest parts of the Alpine and Horseshoe vineyards were quite extraordinary by any measure of Pinot – and 12.4 and 12.8% alcohol respectively.
The 2012 Chardonnay from the Horseshoe vineyard also stood out. Harvey must have been cheered along the path by the exceptional track record of slow-developing Chardonnays and Pinots made, from Burgundian cuttings imported by Paul Masson and then via his protégé Martin Ray, a few miles away on the eastern flank of the mountains by Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson at Mount Eden. This site, overlooking the sprawl of San Jose, is clearly warmer than Rhys's west-facing vineyards – the Chardonnay vines were already budding out in late February. Patterson was predicting that the 2015 vintage would be even earlier than the two that preceded it.
Even Rhys, in the first line of fire for the fogs that roll in to the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Pacific, picked some grapes as early as 19 August last year whereas Ridge don't usually pick before late October – and sometimes even have to de-acidify their grapes by adding calcium carbonate. In future we will be told when this happens as Ridge, with their usual full disclosure, have recently adopted ingredient labelling. They make great wine, too.
SOME TOP SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS WINES
Plus one from the Rhys Home Vineyard. See also North Americans and their Burgundian ways.
Mount Eden Chardonnay 2009, 2010
Mount Eden, Estate Pinot Noir 2005
Mount Eden, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Rhys, Horseshoe Vineyard Chardonnay 2012
Rhys, Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 San Mateo County
Rhys, Skyline Pinot Noir 2012
Rhys, Alpine Pinot Noir 2012
Rhys, Horseshoe Pinot Nor 2012
Rhys, Alpine Hillside Pinot Noir 2013
Rhys, Horseshoe Hillside Pinot Nor 2013
Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello Chardonnay any vintage
Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, 2009
Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello any vintage
See also my detailed tasting notes.