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January 18-24, 2006

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Fermenting Change

Can a new generation of growers and wineries put southern Santa Cruz County on the map?

By Steven Billings


Casual wine drinkers don't associate Corralitos, Calif., with premium, coastal pinot noir production. Even county residents, when asked, are more likely to reference smoked meats, sausages and apple orchards as the area's defining gustatory markers before espousing the merits and charms of locally grown wine grapes. A leisurely drive along the area's main thoroughfares would suggest nothing drastically different. Now-dormant fruit trees and sleepy horse ranches decorate the low-lying areas, while the steep hillsides, dotted with homes and tree cover, are not quick to reveal their vinous secrets.

But up in these hills, just above the reach of bay-driven fogs, a new crop of grape growers and wineries are fermenting a petite renaissance, toiling away in service of the vine to produce modest amounts of pinot noir and chardonnay that will distinguish the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains for quality wines.

Though certain large-scale organizational forces must be at work to effect such changes, one could argue that spark-plug viticultural consultant Prudy Foxx is a driving force behind the vineyard and winery successes in the area. Foxx, who has a 15-year-plus history of consulting with numerous wineries and vineyards in the area as well as heading up the Santa Cruz Mountains Viticultural Association, directly and indirectly oversees about 100 acres of vines in the Corralitos-Pleasant Valley area. She has consulted on most all of the new vineyard plantings here (many of which have gone in since 1998) and has worked to transform existing vineyards into healthier systems that consistently produce desirable, high quality fruit.

Foxx is extremely passionate about the area's vineyard potential. More important than soil type or quality, she says, there's a specific weather pattern in these hills that can yield good to ideal growing conditions.

"Corralitos and Pleasant Valley were just waiting to happen," says Foxx. "They are just this perfect blend of the hot days, the cool evenings and the fog mornings." She describes the typical summer climatic scenario to me over the phone--leaving her house in upper Zayante (at over 1,000 feet) where it's already a sunny 70 degrees in the morning, dropping down to sea level and into the cooling fog of Santa Cruz, heading south and experiencing full-on rain by Park Avenue, then driving into Corralitos and Pleasant Valley where the fog is burning off and the sky opens up onto the vineyards and what, in her words, "is like this eye into heaven."

This ocean-influenced climate is perfect for growing good wine grapes, the main benefit being that the temperature changes in distinct heating and cooling cycles (along with an absence of extreme heat) allow grapes to ripen more slowly and evenly, remaining on the vine longer and, consequently, being harvested later as a physiologically more complex fruit. It's a classic "slow and steady wins the race" scenario, and with pinot noir, a notoriously fickle grower and thin-skinned grape, ideal conditions become that much more important in producing consistent fruit.

As Foxx pontificates, "Pinot noir is a woman. She likes to take care of her skin. She's very sensitive and she's very moody. It's probably why I can relate to her so well. She doesn't like it too hot; she doesn't like it wet and cold. But if you get it right and take care of the skin on the pinot, you just get such outstanding fruit."

Outstanding fruit goes a long way in making outstanding wine. But aside from climatic conditions, a general improvement in fruit quality and consistency also can be attributed to one crucial shift in vineyard management since the mid-'90s that has guided all new plantings in the area. Before the 1990s, existing vineyards were planted with free-standing, untrellised vines. The resulting untrained plant looks very shrublike (think Cousin It from The Addams Family) with ground-creeping vines and lots of bunched foliage that can contribute to damaging levels of humidity and botrytis mold growth---a very undesirable condition for any table wine grape.

Vertical trellising systems keep the vine off the ground and trained along a wiring system. This allows the grower to position his shoots vertically and better manage a vine's leafy canopy. These seemingly small details are crucial to the plant's development and the resulting fruit. The trellises allow you to spread out a vine's canopy and create a microclimate that allows for both good sun exposure and protection while decreasing the humidity and, hence, mold and mildew pressure.

In the not too distant past, mildew pressure automatically would have been combatted with a chemical spray. But by "taking care of the skin" and carefully creating an environment that does not allow for mildew's development, growers reduce the amount of chemicals needed to be sprayed on their vines as well as becoming smarter farmers.

Richard Alfaro, owner of and winemaker for his own Alfaro Family Vineyards label, says that Foxx "has done a lot for this area in terms of viticulture and getting people to focus on quality. Luckily, people can afford to do it that way for a while." And in an area with exceedingly high land prices, accessibility issues, small amounts of suitable vineyard land, small vineyards and limited production, quality isn't really a choice, it's a proscribed directive determined by both environment and economics.

Alfaro, who is a former bakery owner and self-confessed wine nut, had scouted the Corralitos area for years looking for the right piece of property to plant vineyards, finally snatching up a 75-acre parcel (with many south-facing slopes) off Hames Road. He planted his first vines in 1999 and currently has 22 acres planted to pinot noir as well as four to chardonnay and four more to syrah. Although he looked for property in the Santa Lucia Highlands (which has ridden the pinot noir star to serious prominence on the back of Gary Pisoni of Garys' Vineyard fame), he remembers a time before owning vineyards here and what the attraction felt like. "I love the weather, the proximity to the ocean. When I started looking here, I was looking more for chardonnay. I love the Christie Vineyard fruit and the Storrs wines, but then I really caught the pinot bug. I thought it was just a perfect spot for pinot."

Alfaro is not alone in that belief. Jim and Judy Schultze planted the first three acres of their Windy Oaks Estate Vineyard in 1996 (they now have 14 planted to pinot noir and one to chardonnay) and just three years ago were the only winery in an area that now lists five. Mr. Schultze, who has quickly started making award-winning wine, estimates that in the past 10 years vineyard plantings have grown from a mere eight to over 100 currently, with 20 more going in this spring when the Storrs Family, of Storrs Winery in Santa Cruz, will be planting there on family-owned property.

This flurry of activity now amounts to a solid concentration of wineries (and new vineyard plantings) in rather close proximity. Deer Park, Savaria and Christie Family Vineyard are the main growers in the area while, on the winery side, Nicholson Vineyards, Natal Vineyards and Handley Vineyards (not yet open) round out the folks with on-site wineries in addition to Alfaro and Windy Oaks.

But what bodes well for the wine tourist is stymied still by virtually nonexistent public tasting hours, apart from participation in the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers-sponsored quarterly Passport Days and the annual Vintners' Festival weekend. The growth hasn't created competition as much as it has distinct personalities and camaraderie. Both Alfaro and Schultze (who are contemplating opening their doors one day a week this year) are quick to reference other vineyards and wineries to raise awareness. A quick conversation on the phone with these folks reveals that Alfaro buys a bit of fruit from Schultze and the two definitely do a lot of information sharing.

Though each operation has its own style and focus, the area seems destined to become known for pinot noir, especially given the grape's current popularity (due to a certain unnameable road movie) and the fact that it is darn well suited to this particular coastal climate. Even though syrah grapes are showing promise and potential distinction, in Foxx's opinion (for coastal Santa Cruz County) pinot and chardonnay are "what we get; that's our destiny, that's our job."

Alfaro echoes this sentiment, admitting that "we wouldn't be doing the appellation justice by growing cabernet here," given that it is a warmer climate variety that could achieve ripeness maybe once in seven years.

Yet even with pinot noir's current do-no-wrong, bling-bling status, Corralitos and Pleasant Valley face an uphill struggle toward notoriety within the larger Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, whose reputation has been associated traditionally with the summit area and east side wineries and the production of (warmer climate) cabernet sauvignon. Schultze candidly projects that the current developments in his neighborhood reflect the "shifting tide of the Santa Cruz Mountains," and in some ways, this may be true. Yet when you take in the Santa Cruz Mountains as a whole, one realizes the futility of composing a one-size-fits-all description for a winegrowing area that stretches from Woodside to Corralitos and includes growing areas on both the coastal and inland sides of the mountains with very different climates.

As Schultze notes, even though they produce other things, "when you think of Napa Valley you think of cabernet. When you think of Sonoma and Russian River, it's pinot noir. For us it's hard to project an all-things-for-all-types image. ... The coastal Santa Cruz Mountains is very different from the valley side and in some ways it really is two different appellations. So the challenge for the association is to figure out a way to promote the mountains in a way that people really understand what is here."

Recent themed events, like last year's highly successful Pinot Paradise held at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos as well as a Bourdeaux-style event later this year, are attempting to do just that. And a first ever San Francisco-based trade tasting, to be held later this month at Farallon Restaurant, suggest an appellation on the move.

These differences are definite assets to the area, reflecting the diversity of the landscape as well as a growing understanding of planting the right grapes in the right area in order to make the best wine possible. Yet if we are to maintain these dual or myriad identities, what will enable them to stand out from the endless sea of producers in California and beyond that are creating a very homogenous style of wine? It still seems that there needs to be some unifying factor that ties these producers together, that is more stylistic or philosophically oriented.

When this question is posed to winemakers and industry-savvy folks, the theme of quality and its promotion continually rises to the surface. Soif Wine Bar and Merchant owner Patrice Boyle, who retails some of the more obscure area wines in the downtown restaurant's store, says that "what they need is someone who is a really great promoter. Someone who is really going to represent the local wines and put them on the map. Even though this is a small area, it could be known for quality."

Jeff Emery, owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and a prominent winemaker in this area for over 20 years, expands this point even further to suggest a stylistic approach to the area's image. "The potential is here, because of the climate, of much higher acidity, brighter fruit, better cellaring and better food wines. Unfortunately, not everyone is making them that way. The big potential here in the region is making more European-style wines that are very compatible with food. I'm biased, but I think that's the ultimate potential."

At Windy Oaks, Schultze appears to have raised the standard on this already. He and his wife set out expressly to make the highest quality wine possible, adhering to a decidedly Burgundian style of winegrowing that could be described as both heretically traditional and wisely modern.

Schultze produces wine only from the family's estate fruit, bucking the common trend to buy complementary fruit from other growers. But the big differences at Windy Oaks occur in the winery and cellar which Schultze has engineered to operate by moving wine around only by gravity and only when necessary. He doesn't fine or filter his wines; he allows his reserve pinot to sit unracked on the fine lees and chill out for 25 months in about 70 percent new French oak. After that, it's hand-bottled and put away for another six months or so before release.

What seems like an oddly long barrel regimen and an excessive amount of new oak makes sense when put into context. The long time undisturbed in barrel allows sediments to settle out and results in a very clear wine. And every year the couple travel to Burgundy to visit their barrel makers to hand-select a very specific tight grain of oak which will allow for such a long tenure and good oak integration in the structure of the wine without appearing, well, oaky.

And at a time when winemakers have tens of different yeast strains at their disposal to manipulate their wines and are worried about the financial liability of a "stuck fermentation," Schultze allows many of his lots to proceed as "wild ferments." Naturally occurring vineyard yeast provides the fermentation energy for the wine instead of its being inoculated by a particular (and most likely stronger) commercial yeast strain. To Schultze, who is stridently noninterventionist, the wild ferments are a truer, clearer expression of the fruit, revealing an enhanced earthiness in both the nose and the palette of the wine he has taken such care to nurture.

All of this work for just a little old grape never ceases to amaze, especially given how difficult it is to grow in a mountainous region. As Jeff Emery will tell you, "You have to be a little bit crazy to want to do it in the Santa Cruz Mountains where yields are lower. You have to want to do it for the quality and believe in the region--that it is really a step above."



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