The Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation can be quite confusing at first to the non-professional avid wine lover. This mountainous AVA covers parts of 3 counties–Santa Clara, Santa Cruz & San Matteo & is much more of an altitude specific (covering the mountain terrain essentially above the fog line, ranging from 400 feet rising to nearly 3000 feet in elevation).
Without a doubt, the most famous of this AVA’s vineyards is the Monte Bello Vineyard, which ranges in elevation from 1300 to 2700 feet. This tract was purchased in 1959 by 4 Stanford Research Institute engineers. Their first commercial release was the 1962, but their rise to superstardom really began when they hired Paul Draper in 1969. The vineyard has a very unique green stone/clay soil with underlying decomposing limestone, which coupled with the cool, windy growing conditions, create a very different character to the wine than those from other Californian appellations. The 1977 I was fortunate to taste again in 2014, is still one of the very finest Cabernet based red wines I have yet to have out of California.
Kathryn Kennedy moved to Saratoga, California in 1949. I often wonder how & why she had the foresight to plant a 7 acre vineyard of essentially Cabernet clone #8 (which she got from David Bruce)in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation in 1973. When I first tried to contact the winery to get some wine sometime in the 80’s, I remember being told how much they struggled to get even a ton per acre from their vines & in 2 vintages the vines gave them a mere 1/4 of a ton per acre! That doesn’t sound like a very sound financial model to work. In addition because of the value of their land, being in close proximity to the Silicon Valley, I am sure the family has given over the years considerable thought to selling off to the highest bidder, strictly in a real estate sense. Still she perservered & her youngest son, Marty Mathis started in 1981 & eventually took over the reins, including winemaking. Theirs is an earthy, masculine Cabernet, with lots of structure & a unique character, which is VERY different from the fruit bombs one normally encounters from the Napa Valley & is well worth checking out!
Over the years, one of the true iconic Chardonnay & Pinot Noir estate standouts from California is Mount Eden. Located 50 or so miles south of San Francisco, at roughly 2000 feet in elevation overlooking Silicon Valley, this small, historic estate was founded in 1972 (essentially the year, the vineyard founder, Martin Ray, was kicked out by his partners/investors). The original plantings, however, began in 1945 for Chardonnay & Pinot & sometime in the 50’s for Cabernet Sauvignon (by Martin Ray). Theirs is a cool, exposed mountain top, with Montebello perched high above in the distance & the vines are planted in infertile Franciscan shale soils. The 20 acres of Chardonnay is Mount Eden selection; the 7 acres of Pinot is also Mount Eden selection (65 years of being around) & there is 9.75 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.9 acres of Merlot & roughly .4 acres of Cabernet Franc, mostly planted in 1981 & 82. The 2006 Chardonnay was barrel fermented & aged for 9 months in 50% new & 50% one year old barrels. This is big, wonderfully oak laden Chardonnay, broad, grand & full of character & hutzpah.
One of the relatively new standouts of the appellation is actually 2 labels–Varner & Neely. I group them together only because they overlap in many ways, starting with the fact their wines both come from the Spring Ridge Vineyard (which is actually located above the Stanford University golf course in the hills). Jim & Bob Varner oversee the farming & winemaking & Neely owns the vineyard. There are 3 distinct blocks for Chardonnay–“Home Block” (2 acres, east facing, 805 to 840 feet in elevation, of own rooted clone 4 which was planted in 1980); “Ampitheater Block” (2 acres, south facing, 735 to 780 feet in elevation, of own rooted Wente selection, which was planted in 1981); & “Bee Block” (3.5 acres, northeast facing, 670 to 735 feet in elevation, masale selection from Home Block, which was planted in 1987). Under the Varner label, there are then typically 3 single parcel Chardonnays produced in any given vintage. There is also a 4th Chardonnay produced, under the Neely label, which is a blend of the 3 parcels & the percentages different every year.
There are also 3 Pinot Noir parcels–“Upper Picnic Block” (2 acres, east facing, 645 to 660 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 777, which was grafted over to Pinot in 2003 from own rooted vines planted in 1981); “Picnic Block” (2 acres, east facing, 600 to 645 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 777, which was planted in 2000); & “Hidden Block” (3 acres, northeast facing, 650 to 730 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 115, which was planted in 1997). 3 single parcel Pinot Noirs are produced under the Neely label & a 4th Pinot, under the Varner label, is produced from a blend of the 3 parcels.
As you can imagine, the quantities of each are small & the media praise is high–& therefore availability limited.