The Santa Cruz Mountains:
San Francisco’s Heart, High On A Hill It Calls...
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a myriad of mountain glens and mudstone hilltops with chilly enclaves tucked in between. Within each of these, the variability in soil type, exposure, fog influence, and diurnal temperature swings manifests so uniquely that each ten-acre plot can experience a climate all its own. Indeed, this is terroir diversity that boggles the mind; diversity that is well represented in a multiplicity of styles found the in the region’s best Chardonnays.
by Clark Smith
October 3, 2008
Long before Napa Valley became home to California’s celebrity back-to-the-landers, the Santa Cruz Mountains had been the breed’s spiritual center for a century. What a fluke of nature is this gift of terroir, worthy of Montrachet, and yet within taxicab range of Northern California’s major metropolitan centers – at first San Francisco and Stanford University, then later the Silicon Gulch. Scores of gentry have been unable to resist the allure of establishing commutable micro-vineyards, and now a hundred top sites sit above the hubbub like jewels in the city’s crown.
So ideal is its location – like Long Island, its position rather than its perfection is seen as the primary appeal – that these mountain glens and mudstone hilltops are often underappreciated. Begin with the blessings of elevation – great drainage and bright incident light ensuring flavor development. Add the moderating influence of Pacific breezes tamed to gentleness by the torturous terrain. When we speak of “above the fog-line,” it must be appreciated that we are speaking of the ripening season, not the June gloom which delays the cycle of maturity and accounts for the region’s incredibly long, late ripening. Even halfway to the stars at 2,600 feet, the morning fog may chill the air.
I don’t care. For the result of delaying maturation to the cool weeks of October is a firm backbone of acidity and intense flavor development. Then add in the soils, which vary from the residual shale and limestone of the western precipices to the spongy mudstone which provides year-round water availability at sufficient tension to limit vigor, enabling dry-farming and a flourishing philosophical home for non-interventionism tempered with can-do pragmatism.
Santa Cruz has been firmly established as a world-class wine region for over a century. Preceded by mission church sacramental wines as early as 1804, its serious commercial genesis can be traced to Scotsman John Burns, who first planted commercial grapes in 1853 in “Ben Lomond,” after an old Scottish wine district. Santa Cruz County had 16 wineries by 1870. Another Scot, John A. Steward, brought French élevage principles to his Etta Hill vineyard, wrote and proselytized extensively for quality improvement in the State, and together with Ben Lomond’s William Coope competed successfully in competitions throughout the U.S. and in Paris during the 1890’s. The Depression of 1892, a vast fire in 1899, and the enthusiastic activities of the WCTU’s Cadets of Temperance, which also caught fire in Santa Cruz in the mid 1880’s, wiped out commercial winemaking here for half a century.
Beauregard Vineyard in Ben Lomond is considered huge by local standards. Miniscule though its planted surface may be, the AVA’s diversity boggles the mind. Few places on earth compete seriously with both Burgundy and Bordeaux. Yet the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, which Martin Ray cultivated, and the Cabernets of Ridge Vineyards, both having consistently stunned the Old World throughout the past several decades, are three miles apart.
One can propose sub-appellations – the chilly enclaves along Skyline Boulevard to the north; the stark, windswept rock of the foothills around Saratoga to the east; the hilltops and ridgelines along Summit Road in the region’s center; the mountain glens above Corralitos in the south and southeast; and the foggy, loamy coastal redwood environment and marine influence in and around SCM’s only official sub-AVA, Ben Lomond Mountain, to the west and southwest. Yet within each of these, the variability in soil type, exposure, fog influence, and diurnal temperature swings manifests so uniquely that each ten-acre plot can experience a climate all its own. Add to that the personal choices, from high tech to hands off, from on-site webcams to biodynamics, the diverse clonal selections, trellising, tillage, irrigation, covercrop and winemaking style choices, and you have a hundred unique worlds which defy categorization.
This region’s natural gifts are never yielded up to the faint of heart. Here epic angst is standard fare. Yields are pitiably small and there are no economies of scale, none of the large acreages so readily farmable in the North Coast or in nearby Monterey. It seems that to succeed here, it helps to be a little bit crazy. It is impossible to understand the terroir of Santa Cruz without studying its pioneers, each of which has left an indelible stamp on its history and daily practices through an uncompromising dedication to their own different drummer. The results of their explorations have spread far beyond the AVA to elevate not only the wines, but the lives of winemakers throughout California and in turn, the entire continent.
Martin Ray, whose eccentric insistence on French oak barrels, sur lies ageing and varietal labeling forged the path of today’s standard practices in 1942. The role call of innovative professional elite here is lengthy: San Francisco theologian William Short replanted the moribund Montebello Ridge to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1949, much to the delight of Stanford research physicist David Bennion and later minimalist visionary Paul Draper. Dermatologist David Bruce pioneered the California implementation of late harvest winemaking, malolactic fermentation of whites, gravity racking, and whole berry fermentation of reds. Eminent cardiovascular surgeon Thomas Fogarty converted his medical patent royalties into a mountain estate overlooking Stanford Medical Center. PhD microbiologist Leo McCloskey developed (and gave away gratis to the industry) an enzymatic method for monitoring malolactic fermentation, which is the global standard today.
There is plenty of moneyed influence: Ridge Vineyards’ corporate patron, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant Otsuka, and Silicon Valley billionaire-in-jeans T.J. Rodgers of Clos de La Tech provide the most visible examples among many. But it is not money that drives the Santa Cruz mentality. In a nutshell, the region makes little economic sense. Vineyard development is driven by a pure love – love of wine, to be sure, but not just any wine. Memorable wine, wine deep in somewhereness – dense, savage, minerally, take-no-prisoners wine – made according to natural