California wines were just coming to the world’s attention when the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA) was recognized in 1981.
It had been only five years since the famous “Judgment of Paris” wine competition, a taste test in which a number of California wines were found by a panel of experts to be as good or better than their lauded French counterparts. Two Santa Cruz Mountains wines (Ridge’s 1971 Mont Bello Cabernet Sauvignon and a David Bruce 1973 Chardonnay) were among these world-beaters.
The two winning Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers—David Bruce and Paul Draper (of Ridge)—had brought something unique to Paris. They were both innovators and had achieved their success by bucking popular trends. Bruce and Draper both favored winemaking techniques that respected the fruit and the terroir. That was, and has remained, the legacy of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Jon Bonné, the esteemed wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, calls the Santa Cruz Mountains region “a perfect laboratory for winemaking not held hostage to fashion,” and raves that this “has allowed a style of wine to flourish that skipped the industry’s steroidal tendencies of the past 20 years.”
“It hosts some of California’s defining wines and vineyards,” he concludes, “and yet fame has eluded the region itself.”
Thanks to two factors—the creativity of the area’s winemakers and the Coast Range’s unique mosaic of microclimates—Santa Cruz Mountains wines are noted for their diversity. The appellation stretches from the western slope, which gets nightly fogs and heavy winter rains, to the sunny, windy ridges of the summit, to the warmer, dryer east side of the range overlooking Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay.
Within this diverse geography, running from Woodside, just above Palo Alto, to Mount Madonna in south Santa Cruz County, there are pockets that are ideal for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, which are winning awards here and abroad. Elsewhere in the Santa Cruz AVA vintners are producing excellent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel, all celebrated for their concentrated, intense flavors.
Sustainable winegrowing practices can be found throughout the appellation, and several vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains have received organic certification.
Local Wine History
While David Bruce and Paul Draper were part of a new breed of winemakers who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s these coastal slopes and ridges have attracted innovative winemakers for more than a century.
Draper’s Monte Bello vineyard, which straddles a ridgeline 2,400 feet above Cupertino, was first planted in 1886 by Osea Perrone, an MD from Italy. Over the next 20 years, that ridge, stretching from Woodside to Los Gatos, would become known as the Chaine d’Or (Chain of Gold), universally acknowledged as one of America’s premier wine-growing region.
On the other side of the hill and 20 miles south, John and George Jarvis had established the Vine Hill winery above Scotts Valley, and Dr. John A. Stewart established Etta Hill vineyard nearby. According to Ross Eric Gibson’s History of Wine Making in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Stewart was the most serious winemaker in the area—maybe in the nation.
“He emulated the best French vineyards and achieved superior quality by blending wines in the French manner—a practice new to California.” Gibson writes.
That same year, Emmet Rixford, a surgeon and naturalist, planted the La Questa Vineyard near Woodside, with cabernet budwood said to have been sourced from the legendary Chateau Margaux.
The Santa Cruz Mountains wines quickly began winning awards. Vine Hill won international acclaim in 1884. The Ben Lomond Wine Co. won prizes at World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889, Chicago in 1893 and San Francisco in 1894.
Unfortunately, a huge forest fire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1899, destroying many wineries and most of the vineyards. One that survived was the Mare Vista Winery, above Los Gatos. According to one of the most colorful tales of the local wine industry, Emil Meyer, owner of Mare Vista, instructed firefighters to hook their hoses to his wine vats when they ran out of water. “This they did and saved the day,” the July, 1900 Wide World Magazine, reported. “But Los Gatos Creek ran red with claret.”
The Modern Era
The 20th century for Santa Cruz Mountains winemaking arrived when Paul Masson planted his first vines above Saratoga in 1901.
Masson, a native of Burgundy, was already known as “The Champagne King of California”—he was producing the state’s first “champagne” at the Almaden Vineyards Winery, a few miles down Hightway 9 and Blossom Hill Road. Masson had been introduced to winemaking by Charles LeFranc, the pioneering owner of that winery, which was California’s first commercial winery. (The padres had been making wine at the missions since before California was California.)
While Masson was an important figure in California wine history, a less-well known winemaker was more important.
In 1936, Masson sold his winery to a neighbor named Martin Ray. The first thing Ray did was to pull out Masson’s “champagne” vines and plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. That was his first contribution to this region—to this day, those three grapes are the most popular in the region. His second innovation was his insistence that these grapes be used to make varietally pure wines—before him, California wines were blended and marketed as California Burgundy, Champagne and Chablis.
Finally, it was Martin Ray who declared that California wines would one day rival those of the old world. At that time, in the 1930s, that seemed like a hollow boast.
More to come…