Forget Napa and Sonoma

Paul Blow

It’s a common complaint about California wine: overblown, saggy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that taste like tiki drinks. I’ve often felt that the wines didn’t have to be that way; that they were just made poorly or grown in the wrong places.

It was all those years of experience with overripe, cloying wines that made my recent visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, just 40 minutes south of San Francisco, so revelatory. I tasted Pinots with live-wire acidity and bright, perfumelike aromatics, and Chardonnays with citrus bite and underlying minerality. It didn’t seem like California at all.

But then of course it did. As I headed up into the hills, I passed giant mansion after giant mansion, some with stables, tucked into the redwoods. Silicon Valley (which I could see spread out below in all its pixelated glory) and its moneyed venture capitalists are a few miles away.

The fact that these glorious mountains are such primo residential property means that the area will probably never be a dominant wine appellation. That’s a shame, because the potential of the sites—when put in the hands of good winegrowers—is awesome. This is no new development. Mount Eden, originally planted in 1945 by Martin Ray, has produced some of America’s most famous wines. Ridge Vineyards started making a name for itself in the 1960s, and in 2006 made headlines again when the 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon bested first-growth Bordeaux and top California Cabs in a reenactment of the famous 1976 Paris tasting.

With that kind of success, you would think that ambitious winemakers would have rushed to the Santa Cruz Mountains to get their own little piece of terroir. But it never happened; Silicon Valley moguls stuck to Napa instead.

They should have stayed home, like venture capitalist Kevin Harvey. He started Rhys Vineyards, making some of the most promising Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that I’ve tasted in a long time. The Pinots have structure, acidity, and balance—words that you don’t always find mentioned in discussions of popular California Pinots. The Chardonnays have enough minerality to tame the warm, sweet flavors of the sun-bathed grapes.

It would be tempting to assign all credit for this success to Harvey’s investment (of time, labor, thought, and money) into his vineyards and completely traditional, noninterventionist winemaking. But even he gives most of the credit to the terroir he’s working with. “We’ve got one of the coolest climates in California,” he says, “but still plenty of sun, and the soils have the right mix of rock and clay, and yields are naturally incredibly low.”

At Windy Oaks, about an hour south of Rhys, the Pinots are again pert and bright, with some earthiness. The Chardonnay is taut with acidity and a fine gravel texture. And Varner, just on the other side of the ridge from Rhys, is making wonderful wines in the same style.

I second what Jim Varner told me: “These wines taste a bit like California wines, but then they don’t.” Indeed, they offer literally the best of both worlds, showing old-world structure, acidity, and earthiness, while capturing plenty of that California sun and fruit.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.