The Santa Cruz Mountains
: not the first place that springs to mind when we think of the top appellations in California now is it? Of course, one of the reasons it remains undiscovered is that, as appellations go, it's not easy, which many might say is part of its charm.
Joy in the Journey
It’s not easy to travel through, not easy to visit, and not easy to farm. As the name implies, the appellations trenches over the Santa Cruz Mountains, meaning that roads tend to be steep and winding, towns and accommodation few and far between, and vineyards rocky, steep and low-yielding. What turns out to be a challenge for visitors and winemakers alike ends up being irresistible, almost adventurous. Winemakers struggle through and wine lovers learn to make the effort needed to visit and learn about the region.
These efforts are well rewarded. The wines produced here are, in many cases, among the best of their types in California. Due to variance in terrain and climate, and significantly influenced by the famed coastal fogs of California, there’s room for a variety of world class wines to be produced here. It's naturally a land for the cool climate-loving Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Noir
, but it’s also well suited for varieties as diverse as Nebbiolo
and even Cabernet Sauvignon
Pioneers in Temporary Obscurity
But what makes the region special, besides the topography and climate, are the people, people who bucked the odds and pioneered a winemaking renaissance here. It's actually a region with a long winemaking history, certainly stretching to at least the mid to late 19th century, though Prohibition brought nearly all of that intensive industry to a stand still. It wasn't until the 1970s that the region began to reclaim some of its previous glory and truth be told it’s a region just now finding the fame and following it deserves.
Take for example Thomas Fogarty winery. Don't feel bad if your not familiar with their wines, with a rare exception, nearly all of the wineries here have toiled away in near anonymity for quite some time, decades in the case of Thomas Fogarty. I recently had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful property, perched on the edge of Skyline Drive, which tracks long the ridge line here at some 2000 feet above sea level.
I spent several hours touring the property and tasting with winemaker Nathan Kandler and Tommy Fogarty, son of the eponymous founder. Our tour began right outside the winery facility at the highest point on the property just below 2000 feet, a parcel known as the Windy Hill Vineyard.
Just recently replanted, in this case from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, this vineyard of some six or seven acres represents a large chunk of the Chardonnay found on the property, 16 acres in total. As the most exposed vineyard at Thomas Fogarty, the replanting project here not only allowed for a change of rootstock (the clones are for the most part heritage clones such as Calera and Martini), it also gave the owners a chance to re-orient the vines.
Thriving in Regional Challenges
One of the issues in dealing with a vineyard this high up and this close to the coast is the weather, in particular the winds that act as a persistent threat to the rows of vines oriented perpendicular to the prevailing winds. This is not an issue exclusive to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and in fact it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the world. But it does help to illustrate that the region is not a vinous backwater but rather as cutting edge in vineyard practices as any region, and perhaps ahead of many due to the difficulty of growing conditions encountered here.
The weather coupled with the soil (mostly topsoil covering fractured sandstone and shale for about 18 inches, then solid shale) naturally limits yields here. It might only be my opinion, but these naturally limited vines seem to have better innate balance than many other vines where growers need to drop fruit to get yields down to, say, two tons an acre, a yield that the folks at Fogarty consider to be about the best they can do, and rarely that. Average yields are closer to about one ton per acre, probably averaging somewhere between a ton and a ton and a third each year. Minuscule yields, however, allow for the creation of some compelling wines.