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.
Fogarty, from the Beginning
While it may be surprising that the region’s wineries must make do with modest yields and the modest prices relatively obscurity allows, it’s fortunate that they perservere. In fact Thomas Fogarty has been doing it for over 30 years. First bonded as a winery in 1981, the Fogarty story begins in a rather roundabout way. The land was purchased as an investment and the winery was begun as a way to help pay the bills. Yes, there was some romanticism involved, but as Tommy Fogarty related to me it was in fact all based on a series of very practical decisions.
The vineyards were planted piece by piece, with the first vines going in the ground back in 1977. Vineyards were planted where they could be planted, and once you drive around this rugged, steep, and craggy property, it’s easy to see why. Early settlers to the region had cleared what land they could for farming and grazing purposes, and while they had left these lands long before the Fogarty family purchased them, the impact of their work remained. The lands that had been cleared remained relatively open, full of scraggly greasewood bushes but obviously the easiest place to plant vines. Not “easiest” in the easy sense, of course; even today, after decades of work these vineyards remain challenging to traverse.
The plantings were finished in 1982, creating the basic outline of the current Fogarty vineyards, though a relatively recent addition of Nebbiolo, just a third of an acre on a wickedly steep slope side, shows things are not yet quite complete here. A third of an acre is a small vineyard, but on this property it’s not the only miniscule patch of vines; the Damiana Chardonnay vineyard is basically the same size, and is even bottled on its own when the vintage warrants it. The entire vineyard plantings consist of the 16 acres of Chardonnay plus nine of Pinot Noir, and the Nebbiolo garden, all spread out among eight plots that roughly range between one and five acres each.
The Fogarty family has taken advantage of the diversity these vineyards are able to produce, and since 2004 they have bottled the vineyards separately in those vintages where the vineyards express something unique and distinctive. Prior to 2004, there had been a Reserve bottling comprised of the best lots from each vineyard, but now the single vineyard bottlings are seen as a better use for that juice.
The Surprises of Diverse Terrain
Driving the property you get a clear sense of why that is--with a lot of land and just a few scattered vineyards there really do appear to have significant differences from plot to plot. Moving from that highest most exposed Windy Hill plot to a lower vineyard known as Rapley Trail, considered to be the heart and soul of the winery, and then continuing to the lowest elevation vineyard known as Razorback, one passes through a variety of soils, orientations, and of course fog lines. And the fogline here plays a critical role in how fruit ripens.
Take, for example, 2012: an incredibly warm vintage for vineyards above the fog line and yet one that was incredibly cool for those below, due to unusually thick and persistent fog that year. As you might expect, this was a reverse of the norm that typically sees cooler temperatures at higher elevation and more exposed sites, with pockets of warmth building as one moves down slope. Just another issue to deal with in what many have and will argue is just about the edge of where grapes can thrive. Of course impressions have changed, as has the weather, and newer neighbors such as Clos de la Tech and Rhys might argue that point.
I would as well, though tasting the 2012 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir
reminds us that the edge of ripeness, while not always close at hand, can make an appearance at any time, and leave you with a 12.8% alcohol Pinot Noir. A very delicious 12.8%, by the way.
The fact that the winery actually produced and bottled this 12.8% Pinot Noir, when the previous vintage clocked in at a more typical and robust 14.2%, is indicative of the overall philosophy driving Thomas Fogarty. The goal here, in the vineyard as well as the cellar, is to allow the vineyard sites and the vintages to express themselves, and in that there is no doubt they’ve succeeded.
Between Old and New Ways
The wines at Thomas Fogarty undergo a fairly typical barrel aging regimen, though the wood that's used is air-dried for three years, ensuring that its imprint on the wine is light and more to the spice end of the spectrum, and Nathan confides that he is not looking to add vanilla to his wines.
The wines are allowed to ferment on their native yeasts both for primary fermentation and malolactic, and there's very little done to the wines while they age. Even lees stirring is eschewed, being viewed as evolving the wines in negative way. The results are wines that the winemaker freely admits tend to be backwards and difficult for many a consumer to grasp, but wines that ultimately reward cellaring and remain true to the soil from which they sprang. One gets a sense that Tommy Fogarty is a bit torn over this, no doubt fully cognizant of the difficulty this style presents to the marketing and sales half of the business, but at the same time committed to sticking to his guns, and since I do like the wines quite a bit, one has to applaud him for that!
All in all these are a fascinating wines, with a lot to like here. There is definitely the feeling that not necessarily inconsequential tweaks are being made to the wines, tweaks that let these wines speak with more of a Santa Cruz voice than ever before. To my mind that's a decidedly good thing, because the wines of this region, and of winemakers like Thomas Fogarty, deserve a bigger, broader audience. These are compelling wines. They are tough to make, and perhaps retain a bit that toughness as part of their makeup. But at the same time there is so much love required to keep doing this year in and year out that some of that love can't help but make it into the bottle.
Yeah, that may be a little cheesy, but before you laugh try some of the wines, then get back to me.
Lightly smoky on the nose in a restrained style, tight, smells lightly floral with mineral earth notes and hints of Asian pear. Focused in the mouth and much leaner and crisper than expected. This is downright snappy and very clear on the palate with a growing sweetness of ripe fruit on the backend. There’s a little hint of ripe pineapple and nice length that leads to a firm and stony finish with some sweetness of wood on the finale. 90pts
A little smoke and chalk on the nose is layered over dried orchard fruit. On entry this shows restrain and a fairly Burgundian style with a cool, taut mouthfeel light stone and floral inner mouth perfumes with lovely core of dry pear and citrus fruit. The finish is quite aromatic with more floral notes. A well built Chardonnay that would certainly benefit from being served with food today. 91pts
A bit more obvious oak is evident here revealed through sweet hints of vanilla and spice over citrus and peach fruits. On the palate this is kind of fabulous, bright, lean and clear yet quite mouth filling with lovely ripe fruit and fine acidity lending this rather large scaled wine a linear, focused feel. This finishes very long and stony with great intensity of ripe fruit balanced by zesty acidity very long. 94pts
Riper and sweeter on the nose with plenty of pear fruit in a style that is bit more typical of California Chardonnay than the rest of the line-up. This is broad in the mouth and richer than other Fogarty Chardonnay's without quite being rich, a bit more obvious oak appears on the palate as well with a hint of almost gingery spice, good length, still quite clear with very attractive fruit. 92pts
Slight herbal on the nose with a green lime zest sort of note. A little leesy and then a little minty. On entry this is both tense and ripe offering a very interesting blend of ripe fruit and savory notes that are deep and complex on the palate with a reappearance of that a little minty thing. Finishes long with lots of ripe Chardonnay fruit, though a touch sticky and sweet from the alcohol. 90pts
Sweet, waxy, and spicy, with hints of cinnamon, dried orange peel and dried peach all topped with pressed flowers. On the palate this is dry and lightly tannic, really a lovely wine, clean and firm with late arriving pear and lemon pith fruit all leading to a dry firm finish with lovely heirloom apple notes and a nice hint of umami on the finale. 89ts
A bit minty and spicy, with nice soil tones, a hint of tar and some spicy red fruit on the nose. The palate is round and fairly opulent with a smooth texture, nice ripe tannins, feeling just a bit modest early on before the meaty, spicy cherry fruit kicks in on the mid-palate accompanied by late-arriving inner mouth perfume al followed by a smooth, modest finish finish which shows just a hint of heat. 89pts
Spicy, wild, and savory on the nose with oak is just a touch obvious, all topped with a light leafiness. In the mouth this is fabulously cool, crisp compact and focused offering lovely purity in the style of a village wine from Burgundy. While ethereal, there is lovely ripeness here, delicacy yes, but also fine balance. Just a simple, clean and fresh expression that delivers subtle raspberry fruit in an energetic package. Atypical but lovely. 89pts
Perfumed on the nose with lots of spice and herbal notes framing rich fruit that shows a bit of black cherry hidden under the cranberry and lingonberry aromas. Really intense aromatics. This is silky and rich with a really fabulous texture that’s got sinewy power yet remains totally transparent on the palate. The dark fruit, mineral,herb, laurel, and wood toast flavors are all deftly woven into the fruit and wrapped up with bright integrated acidity that extends the elegant finish. 94pts
Ripe meaty cherry fruit, fruit greets the nose along with a little licorice-like, fennel quality and nuanced spicy, turmeric and wood spice notes. On entry this is almost supple with plenty of ripe fruit and slightly powdery tannins that again offer a lovely texture though with slightly less tension in the mouth than the Windy Hill. You really get a sense of super-ripe fruit tannins here and that that black spice accent from the nose appears on the palate as well. This is a little tight on the finish which shows good length, and nice density without being weighty. 91pts
Very interesting on the nose with its medicinal, sweet, licorice root aromas that contrast with the lightly waxy red cherry fruit. there is a slightly medicinal, rather Serralunga-like camphor note here. Delicate and silky on the palate with a nice tannic freshness, this lacks some depth of fruit, and the nice slightly chewy tannins dominate the surprisingly long finish but it certainly smells, tastes and feels like nebbiolo. 87pts
63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot
Fairly oaky on the nose and full of black spicy aromas, sweet toast, a bit of caramel, and a hint of rye bread. This is nicely and noticeably high acid on entry with a young feel and an early rush of fresh if dark fruit. Theres a nice seamless texture with all the ripeness and power of california Cabernet but not much fat. This is rather intense and brawny, if sinewy, with rather dark and earthy fruit on the spicy finish that shows a whisper of heat. Spicy finish. 91pts
Beautiful lychee and exotic tea aromas greet the nose along with classic honeysuckle, and ripe fruit notes. In the mouth this is fairly rich but focused, with lovely bright fruit in a dry yet soft style. This exhibits a fine blend of tension and ripeness and opens nicely on the really long finish, which reveals lovely floral, citrus and light lychee notes. Retains a certain delicacy on the palate which I like, particularly when paired with such bright aromatics. 90pts