Thursday, May 21, 2009

Santa Cruz Mountain Ramblings

I seldom fail to call on the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries when I visit the area. This is the first wine region I explored in depth when I lived in its foothills. Many wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains offer discounts on their wines, but Byington was the first one that called it a stimulus package. Byington Winery rests on the ocean-facing side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by vines on steeply sloped hills. Their quality wines are well priced and they are known for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. And the stimulus involves the Cabs, two of which are deeply discounted on the website. I think this is the right stimulus – lower costs on excellent wines.

The East Side of the Santa Cruz Mountains

On this trip I planned to visit two wineries, Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards and Byington, on opposite sides of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The wineries are off roads I’ve bicycled numerous times when I lived around here, so the drive called up memories of other times, happily-spent. Savannah-Chanelle produces a number of wines, but their Pinot and Syrah wines are among my favorites. The 2006 Monterey County Syrah has the same appeal as the 2004s I'm enjoying in my cellar now. The 06 has balance, good fruit and spice and black pepper. Looks like I may be adding a case of this one, too.

Many Santa Cruz Pinots are influenced by the elevations, dramatic slopes of the hills and valleys, the maritime breezes, and the summer fog that forms when warm valley air hits cool ocean winds. Earthy and concentrated fruit are hallmarks of many Santa Cruz Pinots. This is also one of the oldest wine-producing regions in California, and it is rich in wine lore. The majority of Savannah-Chanelle Pinots are from vineyards on the Sonoma coast and Russian River area, which is a key region for great wines, but I still love the Estate Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountians Pinot Noir best. The estate Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc vines produce some of the best wines from these grapes in California as well.

Coastal Views of Monterey

The views from Byington winery are long, descending to Monterey Bay in the distance. Byington has been a destination for me for many years, and this time they made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. I’m looking at a bottle of the 2004 Cerro Prieto Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that arrived over the weekend. This is a potent Paso Robles Cab, with lots of blackberry and plum. Somehow they managed to crank 16% alcohol into this powerhouse without upsetting the balance. The tannins insure a good shelf life for this wine (4 to 9 years), but I don’t think my case will last that long.

On the website they are also discounting the 2004 Smith-Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. This one clocks in at 15%, crafted to be age-worthy (6 to 10 years), and with a depth of fruit Alexander Valley is famous for. Since the normal price of both these cabs makes them a best buy, the sale prices should be darn near irresistible. Well, I certainly didn’t resist. Salud!

Atop St. Helena

Napa County has many beautiful hills and valleys with breathtaking landscapes, but I’ve found none better than the views from Kuleto Estate Winery. This Tuscan-inspired spot rests atop a steep hill near St. Helena, surrounded by terraced hills that shimmer with dusky light on emerald-draped vines. In the distance is Lake Hennessey, which I skirted on the drive up. The 2-mile private road that climbs up the mountainside had numerous panoramic mirrors positioned to expose blind corners, of which there were many. I was hoping I didn’t meet a celebrant coming down, because it is really a one-lane road.

Want to see for yourself? Check out the Kuleto Estate Winery website and pictures that can only hint at the specialness of this place. Setting, mood, and environmental sounds can all enhance a wine tasting experience, and our tour of the property provided the proper stimulus. Steve Frattini was our guide, and handed us glasses of the 2007 Rosato (Rosé) which was dry and full of strawberries and rich citrusy fruit. A good companion for a bracing climb.

We walked an up-sloping trail on the rim of the hill the winery occupied. A soft breeze brought the sounds of Cicadas singing, and sheep bleating. Vista after vista opened up around us as we passed the winery, which looked like it had grown out of the bedrock, stone-faced, with pillars that once served a Mexican church now upholding the patio roof. Beyond the winery was the home Pat Kuleto had built overlooking the valleys below. Earthy accents and the feel of a remote Tuscan villa completed the fairy tale picture.

My good friend, Judy Diaz, secured the invitation to this unique winery. Every time I come to Napa, she has at least one new jewel of a location to show me, but this one was really over the top. The architecture is stunning, even considering that Pat Kuleto has designed some of the most prestigious restaurants in California. The Fog City Diner, one of my favorites in San Francisco, was his 110th design and added to his growing reputation. He now has crafted 170 restaurants and owns some of the most popular, including Boulevard, Farrallon, and Jardinière in San Francisco, and the Martini House in St. Helena.

Rough-hewn stone works and fixtures that could have graced a prince’s hunting lodge, where balanced with art and clever design twists that proclaimed a master’s touch. Once we finished the tour, we went in to enjoy wine and select cheeses. Mindful of how seductively a cheese can enhance a wine, I focused on the wines first. The 2006 Zinfandel reminded me of my first wonderful Zin experience many, many years ago. That it could invoke such a memory spoke well for its balance and structure. Many Zins have an overwrought jammy core that almost overpowers the senses. This one brought the flavors of rich dark fruit and a myriad of spices added to the complexity of this balanced wine. Well worth the $40 price tag.

The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon delivered all I could ask for in a Napa Cab, with a palate of sun-warmed blackberries, plum and black cherry, and spice, well-priced at $60. How could they top this I thought just before I tasted the 2004 Kuleto Estate Cabernet Sauvignon India Ink. Sampling this heady wine I think I achieved an elevated state of consciousness. Not for the first time I was thinking $90 was a reasonable price for a wine that delivered like this one.

Now that I’ve tasted a number of $90 cabs, which seems to be a favored price point, I’d rate this one alongside the Frank Family 2005 Rutherford reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the Stonestreet 2005 Christopher Cabernet Sauvignon. If you know these wines you also know what exclusive company the Kuleto cab is in. Just please don’t ask me to chose which one is best, they all bring the fruit, the finesse and structure and the inducement to drink them again.

Steve also managed to locate a bottle of their dry Moscato, which provided a new appreciation of the Muscat grape. The Kuleto Estate Winery Chardonnay was also a surprise, although it had full malolactic fermentation (MLF), it didn't exhibit the buttery palate that makes many chardonnays flabby due to the artful way MLF was handled. All Kuleto wines represent the same attention to quality, passion, and patience that went into the design of Kuleto Estate. Try one of their reds and you may find yourself transported to a Tuscan landscape, too. Salud!