Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hiking the Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Trails

The first wine region I came to know and love was only footsteps from my homes in Los Gatos and later Los Altos. I’ve explored most of it on bicycle, tracking 50 to 90 miles rides along its slopes and craggy mountain escarpments. The defined boundaries for the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA begin at the crest of Mt. Madonna in the south to the sparkling waters of Half Moon Bay in the north. Within that area are over 70 wineries and 200 small vineyards.

The varied and enriched soil types and the coastal influence of the Pacific Ocean to the west and San Francisco Bay to the east have created five different subregions. These are varied enough that defined Pinot Noir wines from each subregion bear a unique signature or terroir as the French would have it. I know this from sampling the many excellent wines at a variety of wineries. I’ll discuss a few of these in this and subsequent articles.

Santa Cruz Pinots are among the best in California, but as mentioned above each subregion places its own stamp on the color and flavor of the wines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also wonderful here, but my focus on this article is Pinot Noir.

Muns Vineyard: Touching the Sky
The highest vineyard in these mountains is Muns Vineyard at 2600 feet. From this vineyard, Muns makes their own Pinot Noir and Syrah as well as providing grapes to Sonnet Winecellars, Soquel Vineyards, Silver Mountain and Savannah-Channel. Tony Craig, the winemaker at the latter also crafts Muns’ wines at the Silver Mountain facility.

I and a friend, Jack Faraone, were there to view the vineyards at this unique location and sample some of the wines with Mary Lindsay, part owner and well-regarded publicist for the Santa Cruz appellation. Through the low-flung clouds we could see Monterrey Bay in the distance, a view unobstructed by trees or other mountaintops. The vines hugged the slopes, meandering up hill and down dale in a graceful dance of vines, and trellis-held canes.

We set up behind the main house and Mary brought out a 2007 Muns Vineyard Pinot Noir and three glasses, which she preceded to generously fill. Now this is my idea of a wine tasting! We indulged in amiable company and a relaxing afternoon enjoying a wonderful Pinot. I soon discovered why other leading Santa Cruz wineries were buying their fruit.

The distinctive cherry notes are wrapped around plum with spices and subtle vanilla from the Hungarian oak. The mouthfeel was sensuous and silky and the finish long and lingering. If I could only have one winery’s Pinot, this would be my choice.

Then we were treated to the 2008 Muns Vineyard Syrah. I decided then and there I had to have Jack join me in any Santa Cruz wine tasting. Mary also provided me with a seminal work she is doing on the Santa Cruz Mountain subregions.

Even though the winds still chilled, the warmth of those wines stayed with me on the long drive down the mountain. Just a word of warning; these Pinots are done in modest lots of around 160 cases except the 2006, so don’t wait too long to purchase, you’ll be missing something very special. Salud!

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Russian River Junket

February 26, 2011
I took a tour of Sonoma and Napa counties during a weeklong stay in the town of Napa at the end of February. With our good friends Debbie and Ken McKenzie joining us, we took a trip into the past. The past for us was our previous excursions together along the Russian River beginning in the late 1980’s and reacquainting ourselves with wineries we’d enjoyed then along with exploring newer ones now. That began with trying to remember which back roads we were supposed to take.

The late winter in Sonoma still brought a chill to the air, but sampling some wonderful wines along the Russian River and Dry Creek regions warmed us up considerably. Our first stop was Arista Winery, the newest winery on Westside Road. Westside Road and Eastside Road are on opposite sides of the Russian River, which ends at the Sonoma Coast and meanders east and west and then north and south as it wends its way through some of the most fertile soil in the whole county.

Many years ago the Westside Wineries, as they’re known, sponsored “An Evening at the Westside Wineries”, which began after the normal serving hours. I believe there were up to ten participating wineries at one time and each offered two or three wines paired with dishes prepared at each winery. A movable feast indeed, but as word got around and the numbers increased, liability became an issue and the program was discontinued. That evening each year held some of my best memories of touring Sonoma, and now I was reliving them, albeit in broad daylight.

Arista Winery
We began at Arista for some Pinot Noir tasting. I’d previously purchased a half case of their 2008 Sonoma County Pinot Noir and was eager to try more. Pinot Noir is Arista’s main passion, although they also make excellent Syrah, Zinfandel and Pinot Gris. Artisa specializes in single region and single vineyard Pinot Noir wines from Sonoma, Mendocino and the Monterrey Peninsula.

The winery is located on Westside Road, an area I’ve traveled more times on bike than car. Davis Bynum, one of the early pioneers of Russian River Pinot Noir had a winery here at one time. My love of this area’s Pinot began there and continued with Rochioli just down the road. This is also home for Gary Farrell and Williams Selyem, all iconic producers of premium Pinot Noir.

To my great satisfaction, Arista continues that heritage with exceptional Pinot Noir. Due to the popularity of their wines, one has to join their “A” list to insure access to all the enticing varieties of this grape they offer, which topped ten unique Pinots at my last count. That’s what I mean about a passion for Pinot.

Arista Winery is a family affair with multiple generations of the McWilliams clan getting into the act. The photo above is by Al McWilliams. Ben McWilliams, the tasting room manager, gave us good background on the winery and poured us increasingly wonderful Pinots and other choice wines. It appeared that my 2008 Pinot was only the tip of the iceberg of what Arista produces. This may become my go-to winery for Russian River Pinots, the wines are that good.

I did grab a bottle of their Smoky Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel, sourced from the Dry Creek Valley, which was also excellent. The winery and its grounds are a great place to decamp, sample the wines, bring a picnic and open a bottle looking over the vineyards and distant mountains. The Japanese gardens and waterfall are inviting and make it hard to leave. It will have you saying,” Maybe just one more glass.”