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Santa Cruz Mountains: Breathtaking Fresh Air, Gorgeous Views, and World Class Wines

Santa Cruz Mountains: Breathtaking Fresh Air, Gorgeous Views, and World Class Wines

Joe Campbell

Redwoods adorned the Santa Cruz Mountains on top of lime deposits. Early pioneers cleared away approximately 18 million board feet of redwood, paving the way for settlers to establish agriculture in the region. In the 1700s, the Spanish missionaries planted grapes, but grape growing here got its start in 1854 when early viticulturists Lyman J. Burrell and the Jarvis Brothers planted vineyards. According to historical records, the region planted 300 acres and output 70,000 gallons of wine per year over the next 20 years. In 1888, Pierre Klein purchased 160 acres of what would later become part of Ridge Vineyards. Several years later, Paul Masson bought 40 acres in the mountains above Saratoga. Masson’s sparkling wine eventually led him to be called “The Champagne King of California” after winning an award at the Paris Expo in 1900.

Like much of the rest of the country, Prohibition wiped out most of the wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Masson continued to make “medicinal” sparkling wine and altar wines. The region didn’t regain its foothold until the late 1960s and early 1970s when a group of small producers in the area banded together and petitioned the government for AVA (American Viticultural Area) status. In 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was official. This was a pivotal point that ushered in a wave of small producers and visionaries to take the region to the next level.

Mindego Ridge Vineyard | Photo credit: Mindego Ridge Vineyard

Mindego Ridge Vineyard

In December 2008, David and Stacey Gollnick had an opportunity to purchase a vineyard property at Mindego Ridge. David was a third-generation California farmer who grew up with dairy cattle in Northern California and the hope of owning a vineyard. The Mindego Ridge Vineyard site is a 10-acre vineyard perched on the shale-laced mountain slope of Mindego Hill, tucked into the Redwoods, 40 miles south of San Francisco and eight miles east of the Pacific Ocean. California’s late-season heat spikes are moderated in this distinct region, with large diurnal swings between warm-day and cool-night temperatures. The proximity to the ocean and the combination of steep hillsides with rocky soils produce fruit of intense varietal character; the wines are precise and focused.

David Gollnick says, “We are focused on making wines that speak of somewhere, and not someone—hence our focus on making 100 percent estate-grown wines that authentically express this marine-influenced mountain terroir site.”

Winemaker Ehren Jordan has a hands-off approach believing that great wines are made in the vineyard where they manifest a sense of place. With 8.7 acres of planted Pinot Noir and 1.3 acres of Chardonnay yielding typically two tons per acre, the wines are made in small lots with a non-interventionist style of winemaking. Nothing is added to the wine: no yeast, nutrients, nor other additives–just a small amount of sulfur dioxide to stabilize the wine at bottling. Hand sorting, native yeast fermentation, hand punch-downs, no fining, no filtration—all of these practices, they believe, help deliver a pure and transparent expression of the vineyard site.

Mindego Ridge’s mission is to tread lightly while providing daily meticulous care to the vineyard and to farm at the highest level possible. “Cover-cropping and compost are used to build the micro-flora and fauna of the soil and provide microbial diversity. Every shoot on every vine is touched many times during the growing season. Pruning, training, lateral removal, fruit thinning, and every other aspect of vine maintenance are performed by hand. Careful attention to not over-soaking the young vines during the first five years has allowed us to eliminate irrigation and dry farm all of the blocks—even in drought years,” says David Gollnick.

The Neely Wine vineyard crew | Photo credit: Neely Wines

Neely Wine

In 1995, Kirk Neely and Holly Myers purchased Spring Ridge Vineyard and moved there with three young children. The property sits at the northern boundary of the Santa Cruz Mountains and runs from Portola Valley’s floor and up the ridge toward Windy Hill. In the 1970s, the Melchor family purchased a mostly abandoned property and fixed up the house. In 1980, they were introduced to the Varner Brothers. Identical twins Jim and Bob Varner were active in the local viticultural scene and sought an ideal place to grow Chardonnay. The Melchors and the Varners made an agreement, and in 1981, the Varners began planting Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer vineyards at Spring Ridge Vineyard.

Kirk Neely loved Pinot Noir and directed planting the first Block in 1997. In 2006, Pinot Noir replaced the Gewürztraminer vines as well. In 2000, Neely designed a facility to house equipment, tools, the vineyard crew lunch room and headquarters, and office space. Up until his retirement in 2015, Bob Varner remained a critical centerpiece wearing many hats from winemaker to viticulturist to crew manager. The wines went from being a split Varner/Neely label to all bottled under Neely. Around the same time, two of the Neely children returned as adults and helped with the winery. Simon focused on the agriculture and marketing aspects of the business while Lucy oversaw operations.

Winemaker Shalini Sekhar | Photo credit: Neely Wine

The Neely family hired Shalini Sekhar as the winemaker. Sekhar has an impressive background after working at ROAR Winery in San Francisco and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Williams Selyem, and Copain Custom Crush. In 2015, she was named Winemaker of the Year at the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition. She says, “We are fortunate to have amazing raw material—40-year-old Chardonnay and 20 plus-year-old Pinot Noir vines. Instead of single-vineyard wines, we make single-block wines. And while the blocks are very close in proximity to one another, you can taste the different character of each block, which really showcases the differences in topography, aspect, and soil. In the cellar, we use a combination of native fermentations and cultured yeast when needed.”

Neely Family Chardonnays are medium-to-full-bodied and are more expressive of fruit than oak. They use a low percentage of new oak; it only serves a supporting role. The Pinot Noirs are all about the purity of the fruit. The oak is kept to around 25 to 30 percent new with a flavor profile focused on subtlety rather than power.

Lester Estate vineyards | Photo credit: Lester Estate Wines

Lester Estate Wines

While away at college, Dan Lester wrote a paper on what he described as the perfect ranch property. He explained the key tenets: it had to be in the coastal mountain range of central California, offering a level of privacy, have a gentle-to-steep wooded topography, and generate income. Over thirty years later, in the late 1990s, he and his wife Patty put that plan into action with the purchase of Deer Park Ranch. It had 200 acres of gently rolling oak-covered hills, enormous redwoods, and panoramic vista views. They cultivated fourteen acres with the goal of growing high-quality wine grapes to sell to local wineries.

As productivity grew with each successive harvest, the grapes’ outstanding quality became evident, and relationships with local winemakers developed and continued to grow. As Lester’s fruit gained recognition, they started the Lester Estate label. Producing wines was the next logical step for the Lester family to achieve for the ranch’s sustainability.

Rather than utilizing one winemaker, Lester Estate Wines has each Pinot Noir wine made by a different winemaker. Any given vintage is usually the result of two to three different winemakers employing their artistic touch on that year. The Lesters will continue to develop relationships with new winemakers to expand their Winemaker Series to Chardonnay and Syrah, and more Pinot Noir expressions.

Lester Estate vineyards | Photo credit: Lester Estate Wines

Looking Forward

A combination of both new and established wineries recognize what a special place this region is to grow grapes, particularly Chardonnay, as it spans cooler and warmer sites with styles ranging from low-intervention winemaking to more traditional methods. Within several vineyard sites that exceed 3,000 feet in elevation, visitors will taste wines that contrast in flavor profiles and styles. “Because of the remote, noncontiguous nature of the region, it remains a hidden gem which encourages folks to come spend time enjoying the individual wineries and getting to know their wines and people, rather than shuttling from one to another without pause,” said Sekhar.

“At the moment, it’s more fun to look forward than to look back at last year.  Our hearts are heavy for our neighbors to the south of us who suffered from the CZU Lightning Complex fire,” said Dave Gollnick. “There is a true community of wine growers in the Santa Cruz Mountains that make it an inspiring and rewarding place to farm. In our short existence as growers, we’ve made many wonderful connections and lasting friendships. We’re humbled by and grateful for our neighbors’ advice, collaboration, and support.”

Wine Recommendations

2016 Mindego Ridge Estate Grown Pinot Noir

Aged for 11 months in neutral French oak, this wine is garnet in color with flavors of cranberry and Bing cherry.

2016 Mindego Ridge Estate Grown Chardonnay

This wine has flavors of green apple, pear, and a hint of lime with lingering and crisp acidity. It is medium-bodied—pair with a lobster roll or halibut.