California Ramble. And a Shout out to Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

If you’d asked me what I thought of California wines 8+ years ago, you wouldn’t have gotten much more than a shoulder shrug.  Like many wine geeks in this market, we have always wanted to support California wines but many have been too exhausting to drink.  All that fruit and alcohol hardly paired well with anything on an East Coast menu, and the prices made them even more unreachable.  I remember drinking one glass of Napa Cabernet once and shortly thereafter I wanted to take a nap.  Then I had a silly fall out with a very arrogant and unrealistic Napa producer.  After that I kinda turned my attention elsewhere.

But, California and its wines have been slowly changing over the past several years.  More and more producers have been picking fruit earlier, making wines with more balance and finesse.  Many have abandoned making huge and clunky wines for high scores from wine critics and have been learning more about their vines, soils, and regions- their terror.  They’re really embracing their potential, and it’s apparent in the many fine wines being produced there these days.

This past spring I made it out to Northern California.  The trip began by visiting a couple of the hipster urban wineries based in Berkeley. I spent some quality time with Chris Brockway  from Broc Cellars, who we have been working with for a few years.  He has a new winery and tasting room, and he even has some help now. Chris just keeps producing such great and pure wines from atypical varietals often planted in very old vineyards.  We can never get enough of them…….

Then I had a great lunch with Jill and Steve Matthaisson in their newly remodeled house (it suffered significant damage in the earthquake of 2014).  We were accompanied by author Jon Bonné who wrote the book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution.  This guy has been at the head of exposing this new California wine movement.  Steve made us Rueben sandwiches with cabbage picked fresh from his garden. We enjoyed them while tasting some new vintages, talked wine, family, and trends for a couple of hours.  These people are so real and kind, and the wines continue to amaze…..

I also paid a visit to the kind and hard working folks at Brack Mountain Wine Company in Sonoma.  The amount of passion winemaker Dan Fitzgerald puts into all of his wines is always mind-blowing, especially considering the value to price ratio.  I.E. he vinifies every single vineyard, and often times, vineyard rows separately.  To make wines with so much love and attention to sell at $15-$25 retail is pretty unheard of…..

I also visited some other interesting folks in both Sonoma and Napa.  Some made exciting wines- some not so much……

But, I ‘d have to say the highlight of my trip was a visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s an absolutely stunning area, and although just a hop, skip, and a jump from sprawling Silicon Valley there’s a sheer ruggedness and beauty that cannot be compared to any other region.


Small Vineyard parcel at Thomas Fogarty.IMG_2195

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is one of the oldest wine producing areas in California that most people have never heard of. Established as an official AVA in 1981, the vineyards here date back to the 1800’s and it’s a wine region based on it’s mountain topography. It largely follows the fog line along the coast, commencing at 800 feet at its lowest level and rises up to it’s highest ridge lines anywhere between 2500-3000 feet.  The entire AVA is over 380,000 acres, but only 1300 acres are planted to vines, so you will not find any large estates like you see in areas such as Napa, Sonoma, or Central Coast.  What you do find, if you look hard enough, are tiny parcels of vines dispersed throughout- actually about 200 in total.  There are about 60 wineries predominately producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller plantings of Syrah, Merlot, and Zinfandel.

The soils are varied.  You can find volcanic soils, clay, loam, and limestone, and there are a few different micro-climates.  On the coastal slopes and ridge tops the mornings are typically warm and sunny in the summer, but the ocean influence brings afternoon fog which decreases air temps and limit plantings to cooler climate grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  On the more inland and eastern side it’s warmer, with more constant temperatures throughout the days, so here you find mostly Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and a bit of Zinfandel.

I paid a visit to two wineries that day- Thomas Fogarty and Big Basin.  These two wineries that are located at the far ends of their AVA.  Thomas Fogarty sits in the north, and at high elevations, while Big Basin is located in the southern area, more nestled in the Redwoods. I would have liked to have check out a couple more wineries, but my car rental got stuck in a ditch on the Thomas Fogarty property.  It took a bit of effort and machinery to get it out.

Thomas Fogarty winery was one of the first to set up in the Santa Cruz Mountains back in 1976.  They’re located in the northern area at very high elevations with just shy of thirty acres under vine.   The estate is farmed organically with minimal (if any) irrigation, and the property remains in the Williamson Act, which means that the entire Estate of 350 acres is preserved as Heritage Oak and Fir forest. Nathan Kandler is the winemaker who spent most of the day with me, and he’s been working at Thomas Fogarty since 2004- becoming head winemaker in 2012.  After talking with folks in the area about this winery, many mentioned that Nathan has taken the quality up a few notches, and based on my tastings with him later that day, I thought the wines were very impressive- one of the finest examples of Chardonnay from California, or anywhere else I have ever had! These are arriving at Oz HQ in September, so if you want to get in on these, we will have them opened at our warehouse tasting.

The next stop was Big Basin.  As the crow flies I could have gotten there within 20 minutes, but Santa Cruz Mountains are just that- mountains, and thick Redwood forest with limited, curvy, and sometimes dangerous narrow roads.  No one gets around fast.  It was a beautiful drive though, and Big Basin is a beautiful spot.  The old ranch property was first settled in the late 1800s, and there were parcels under vine first planted by French immigrants by the early 1900s.  The farm continued to grow fruit until 1965 when the property was sold by Justin Lacau, who had named the property “Frenchy’s Ranch”, to a timber company.

Big Basin Vineyards was founded in 1998 on a historic site next to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Bradley Brown who purchased the property has restored this historic vineyard site using modern, organic viticultural methods. It was quite a huge project that has taken years, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and determination to complete.

The entire vineyard and olive tree orchards have been Certified Organic by CCOF.  And with less than 10 acres under vine, Bradley also sources fruit from select parcels in the Gabilan Mountains, Monterey, and other Santa Cruz Mountains sites to make an extensive single vineyard line-up of Syrah based wines with a bit of Chardonnay and Roussanne for white wine.  The remaining 90% of the estate is being preserved in its natural state. Mountain lions, bobcats, deer, fox, and coyotes are all found in this forest ecosystem.

Be sure to come up to our warehouse Sept 13 (Trade only) to check out these and a bunch of other great wines at the Oz Wine Co 4th Annual Warehouse Tasting!  We can talk wine all day…



2 thoughts on “California Ramble. And a Shout out to Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

  1. Great post! I couldn’t agree more with your first three sentences, but have been trying to force myself to branch out and try more Cali wines and not fall into my rut of Cru-Beauj, mosel riesling, chenin from the Loire, and a handful of other old world high qpr, food friendly wines. I was recently in Napa at Back Room Wines and they did send me home with a few interesting selections that I was impressed with (Arbe Garbe, Rajat Parr’s Gamay), but they are still 50% more expensive than comparable old world examples.

    The main challenge, as a consumer who wants to try more Cali wine, is the classification system is so different than Europe. I recognize an average consumer may find the system in Europe confusing at first, but once you learn it, you have a good sense of what grape/style to expect form each region. In Cali, I can try to guess based on grape and alcohol level, but it’s still a shot in the dark because alcohol can be a red herring depending on how balanced the wine is. Ultimately, as a consumer, I need an importer to do the work of selecting good quality examples. Sort of like when I first got into wine and realized that I liked almost everything that had Kermit Lynch as the importer, and having his name on a bottle helped me branch out.

    I’ll be on the lookout for these!

    • Thanks for reading Caleb. Yeah Cru Beaujolais is my deserted island wine, and I too love low Alc wines. But Alc levels now in the Loire compared to 2005 when I first started importing from there are on the rise as well- pretty much everywhere. So, sadly this will continue until someone figures out that since NH is all granite, Gamay would probably work well… 🙂
      And as you mentioned, California, and most of USA AVA’s are very generous as far as doing whatever the hell you want. I know many of my producers in France would absolutely love the Cali system….

      Price is always an issue with domestic wines. It’s the toughest obstacle to turn people on to more domestic wines, because almost all the wines $15 and under are all industrial wines-. So you do have to spend more. I think you may enjoy Broc Cellars, Birinchino, Edmunds St. John, Navarro (great Alsatian whites), Teutonic Wine Co (Oregon). There are some exciting things happening for sure. The Thomas Fogarty Chardonnay 2014 really was the closest thing to Meaursault I have ever had from California, so people are getting into their rhythm. Cheers- Andrew

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