Many wine lovers have experienced at least one epiphany in their life-long association with wine. My first eye-opening experience was with California Pinot Noir in the early 1960s. My wife and I and our two young sons had just come from a tour in Hawaii with the U.S. Air Force and were living in San Jose. In those days, what little I knew about wine came from an earlier tour of duty in France and Germany, so I was mildly curious about the neighborhood chatter in San Jose buzzing around an eccentric doctor named David Bruce who held court on weekends at his small winery in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains.
The buzz about Bruce wasn’t limited to my neighborhood. In those days, it was tough to make ends meet on military pay, so I took a part time job as a stereo salesman (stereo being the hot electronic thing at that time) and my boss, a hipster who spoke jive talk, listened only to jazz and drove a black Jaguar coupe on weekends to Santa Cruz, talked endlessly about this “Crazy cat named Bruce who is pouring the grooviest red wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” It was an invitation that even a wine neophyte like me couldn’t miss checking out.
I wasn’t that impressed. But then I was still cultivating my beer palate, and sophisticated red wine was a learning curve I had yet to develop. Besides, I didn’t understand then why people would gather in small, nervous groups to hear someone expound on the merits and pleasures of Pinot Noir, especially when you could be home mowing the grass. If I had known then what was in store for me in the future, I would have paid more attention to the Gospel of Pinot according to David Bruce.
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area), established in 1982, is located on a large forested land-bulge that separates the San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay, south of San Jose and north of the city of Santa Cruz with the Pacific Ocean along its western edge. This prime mountainous location, one of the earliest regions to be granted an AVA, benefits from a moderate coastal climate, with warm days and cool nights, sea breezes and coastal fog--essential components for complex flavors with intensity and length. Within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA are these sub regions: Ben Lomond, Corralitos, Portola Valley, The Summits and the Watsonville area.
The beauty of Pinot Noir is that stylistically the wine is like a region with a number of diverse microclimates. Every wine fan who develops a passion for Pinot finds something different in Pinot Noir and a lot of that difference is credited to regionality and how the grape responds to the terroir of the area. Some Pinots display subtle, earthy-organic hints of mushroom, humus, leather, strong black tea, boiled beets and animal or hung-meat characters. Even the fruit component in Pinot Noir varies from region to region with such descriptors as cranberry, raspberry, rhubarb and plum.
Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers say their Pinots reflect the myriad of microclimates in the mountain-based vineyards farmed by what is officially described by the SCMWA (Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association) as “progressive sustainable agriculture.” SCMWA also trumpets the appellation’s “balanced flavors, complexity, food-friendly acidity and age-worthiness,” as an enticement to wine consumers who are bored with overly oaked, highly extracted wines. In my tasting of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noirs, I found two or three wines with in-your-face ripe fruit aromas and flavors (even for Pinot Noir) that consumers not familiar with the brand or regional style might mistake as being “sweet.”
George Troquato, winemaker for Cinnabar Vineyards & Winery, who makes Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey as well as the Santa Cruz Mountains, says that SCM Pinots express a unique flavor and aroma that he rarely finds in other appellations. “Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains possess a spicy, earthy, complex aroma along with lively acidity, bright ripe fruit, herb and meaty flavors that are never one-dimensional or simple.” Troguato adds that he handles SCM Pinot more gently and carefully than fruit from other regions, to avoid extracting too much of a good thing.
Sal Godinez, winemaker for Vine Hill Winery in Scotts Valley thinks that making Pinot Noir from Santa Cruz Mountains’ grapes is easier than in other regions, due to the natural balance of the fruit. “Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains is distinctive in three ways: An extended hang time that is due in part to the cool ocean breezes and mountain temperatures resulting in lower yields; the naturally balanced “chemistry,” also related to hang time, where the fruit matures more slowly and the acidity of the maturing fruit drops gradually, not precipitously as in warmer regions; and the incredible spice (like white pepper) found nowhere else in such abundance as it is in Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
Pinot Noir has been part of the Santa Cruz Mountain vineyard profile for more than 100 years. In the 1960s and earlier, there were only a handful of celebrated California Pinot Noir producers, including Hanzell in Sonoma County and Beaulieu Vineyard in the Napa Valley. But there was a passion for Pinot taking hold in the Santa Cruz Mountains, mainly using mountain-grown grapes, by wineries like Martin Ray, Mt. Eden and David Bruce. It is not by accident that the majority of California’s best Pinot Noirs come from vineyards at higher elevations and close to the Pacific Ocean: Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Anderson Valley, Monterey, Carneros, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Often quoted grand old man of Pinot, Martin Ray once said: “A mountain vineyard is the most beautiful sight on earth,” to which you won’t get much argument today.