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by Ken Zinns

After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension in the early '90s, Bay Area architect Ken Zinns developed a serious interest wine. Ken has been touring and tasting wines for nearly 20 years, and has come to love not only the wines, but also the people behind them. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been working at several urban East Bay and San Francisco wineries since 2001, and has been the assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains – 6th Grand Tasting – April 24th, 2022

Report on the Grand Tasting presented by Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains on Sunday April 24th, 2022 at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga. This event is held to highlight wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains Grand Tasting was accompanied by a silent auction during the event.

Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains (formerly the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association) helps to promote wineries and wines from the region. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established in 1981, and includes parts of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties. Vineyard elevations in the AVA range from 400 feet to over 2,600 feet, with some sites lying below the “fog line” and some above – the varied subregions of the AVA feature a number of different soil and climate profiles. Given the mountainous terrain, it's no surprise that most of the nearly 300 vineyards in the region are small, with a total planted area of only around 1,500 acres. Over 70 wineries, most of them quite small and family-run, are currently members of the Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains organization.

Grand Tasting General Impressions:

Some Favorites

Alfaro 2020 Trout Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir
Armitage 2019 Heart O’ The Mountain Estate Pinot Noir
Big Basin 2016 “Sixty-Two Terraces” Syrah
Charmant 2018 Estate Pinot Noir
Left Bend 2018 Camel Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Lester 2018 “Domingo” Pinot Noir
Madson 2020 Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir
Mount Eden 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Neely 2018 Spring Ridge Vineyard Block Verde Grüner Veltliner
Neely 2018 Spring Ridge Vineyard Picnic Block Pinot Noir
Ridge 2018 “Monte Bello”
Sandar & Hem 2019 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay
Sandar & Hem 2019 Mindego Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir
Sante Arcangeli 2017 Split Rail Vineyard “Ron’s Reserve” Syrah
Windy Oaks 2019 “100% Whole Cluster” Estate Pinot Noir
Woodside 2016 King’s Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon


Alfaro 2020 La Playita Vineyard Estate Grüner Veltliner
Aptos Vineyard 2019 “Opening Remarks” Pinot Noir
Big Basin 2018 Homestead Block Roussanne
Big Basin 2019 “Old Corral” Pinot Noir
Mount Eden 2018 Estate Pinot Noir
Neely 2018 Spring Ridge Vineyard Bee Block Chardonnay
Ridge 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Roberts Ranch 2018 Estate Pinot Noir
Sandar & Hem 2021 Bates Ranch Vineyard Rosé of Grenache
Thomas Fogarty 2018 “Walker’s” Nebbiolo

The Grand Tasting was hosted by The Mountain Winery, in the hills high above Saratoga. This is one of California’s most notable winery sites, with a history that stretches back to legendary vintners Paul Masson and Martin Ray. This was the first time I’ve attended this particular event, though I’ve tasted at other events in the past that focused on wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, including a couple held at this venue. The weather couldn’t have been better for this outdoors event, held on several large interconnected patio spaces. It was sunny and warm during the afternoon tasting, but not too hot, and with a nice breeze. The views down the hill and far beyond to the East Bay from a couple of the patios were spectacular.

The size and layout of the wine and food tables and of the overall event space worked very well – everything was thoughtfully arranged, with wineries grouped mostly in alphabetical order. VIP attendees were able to get in earlier than the main crowd, and also received a light lunch and a souvenir wineglass. It looked like there was a good turnout, but since the tasting tables of the 42 participating wineries were spread out nicely, it didn’t feel crowded at all. Only a handful of the winery tables were crowded – notably Ridge – but I was pleasantly surprised that tasters at these tables lined up for a pour and then (for the most part) moved on to let others get in to taste. I’ve rarely encountered this before, but the lines moved quickly and it was easy to get a pour at every table – no fighting through groups of people in front of tables who refuse to move away for others at this event. Very civilized! My only minor complaint was that there could have been more water available for tasters at tables – even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, more water to help hydrate during the event would have been nice. But overall this was a very well-planned and well-run event.

The Santa Cruz Mountains wine tastings I’ve attended in the past have all focused on Pinot Noir, but this one covered all grape varieties. Although the area is deservedly famed for its Pinot Noir – as well as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – many varieties excel there and it was great to be able to sample some of them. Grüner Veltliner and Nebbiolo? Sure, why not! Good ones of these varieties and a number of others were on display at this tasting. A few wineries poured wines made from fruit grown in other regions, and for the most part I passed on these, preferring to stick with Santa Cruz Mountains fruit, but I did try a couple of them.

I made it to 17 producers at this tasting. I’d hoped to get to more of them and try a few more that I hadn’t tried in the past, but overall I can’t complain with the choices of wines I tasted there. I tasted through most of the wines poured at each table, though I cut that down to one or two wines at a couple of tables as time was running short late in the event. The Selected Tasting Impressions below don’t cover every wine I tasted at the event, but include the wines I felt were most noteworthy, with some from each winery table I stopped at. It was great to see such legendary producers as Mount Eden and Ridge participate in this event to help lift the recognition of the Santa Cruz Mountains wine region. Many longtime wineries from the area were there as well as some very promising relative newcomers.

Of the producers whose wines I tasted, those that poured particularly strong groups of wines included Alfaro, Big Basin, Mount Eden, Neely, Ridge, and Sandar & Hem. Others including Armitage, Charmant, Madson, Sante Arcangeli, Windy Oaks, and Woodside were worthy of mention as well, and several others also poured a standout wine that made my Favorites list. As many know, I do a good deal of bottling work for a number of Bay Area wineries, and I’ve noted that in the paragraphs for specific ones where I’ve helped out – I certainly tried not to let that influence my impressions of those wines.

This was a really enjoyable event, and one that I’m sure I’ll return to in the future. It’s a great opportunity to sample some of the best wines from most of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ top wineries. The quality of wines I tasted was very high across the board, a testament to the strong case this region makes for being recognized as one of California’s finest wine regions. If you’re a fan of the wines from this area or just want to learn more about them, attending the next Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains Grand Tasting is highly recommended.

Selected Tasting Impressions

Alfaro Family Vineyards

Richard and Mary Kay Alfaro established their vineyards and winery in the Corralitos area in the late 1990s. About 56 acres of estate vineyards are planted, and the winery produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, and Grüner Veltliner. The Alfaros’ son Ryan recently took over the winemaking from Richard. As it was getting late in the tasting when I stopped at the Alfaro table, I only tasted a couple of the wines they were pouring, but they were both very good. The 2020 La Playita Vineyard Estate Grüner Veltliner comes from vines planted in 2008, and was made in stainless steel and neutral oak. It was bright and citrusy, with light touches of spice and pepper. Even better was the 2020 Trout Gulch Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, from a site near Aptos planted in 1980 and farmed by the Alfaro family. This was very aromatic, with savory and spicy notes along with red fruit and floral undertones, with a lively mouthfeel and finish..

Aptos Vineyard

Aptos Vineyard was founded by the Marlo family in 1974, and is now owned by their friends James Baker & Tina Cacace and their family. They’ve re-launched the old Aptos Vineyard label beginning with the 2018 vintage, and their wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, made by noted local vintner John Benedetti. The 2019 “Opening Remarks” Pinot Noir, from 667 and Swan clones, had beautiful black cherry, herb, and tea leaf aromas with a broad yet bright texture and good structure. The 2019 “Amicus Curiae” Syrah was sourced from Lester Family Vineyard and displayed dark berry fruit, spice, and dried herb, with a grippy finish that should benefit from some bottle age – a young Syrah with good potential.

Armitage Wines

Founded in 2012, Armitage is the project of winemaker Brandon Armitage, who has worked in New Zealand as well as California and Oregon. The estate Heart O’ The Mountain vineyard property was once owned by legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock, and the winery focus is on Pinot Noir. Highlights at the Armitage table included their 2019 Meadowridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, a lighter Pinot with subtle red fruit and notes of spice and flowers. The 2019 Heart O’ The Mountain Estate Pinot Noir was a bigger and more structured wine, with black cherry fruit, orangepeel, earth, and spice, and fine acidity, worthy of a few years in the cellar..

Big Basin Vineyards

Located in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Big Basin was established by Bradley Brown in 1998, with the first plantings at the estate vineyard coming in 2000. Their 10 acres of estate vines are certified organic and dry-farmed, and they also buy fruit from a number of other noted vineyards. All three of the standout wines below were made from estate fruit. The 2018 Homestead Block Roussanne was the last estate fruit picked in that vintage and was made partly in a clay amphora. Melon and stone fruit aromas, with spice and floral components and stony mineral undertones. The 2019 “Old Corral” Pinot Noir, from Mount Eden and Swan clones and fermented with 100% whole clusters, featured red berry fruit, flowers and herbs, a lively texture and the structure to develop with further aging. I finished with the 2016 “Sixty-Two Terraces” Syrah – also whole-cluster fermented, this had complex aromas of dark berries, spice, meat, and dried herbs, with plenty of structure and firm tannins on the long finish.

Charmant Vineyards

Originally from South Africa, Eugene (“Eug”) & Julie Theron purchased property above Aptos in 2014, part of which was already planted for the former owners to Pinot Noir by Jim Schultze. Eug fully took over the farming and winemaking in 2017 – the vineyard is dry-farmed. I thought a couple of the Charmant wines were highlights. The 2019 Tondré Grapefield Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County was somewhat reductive at first, but opened up with some air to reveal bright citrus, spice, and toast aromas, with a creamy yet vibrant texture and finish. The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, made from 115, 667, and Chambertin (Calera) clones, had earth and forest floor notes along with spice, black cherry and plum fruit, and a light touch of oak, with a lively mouthfeel and long silky finish.

Left Bend Winery

Left Bend is the project of friends Richard Hanke and winemaker Gary Robinson, with 2010 being their inaugural vintage. The winery name refers to slight bend in the San Andreas Fault that helped form the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their estate vineyard is in the hills near Mount Madonna. The 2018 Gali Vineyard Chardonnay, from a site near Corralitos, showed pear and spice aromas, undertones of earth and vanilla/oak, and medium weight. The highlight at Left Bend was their 2018 Camel Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc. The vineyard is in the hills above Lexington Reservoir and Los Gatos, and the fruit was fermented with 20% whole clusters. Herbal aromas with plum and darker berry fruit, a touch of jalapeño, and hints of flowers and earth, a lighter style of Cab Franc with a bright lively texture and fine tannins on the long finish.

Lester Estate Wines

Dan and Pat Lester established their vineyard in the Corralitos area in the late 1990s, and Steve Johnson heads up the family label. They work with several noted winemakers for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, and each crafts a different expression of wine from the vineyard. (Disclosure – I’ve helped with bottling the Lester “Domingo” Pinot Noir in recent years) The 2018 “Domingo” Pinot Noir, from Swan, Mount Eden, 667, and 777 clones, was made by Ed Kurtzman and Justin Massa. Earthy and spicy with bright red cherry fruit and touches of tea leaf and flowers, this was a lighter Pinot with a lively mouthfeel and finish. The 2018 “Mercurio” Pinot Noir, from Mount Eden and 122 clones, made by John Benedetti, was a fascinating contrast. Bolder black cherry fruit with herb and spice components, this showed more body and structure, though with fine tannins. Both of these Pinots should benefit from some time in the cellar.

Lexington Wines

The Lexington label comprises wines sourced from the high-elevation Gist Ranch Vineyard first planted by the Fogarty family in 2000, mostly to Bordeaux grape varieties. The first Lexington wines were released in 2011, and they’re made by Thomas Fogarty winemaker Nathan Kandler. The 2017 Gist Ranch Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite of the two Lexington wines poured at the event. Herbs and plummy fruit aromas with touches of spice and vanilla/oak, this was a medium-weight Cab with good structure and depth.

Madson Wines

Established in 2018, Madson is the label of Cole Thomas, Ken Swegles & Abbey Crystal. Cole is the winemaker, while Ken is a noted viticulturist who works with a number of Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards. Wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Gamay Noir, and others. Vineyards for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir noted here are organically-farmed. The 2020 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay was sourced from several small vineyards, and displayed citrus and earth notes plus floral undertones, a lively mouthfeel and pleasant finish. The 2020 Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir, made with 100% whole-cluster fermentation, was a standout. Bright red berry fruit, forest floor, spice, and a stony mineral component, with a light and lively texture and fine tannins – tempting now but should benefit from some time in the cellar.

Mount Eden Vineyards

Mount Eden is one of California’s most famed vineyard sites, with a story that extends back to 1945 and legendary vintner Martin Ray. The vineyard, at 2,000-foot elevation, was replanted beginning in 1984 with a variety of Dijon and “heritage” clones, including some propagated from the original vines planted there. Jeffrey Patterson is the Mount Eden proprietor/winemaker. The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, made with about 25% whole clusters, featured savory black cherry and spice aromas, with touches of earth, stony minerals, and vanilla/oak, and good structure for some aging. I thought the highlight Mount Eden wine was their 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – this is roughly 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with about 12% Merlot and smaller portions of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Bright herbal currant and plum aromas, with spice, earth, and vanilla/oak undertones, a medium-weight Cab with a lively yet broad texture and fine tannins on the long finish.

Neely Wine

The Neely family’s estate Spring Ridge Vineyard is located below Windy Hill in Portola Valley. Initially planted in the early 1980s, the vineyard blocks now total about 16 acres, with mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus a little Grüner Veltliner in a new block. Shalini Sekhar is the winemaker, and Lucy Neely was on hand to pour the wines at the event. (Disclosure – I’ve helped with bottling for Neely in recent years) Starting off was the 2021 Spring Ridge Vineyard Block Verde Grüner Veltliner, the first vintage of this variety from the property. Bright citrus and spice aromas plus a distinct touch of white pepper, with a vibrant texture and finish. The 2019 Spring Ridge Vineyard Bee Block Chardonnay had lemon and stone fruit on the nose, with medium weight on the palate and a fresh finish. The two Pinots presented an interesting contrast, beginning with the 2018 Spring Ridge Vineyard Picnic Block Pinot Noir – subtle red fruit with floral, earthy, and savory undertones, and a lively mouthfeel and finish. The 2018 Spring Ridge Vineyard Hidden Block Pinot Noir showed bolder black cherry and plum fruit with earth, spice, and a touch of oak, fuller texture and bigger structure – a wine to cellar for a few years while the first Pinot, while ageworthy, seems more ready to go now.

Ridge Vineyards

The first Ridge wines, made by Dave Bennion, were from 1962, and Paul Draper led the winemaking from 1971 until just a few years ago. The Monte Bello estate vineyard, high in the hills above Cupertino, is the source for their famed “Monte Bello” wine as well as many others. John Olney now heads up the Ridge winemaking team, and new Monte Bello winemaker – 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot – hTrester Goetting was on hand to pour wines at the event. The 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon had deep plum, currant, vanilla/oak, and spice aromas, with a medium-big texture and plenty of structure. The highlight at the Ridge table was certainly their 2018 “Monte Bello,” which consists of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc in this vintage. Featuring even more depth and focus though with a similar aromatic profile, and adding more noticeable dried herb and earth notes, this had a bolder mouthfeel and a grippy tannic structure. Of course this wine deserves many years of aging to develop its full potential.

Roberts Ranch Vineyards

Joshua & Sarah Stewman are the proprietors and winemakers for Roberts Ranch, and Joshua’s brother Tom manages their 4-acre estate vineyard. Located in the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA, the vineyard was planted around 2012 to a number of Pinot Noir clones. The winery buys fruit from other local growers as well. This was the final winery table of the afternoon for me, and I only tasted one wine there but it was a good one. The 2019 Estate Pinot Noir displayed bright red fruit with notes of spice, tea leaf, and earth, lively acidity and fine balance – tasty now but with the structure for further cellaring.

Sandar & Hem Wines

Sandar & Hem is the label of Rob & Recha Bergstrom, with their first wines coming from the 2018 vintage. Rob, who’s worked at both Rhys and Mount Eden, makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from a number of noted Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards, as well as a Grenache Rosé and Cabernet Sauvignon. Rob and Recha were both on hand at the tasting. (Disclosure – I’ve helped with sorting fruit and bottling for Sandar & Hem in recent years) The 2019 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay, from 30 year-old own-rooted vines in the Ben Lomond Mountain region, was a standout, with minerally pear, citrus, and spice, plus floral undertones, medium weight with a lovely texture and long finish. A sneak peek at the 2020 Mountain Winery Chardonnay was next. Sourced from the vineyard where this event was held, this was brighter and more citrusy, with vibrant acidity – good potential but still very young and will benefit more time in the bottle. I thought the 2021 Bates Ranch Vineyard Rosé of Grenache was the best rosé I tasted at the event, with floral red fruit, bright mouthfeel, and a stony mineral note on the finish. The 2019 Mindego Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir had savory and herbal notes upfront, along with red fruit, flowers, and orangepeel, medium bodied with a lively texture and finish.

Sante Arcangeli Family Wines

Established in 2010 by John Benedetti, Sante Arcangeli is named for John’s great-grandfather, who settled in the San Mateo coast town of Pescadero. The winery has a tasting room there and another in Aptos. The winery specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus cool-climate Syrah. The 2018 “Integrato” Pinot Noir is a barrel selection and includes fruit from five vineyards including Lester Family and Split Rail. Black cherry fruit with notes of flowers, spice, and earth, this had medium weight on the palate with good structure. Even better was the 2017 Split Rail Vineyard “Ron’s Reserve” Syrah. John manages this Corralitos-area vineyard, which is dry-farmed. Intense plum and darker berry aromas plus big earth and herb components and iron-like mineral undertones, with plenty of structure but surprisingly fine tannins on the long finish.

Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards

Dr. Thomas Fogarty first planted his property in the mountains above Woodside in 1978 with original winemaker Michael Martella, and the winery was launched in 1981. Fogarty’s son Tommy now manages the winery and Nathan Kandler has been the winemaker since 2013. The main estate, at about 2,000-foot elevation, has about 30 acres of vines, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The 2019 Will’s Cabin Vineyard Pinot Noir had black cherry, plum, and dried herb aromas along with touches of earth and spice, and a fairly big mouthfeel and structure. A standout was the 2018 “Walker’s” Nebbiolo – this featured red fruit, earth, and floral notes, with a tightly-wound texture and plenty of structure for aging.

Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards & Winery

Windy Oaks proprietors Jim & Judy Schultze purchased their Corralitos property in 1995, and began planting their estate vineyard the next year. Their vineyard is planted mostly to Pinot Noir, and that’s been the winery’s specialty. Jim & Judy’s children James and Spencer, and Spencer’s wife Jamie, are integral parts of the family wine business. The 2019 “100% Whole Cluster” Estate Pinot Noir, mostly from 667 clone, was savory and herbal, with black cherry and floral notes plus spicy undertones, vibrant acidity, and good structure for further development. Another small-production wine was the 2017 “Eleven : 11” Estate Pinot Noir, from 943 and Calera clones and also fermented entirely with whole clusters. This had a more pronounced savory component as well as more noticeable spice and oak, with a bigger texture and grippier tannic finish.

Woodside Vineyards

The oldest winery in San Mateo County, family-owned Woodside was founded by Bob Mullen in 1963. The winery farms over 20 separate small vineyards in the Woodside area, totaling over 47 acres. Known particularly for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, the wines are made by Brian Caselden. The 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, from the winery’s estate property and four other vineyards that they manage, displayed savory red fruit, tea leaf, and earth on the nose, medium-light weight on the palate with milder tannins. The 2016 King’s Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon featured bright herbal black currant aromas with a touch of spice, a lighter style of Cab with good texture and balance, and fine tannins.



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