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Today we would like to showcase two of our favorite producers, one a legend, the other a young maverick, from one of the most interesting areas in California: the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Santa Cruz Mountains have an odd identity. The region is not remote, being an hour's drive south of San Francisco, nor is it considered undiscovered, or a backwater; some of California's most famous producers are located here. Yet it feels worlds away from the buzz of Napa or Sonoma. The vineyards and wineries here seem to exist in another astral sphere. High up in the mountains, nestled among redwoods and ethereal, windswept chapparal, one is more likely to find zen retreats or nature reserves than vineyards.
There is a reason for this sense of isolation: when it was created as an AVA in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains was the first whose area was determined by altitude. There are no "valley floor" vineyards here. Many of the vineyard sites are extraordinarily steep, at or above the fog line, extending to ridgetop vineyards perched at up to 2,600 feet above sea level. The topography is so intense and variegated that in an appellation encompassing 480,000 acres there are only 1,300 acres under vine. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon each make up about a quarter of that acreage, with the final quarter belonging to everything else.
As is true for much of the rest of California, these three grape types are critically important for this region, but also, these mountains have been critical in the history of these three grapes in California. Perhaps the best place to start is with our first winery on offer today, Mount Eden Vineyards. Founded by famed viticultural pioneer Martin Ray in 1943, Mount Eden produced its first Pinot and Chardonnay in 1945: the longest continuous bottlings of these grapes by a single producer in the state. One of the first small wineries that focused above all on quality, this steep, mountain terrain and intense climate do not give winemakers and proprietors Jeffrey & Ellie Patterson an easy time. The reward is wines of incredible tension and vitality. Today we have some offerings from 2014, roundly considered a difficult year, particularly because of the intensity of the extreme drought experienced that summer. While yields were incredibly low, the resultant wines are magnificent. The 2014 Estate Chardonnay is remarkable in its length, its subtle shifting dynamics that scintillate between weight and electricity, and its ability to weave an interplay between ripe, classically California fruit and dense minerality. The 2014 Estate Pinot Noir is powerful yet restrained and elegant, with raspberry and blackberry fruit mixing with finely grained tannins wrapped in hints of baking spice, chocolate, and a reticent, dense florality that permeates the whole affair. Lastly, their 2014 Estate Cabernet is a massive, brooding wine. These mountains provide the state with some of its most powerful Cabernets, and this is no exception. Tightly structured, with searing tannins, this is a wine that could be mistaken at first glance for a Bordeaux. That is, until its beautiful sunny California fruit begins to show through with a note of classic bay laurel, the beguiling scent that reminds me of my visits to the redwood forests in these mountains.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the wines of Ghostwriter, made my Kenny Likitprakong, one of the star young winemakers in California. The label was named in response to Kenny's belief that the true author of a wine is the site, its climate, and its history. A winemaker can be a lively storyteller, but should pursue telling the story of another being: the spirit of a single site. In addition, Ghostwriter is also made in the stylistic tradition of more highly structured, acid-driven wines which have been made in this area for over half a century. The 2016 Chardonnay demonstrates this with aplomb, being much more structured and mineral-driven than many found today in sunny California, with notes of lemon pith, bosc pear, and a backbone of acidity to match. The 2016 Santa Cruz Pinot Noir is meant to be a stylistic overview of the appellation, with tart cranberry character, baking spice, and earthy, herbal minerality suffusing the whole palate. The 2014 Belle Farms Pinot Noir is a step up in size and muscle, and also the final vintage made of grapes from this vineyard. The wine is more intense, a little funkier, and able to cellar for up to ten years. Lastly, we have their 2014 Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a Cabernet straight out of the seventies, more structurally driven, with its fruit more integrated into the whole, and the potential to cellar as well as some of the classics from thirty or forty years ago! Andrew Farquhar
This Cabernet is sourced from a single block of the Bates Ranch Vineyard located above 1000 feet on the eastern flank of Mt. Madonna at the very southern extremity of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Farmed exclusively by winemaker Kenny Likitprakong, this dry-farmed block was planted in 1973 by local wine legends Val and Dexter Ahlgren. As with much of the Cabernet from this region, the emphasis is on structural tension. Not quite as histrionically robust or extracted as Cabernet from other parts of California, this wine has some muted cassis scarved in layers of dusty tannin and spice. This is a style of Cabernet that would have been much easier to find in these hills back in the 1970s. 207 cases produced, with shorter extraction time, 10% whole cluster fermentation, and 25% new oak. Andrew Farquhar
This is a Chardonnay containing great, lustrous depths. The color of yellow topaz, this wine displays incredible concentration of fruit and earth, with dense lemon and pear character surrounded by white flower, honeysuckle, and a dusty, riverbed quality that is truly remarkable. A touch of nuttiness can be found in the back palate, and the wine displays an extraordinarily long finish with a kaleidoscopic array of aftereffects. The dialogue between clear acid structure and dense weight feels iconic. Right now, this wine responds well to air, with an aroma that continues to bloom over the course of several hours, yet I feel that this wine is truly meant for the cellar, where it will continue to grow and change for the next twenty to thirty years. Andrew Farquhar
Only fourteen inches of rain fell during the rainy season at the beginning of the 2014 season, and as a result the amount of Pinot Noir grapes brought to ripeness was drastically reduced. Aged in 75% new French oak for one year before being bottled unfined and unfiltered, this is a wine of surpassing elegance. The interplay between the beautifully-rendered wild berry fruit and the electric tensile strength that arcs across the mouthfeel and along a finish of intergalactic length is truly a profound taste experience. The tannins are tightl- knit and grippy. The ability of this wine to go the distance in the cellar is readily apparent but after decanting it contains such finesse in its youth as to call into doubt the ability of its drinkers in being able to cellar it. 756 cases produced. Andrew Farquhar
From one of the most historic vineyards situated in the highest reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains, featuring panoramic views of Silicon Valley, Mount Eden's 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most tightly-structured and elegant wines coming from California. The mature vines, planted in 1979 and 1984 from budwood sourced in the 1890s from Château Margaux, this wine has extraordinary depth, moving through scintillating layers of blackberry, bramble, graphite, and cedar, all dusted with the Central Coast's ever-present aroma of bay laurel. Large, robust, and tannic, but with strong, broad-shouldered fruit singing through, this is a fantastic wine to have now with steak after a couple hours' decant or as a gift for a serious collector who can put it away for 10-30 years. Andrew Farquhar
This Chardonnay, sourced from a couple different single-vineyard sites in the area, is meant to encapsulate the style of these Central Coast uplands, and does so with aplomb. Santa Cruz Chardonnay always presents a touch more minerality, with less overt fruit and less weight; more lemon pith than Meyer lemon. This is no exception. With a fantastic, clear line of mouthwatering acidity sewn through the palate and lasting through a long a pleasant finish, this is cooler climate, foggy California Chardonnay at its best. The separate parcels were co-fermented in concrete egg, and left sur lie during malolactic fermentation with elevage in concrete for 19 months. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. Andrew Farquhar
This cuvée is meant to be an overview of what the Santa Cruz Mountains have to offer, and is sourced from three different vineyards: 40% Upper Block Amaya Ridge, 35% Aptos Creek, and 25% Smith Road. While the blend varies a little vintage to vintage, the wine shows consistency in its expression of classic Santa Cruz restraint. Fine cranberry fruit with a hint of some baking and savory spices, this Pinot is finely structured, with delicate tannins and a fine acid backbone. Open and inviting now, this wine will also benefit from a few years of cellaring. Excellent with roast chicken, lobster rolls, or miso-broth ramen, this will work just as well without food, as it is aromatic and mesmerizing as a standalone experience. 600 cases produced. Andrew Farquhar
Planted on the west-facing slope of Mt. Madonna at 400 feet of elevation, this ended up being the last vintage made with this vineyard, which had been planted in 1997 and finally gave up the ghost in 2014. At the end of a long valley that is a geological extension of the Monterey Canyon, the largest submarine canyon off the west coast of North America, the vineyard was just too foggy and cold. That being said, the difficulty of the site made for some superb wine. Darker-fruited, funky, with some forest floor notes, and a character of dense humus on the back end of the palate, this is a distinctive wine with lots of personality that would go great with Peking duck, coq au vin, or crabs doused in Old Bay. Andrew Farquhar