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Over the Mountain: The Flip Side of Santa Cruz

by Luke Sykora
April 20, 2015

“In a word: Mount Eden Vineyard.” It’s why, Matt Licklider says, after a decade making taut, focused pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Lioco has been expanding south into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

He mentions Ridge’s Monte Bello as another wine that spurred him and Kevin O’Connor to found their winery. “Before we started, I wasn’t an advocate of California wine. But tasting some older vintages of those wines made us think we could make terroir-driven wines in our own state.”

The Mount Eden and Ridge estates, both perched on the inland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, on rocky, temperate ridges overlooking the southern end of San Francisco Bay, may be proof of great terroir. But they’re also right above Silicon Valley, and while those vineyards preceded the California tech boom, today’s sky-high real estate prices have all but closed off vineyard development beyond quarter-acre parcels in the backyards of tech millionaires.

Instead, Licklider and O’Connor found their way to vineyards on the opposite side of the mountains, in a coastal valley not far from the town of Santa Cruz itself. They found them, as I did, through a viticulturist who has become the matchmaker between many Santa Cruz growers and North Coast vintners.

Prudy Foxx agrees to meet me at a Starbucks in the Silicon Valley hamlet of Saratoga, to give me the lay of the land. When I show up, she’s carrying a broad white sunhat, anticipating what turns out to be an abnormally bright, warm winter day.

We head west, over the mountains and down to the Pacific Coast Highway, driving south from Santa Cruz, then inland, passing a few lichen-frilled apple groves in the vales below the second-growth redwoods. Then, as we turn onto Pleasant Valley Road, grapevines suddenly appear.

Foxx first came to the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1989, leaving a job in Washington State to work for Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, and later held state and county agriculture posts in the area. When she opened her own viticultural consulting company, one of her first projects, in 1998, was helping Dan Lester plant his pinot noir vineyard here. It was a wine off that vineyard that first focused my attention on this side of Santa Cruz: Bradley Brown’s 2011 Lester Family from Big Basin, a delicate pinot noir, aromatic and lithe, a wine that felt like it came from a special place.

The narrow valley is as bucolic as the road’s name suggests, gently sloping toward Monterey Bay to the south—at the horizon, you can just barely make out its sparkling waves. This is where the mountains begin to turn into the beach, Foxx explains. The soil here is mostly sand, the broken-down detritus of greenstone, limestone, sandstone, mudstone, schist and chert that form the mountains above, jumbled together and then ground to bits in the slow collision of the Pacific and North American plates.

She checks her phone: we’re at around 600 feet of elevation.

Monterey Bay is a mere five miles away, and that means fog, especially in the spring and early summer. And for a long time, that was a real challenge for vineyards on the west side of the mountains.

“Santa Cruz isn’t big enough to have vineyards that care about tonnage.”
—Prudy Foxx
“The flowers can’t set fruit,” Foxx says. “What would happen in these old-style sprawling canopies: the leaves and canes were shading the flowers. Pinot noir has a longer, narrower pollen tube. It’s harder for the pollen granule to get down the shoot and fertilize the seed. That’s probably why pinot noir has its reputation as the heartbreak grape. It needs ideal conditions to set fruit: good airflow, good sunlight but not too much…”

As she helped landowners plant new vineyards and rehabilitate old ones, Foxx’s challenges were largely practical: using canopy management and organic sprays to minimize the problems that were destroying the fruit before it could reach a fermenter. Then her role became matchmaker, finding the right vineyard for the right winemaker.

“We came to know Prudy as the viticulturist in the area with gravitas,” Licklider tells me later. They brought a few of their North Coast wines for her to taste. “Her eyes lit up like ping-pong balls. She said, ‘The fact that you don’t need to get to 26 Brix with your pinot noir opens up so many possibilities.”’ She showed them two vineyards in the valley, Saveria, which she helped plant in 2001, and La Marisma, chardonnay planted in 1998.

“Prudy explained that the weather was like clockwork in this canyon,” he continues. “It fills up with fog in morning, and the fog starts to break up around midday. I remember when we first visited, she said, ‘Look overhead.’ And you could see that zone where the fog starts to break up and turns to blue sky. And she said, ‘That’s where you want to plant pinot noir.’ Prudy explained it as the fog sort of respirating the vines.”

Their inaugural vintage of Saveria, 2012, turned out to be a firm and woodsy pinot noir with a clean, fresh scent, like bay laurel.

When the first bins of fruit came to the winery, Licklider recalls, other Sonoma winemakers who share space with them in Santa Rosa took notice. “Every winemaker who passed those bins asked, ‘Where did you get that stuff? It didn’t come from North Coast.’ It was beautiful-looking fruit. Which Prudy attributed to vine health in this canyon. Small clusters, almost no rot whatsoever, and everything evenly ripe—every cluster was like a clone of the others. You get no heat spikes like you do on the Sonoma Coast, so you get these long fall maturation periods. We’re harvesting in October down there at low Brix.”

Foxx helped rehabilitate older vineyards here, too, like Trout Gulch (chardonnay planted in the 1980s) and Legan (pinot noir planted in 1979). At 1,600 feet—higher than many vineyards in the Pleasant Valley area—Legan was barely producing any fruit when she began working with it.

When she showed the site to Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts, it was obvious that the vineyard needed work. Even so, Meyers says, the old, own-rooted vines—cuttings sourced from Mount Eden—were a serious draw.

Their first vintage, 2013, is invigorating, light in weight yet sneakily saturated with the refreshing coastal fruit.

Meyers says Wind Gap’s Woodruff bottling, from a similar valley just slightly to the east, was the first wine to really light up that area for him, with its haunting perfume. “There’s a hallmark of lightness, delicacy, a lot of red fruit and spice,” he says. “I don’t want to say it tastes like Burgundy. But there’s that same earthy, spicy thing, and it’s not afraid to have some tannin, and the fruit has a really low pH…”

Richard Alfaro, a former restaurant and bakery owner with a thick moustache, soul patch and long, curly classic-rocker hair, has been, along with Foxx, another driver of activity in Pleasant Valley. He now owns the own-rooted, dryfarmed Trout Gulch Vineyard, which Foxx helped him rehabilitate, as well as his estate vineyard in a particularly sandy, gravelly area of the valley. It was first planted to chardonnay in 1997 and has since been expanded to include some terraced syrah, plenty of pinot noir and chardonnay, a grenache blanc experiment and even some grüner veltliner.

While the oldest contemporary vineyards around here date to the late 1970s, he discovered that wine grapes were first planted in Pleasant Valley over a century ago. “A 92-year-old lady showed up here with her son and showed us where the vines were planted,” he says. In what’s now a grove of trees and brambles, descendents of those old Portuguese varieties, planted a hundred years ago, still come to life every year. “In the summer, you’ll see grapes thirty feet up in the air.”

John Raytek, the winemaker for Lioco, makes a particularly racy, delineated chardonnay from Trout Gulch under his own label, Ceritas. This year, he’s also experimenting with some of Alfaro’s grüner for Lioco.

“There’s some land that’s decently priced even in Santa Cruz,” he says. “I also surf down there a lot, and one time when I was down there I asked Richard, ‘Where do you keep getting all this money?’ And he said, ‘It’s not that expensive. As long as you can make good wine from it, it can pencil.’”

Raytek’s been dabbling with the idea of buying vineyard land in the ridges of the Sonoma coast. Now, he’s wondering if there might be something around Santa Cruz.

photo by Rebecca Stark

This feature appears in the print edition of the April 2015.
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