With harvest underway for Santa Cruz County-area wineries, Laurie Love finds growers of pinot noir enthused about what they’re seeing so far. She also scopes out Madson Wines’ fall releases, spotlights a company putting wine in paper bottles, reveals her wine of the week and more.
Welcome to Laurie Love on Wine! I am a professional wine educator and writer based in Santa Cruz, where I have lived for 34 years. I am excited to be the wine correspondent for Lookout and look forward to sharing my wine passion, knowledge and experience with Lookout readers. I specialize in French wine and our local Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA). Our appellation grows and makes world-class wines and has been doing so for over 140 years. Yet many people aren’t aware of what our wine region has to offer. I hope to change that.
My background: I teach wine classes at the Cabrillo College Wine Program and for Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Global. I also teach private wine classes and lead private tastings. I am a member of the Cabrillo culinary arts advisory board. For the past several years, I have been the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA contributing writer for the Slow Wine Guide USA, featuring wineries that are sourcing from sustainable vineyards. In addition, I work locally in wine production with Bottle Jack Wines in Santa Cruz. I hold several professional wine certifications: WSET Level 3 with Distinction, French Wine Scholar with Highest Honors, Certified Specialist of Wine and sommelier, plus three Cabrillo College wine certificates. I am currently a candidate for the Bourgogne master-level certification through the Wine Scholar Guild. Aside from wine, I love to travel and spend time with my family. Follow me on my wine blog, Laurie Loves Wine, and on Instagram at @LaurieLoveOnWine. Stay in touch: Email me wine news, new wine releases and wine events at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harvest update: Promising pinot noir harvest begins
In my previous column, I reported that after an unusual two- to three-week delay, harvest 2023 had finally begun here in Santa Cruz, starting with chardonnay grapes. Since then, some of our local wineries have finally begun to harvest red grapes as well, including pinot noir. Thanks to the cool, moderate growing season, the pinot noir harvest will last for several weeks across our region as grapes slowly ripen.
A long growing season without major weather events (rain, excessive heat, wildfires, etc.) makes for exceptional wines, and this vintage is queuing up to be one of the best vintages we have seen in many years. A longer growing season allows the wine grapes to ripen slowly as sugars gradually accumulate and the acids balance out. Without a major heat spike, we are likely to see wines from this vintage that are more concentrated with lower alcohol and good acids, and great potential for aging.
I spoke with Bradley Brown, founder, owner and vineyard manager at Big Basin Vineyards. Big Basin sources grapes from its estate vineyards above Boulder Creek and several other vineyards across the region. Brown explained that the season is longer this year due to our moderate, cooler weather. “Overall it’s been seasonably cool, so we’ve gotten the sought-after ‘hang time’ which can magically happen some years where the temperatures are cool and it’s reasonably sunny, and the grapes can develop physiological ripeness without a bunch of heat stress that sucks the water out of them and makes the brix level [sugar measurement] go up. So we are getting really nice ripeness at lower sugar levels this year.”
Last week, Big Basin Vineyards harvested pinot noir from three locations. “We just picked our first pinot from the estate, Old Corral vineyard [at 1,300 feet near Big Basin Redwoods State Park], and we just picked at Lester Family Vineyard [at 450 feet in Corralitos],” said Brown. “We got more from Rodnick.farm in Chalone AVA that was epically beautiful, just gorgeous, with mature seeds and color and only 22.5 degrees brix, which will make it about a 13% alcohol wine. And we are seeing decent yields.”
Brown mused about the timing of harvest for both vineyards: “It’s interesting that Lester and our estate, we are picking about the same time. There’s often two or more week spreads between high- vs. low-elevation vineyards. This year, the timing is more tightly packed for the varietal.” One explanation is the typical lack of inversion layer this year throughout the summer months, which enabled the higher-elevation vineyards to remain cooler than usual. “Some years when we get the inversion layer, it can be quite a bit warmer up there [above the fog] compared to lower elevations. But this year there weren’t any of those inversion events, so it was more likely to be colder in higher elevations than lower elevations. That is what I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks,” Brown said.
Dave Ferrari owns Ferrari Ranch Wines with his wife, Liz, and farms his Ferrari Ranch vineyard in Corralitos with Prudy Foxx as viticulture consultant. Their vineyard sits at 700 feet, is planted to chardonnay and pinot noir, and experienced persistent fog throughout the summer. “We have not begun harvesting yet. Our sugars are way too low,” said Ferrari. “I believe this will be our latest harvest to date. We had fog from the middle of May until after Fourth of July. We rarely saw the sun. It is not unusual for us to harvest the third week in October. This year, I expect we will be harvesting late October. We prefer to have as much hang time as possible, weather permitting. It enables the acid, pH and sugars to work together to make a beautiful wine.”
Regardless of the later harvest timing, vintners are very optimistic about the 2023 vintage. Ryan Beauregard, owner and winemaker at Beauregard Vineyards, enthused, “This could be the vintage of a lifetime. Slow ripening. Super cold nights, moderate heat during the day. Lining up for perfection. A vintage that may be talked about for a decade or more.”
Foxx agrees, “Pinot noir skins are thick and the pulp is juicy. I think we will see extra color and higher acids in the wines. This could be a year for long-lived pinot noirs.”
Brown is equally excited and loves the quality of the fruit they are getting so far. “It’s an exciting vintage,” he said. “I’m stoked!”
Madson Wines announces its fall release
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Madson Wines fall release party. Madson releases its wines only twice a year. And since it produces only a couple barrels of each wine it makes, the wines tend to sell out pretty quickly.
I tasted through a flight of Madson’s nine new wines, all from the 2022 vintage. Generally speaking, the wines are still pretty young, but boy do they show a lot of promise! The 2022 Santa Barbara County Old Vine Chenin Blanc ($32) was excellent, with lots of freshness and complexity. This wine comes from an organic vineyard in Los Alamos, Santa Barbara County, that was planted in the 1960s. Pear, grass, dandelion, chamomile and ocean-spray aromas and flavors with nice bright acidity and some salinity. It is tasting great now and will age nicely.
Another favorite of the evening: 2022 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($36). On the nose, the wine offered fresh white flowers, pear, green apple and unripe pineapple with a touch of toast. On the palate, this chardonnay was nicely balanced with good acidity, medium alcohol and body, and a nice long finish with mineral notes. A super age-worthy chardonnay. I bought this wine in magnum and plan to lay it down in my cellar for a couple years.
Madson’s 2022 Santa Cruz Mountains Ascona Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) was another standout for me. This wine comes from a vineyard at 2,500 feet elevation farmed by Ken Swegles and his partner, Abbey Chrystal, on property where they live near the Summit. The wine’s beautiful bright ruby color is very inviting, as are its lovely aromas: cherries, strawberries, rose petal, redwood and cinnamon. Good acidity and a long finish keep you going back for more. Still a youthful wine, this will age very well in a cool, dark cellar.
Finally, I also loved the 2022 Santa Cruz Mountains Ascona Vineyard Syrah ($48). Hailing from the same vineyard as the pinot noir above, this syrah had amazing floral aromatics (lavender and rose), herbes de Provence, black pepper and good fruit character (blueberry, black raspberry). Lovely and lively, this is a wonderful Santa Cruz Mountains syrah that is drinking well now but will no doubt do well after a couple years in the cellar too.
Visit Madson Wines and purchase its fall wines at its tasting room on the Westside at 328 Ingalls St., Suite G, or on its website.
Paper wine bottles??
As first reported by CBS News, a company in Monterey County just started producing wine bottles made out of paper. Monterey Wine Company, a winemaking facility in King City, recently purchased a paper wine bottle assembly machine from Frugalpac, a British company that is on the leading edge of this new packaging for wine. This makes Monterey Wine Company the first in the United States to produce paper wine bottles.
I’m not sure how this will affect the quality, not to mention the taste, of wines packaged this way. But I have to give them credit for coming up with a more earth-friendly alternative to glass. Globally, the industry is experiencing a glass bottle shortage which has shot up the price of purchasing glass wine bottles for wineries. Glass bottles are also heavy, affecting shipping costs. And glass bottles require a fair amount of energy to produce, which means a higher carbon footprint as well as higher costs. Those increases in costs get passed along to us consumers. Which wineries will adopt paper bottles, and how readily they do so, remains to be seen. But it will be interesting to see how this story evolves over time. Stay tuned!
WINE OF THE WEEK
Each column, I will write about a particular wine that I’m enjoying now. For this one, the Wine of the Week is…
2019 Big Basin Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Old Corral Pinot Noir ($65)
As the season changes from summer to fall, I find myself reaching for wines that have a little more body to them and that pair well with the bounty of the season. But I’m not quite ready for a full-bodied robust red yet. This lovely, elegant pinot noir from Big Basin Vineyards fills the bill perfectly.
The fruit for this wine comes from three blocks in BBV’s certified organic estate vineyard sitting at about 1,300 feet elevation with moderate coastal influence. The vineyard is planted to Swan and Mount Eden pinot clones and is dry-farmed, meaning they do not irrigate to the vines; all the watering comes from Mother Nature. The Old Corral pinot was fermented 100% whole cluster (using whole bunches of grapes rather than destemmed berries) with native yeasts and minimal intervention. Most of Big Basin’s wines are fermented this way, allowing for the full expression of the vineyard.
In the glass, the wine is a pretty ruby color. Nice pinot aromas float out of the glass — sour cherry, plum, cinnamon, mushroom, potpourri — balanced by subtle wood notes. With whole-cluster vinification, the stems, seeds and skins must be fully ripe otherwise the wine shows “green tannin” notes. Not this wine. Here, the stem tannins are well-integrated and contribute a soft tannin expression to the wine. There are nice red fruit characteristics on the palate along with good acidity, salinity and a nice finish. This wine pairs well with roasted squash, mushroom dishes (risotto with porcini mushrooms, anyone?), roasted local rock cod, pasta with fresh local heirloom tomato and basil sauce, or just on its own as an aperitif.
Purchase the 2019 Old Corral Pinot Noir at Big Basin Vineyards’ downtown Santa Cruz tasting room, its winery in the mountains, or from its website.
Who doesn’t love a wine class? In each column, I’ll give a mini-lesson on wine. Whether you’re new to wine or a seasoned expert, I hope to offer you something new to learn in the wide and wild world of wine. Email me and let me know what you’re interested in learning about. In my previous column, I wrote about our Santa Cruz Mountains AVA wine region.
Since we are in harvest season, now is a good time to talk about how winegrowers determine when the grapes are ready to harvest. What determines pick times? Most important is ripeness. Grape ripeness is usually measured by sugar levels (in degrees brix) using a tool called a refractometer. When sugar measurements reach the level that the winemaker desires, and grape acids are in balance (not too high, not too low) with pH levels, the fruit is ready to pick.
Another factor is phenolic ripeness (skin, seed and stem ripeness), which is usually determined by sensory evaluation: looking at the grape bunches and tasting the grapes across several sections of a given vineyard. Stem lignification, when grape stems are brown indicating they are “ripe,” is important for winemakers who are fermenting their wines whole cluster since the stems go into the fermentation tank and can impart green, stemmy flavors if they aren’t ripe.
Grape varietal also determines picking time; some grape varietals such as chardonnay and pinot noir ripen earlier, while other grape varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah ripen later. Finally, picking time is up to the winemaker, who looks for an ideal balance between ripeness (sugar and phenolics) and acidity for the style of wine they plan to make. (If you recall from my previous column, phenolics are chemical compounds that influence taste, color, and texture.) Grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier to retain more natural acidity in the fruit, while richer, riper red wine styles are picked later. Picking too early means the fruit risks being underripe and overly acidic; picking too late means grapes with high levels of sugar, which translates into higher alcohol and less acidity.
Because our appellation (Santa Cruz Mountains AVA) spans nearly 60 miles from north to south, we have many different microclimates, exposures, elevations, soil types and so on, meaning vineyards are ready to pick at different times. Depending on the grape varietal and other variables, a vineyard with a warmer microclimate will usually be ready to pick earlier than a vineyard with a cooler microclimate. In our region, factors that contribute to a cooler environment generally include proximity to the ocean, fog, wind, more northern locations and, in some cases, elevation. Warmer vineyards usually are farther south, have south- or west-facing exposures, less coastal influence and lower elevation. Soil type can also have an important influence on the microclimate of a vineyard; for example, rocky soils retain heat and reflect that back up into the vineyard.
UPCOMING WINE EVENTS
Each column I highlight some of the wine events happening around our region. If you are a winery or organization that has an upcoming wine event, email the details to me at email@example.com.
This Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. is the annual Gourmet Grazing on the Green, one of Santa Cruz County’s premier tasting events, held at Aptos Village Park in Aptos (Lookout is a media sponsor). This year will be bigger than ever with over 40 wine, beer, and food vendors showcasing their wares. Look for my recap of this event in my next column.
With harvest time comes harvest festivals, and this month boasts several of these fun wine events around Santa Cruz County.
- Bottle Jack Winery Harvest Fest, Sunday, Oct. 15, noon-5 p.m. Wine, food and hands-on crush and fermentation demos by winemaker John Ritchey. Paid reservations required in advance.
- Silver Mountain Vineyards Harvest Party, Saturday, Oct. 14, noon to 5 p.m. Wine, music, and artist vendors with food for purchase up at the winery in the amphitheater. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Summit wineries harvest party, Thursday, Oct. 26, 5-8 p.m. Four wineries come together to throw a harvest party: Burrell School Winery (host), Wrights Station, Villa del Monte and Silver Mountain Vineyards. Music and food for sale; $10 tickets include the first glass of wine.
- Bargetto Winery Harvest Festival, Saturday, Oct. 28, 4-6 p.m. $45 tickets include food and barrel samples.
- Byington Vineyard and Winery Harvest Party, also on Saturday, Oct. 28, from noon to 7 p.m.
Coming up on Saturday, Oct. 21, so many great wine-related events are happening around the county, it’ll be tough to choose just one!
- North County: The 20th annual Bonny Doon Art, Wine and Brew Festival is from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., featuring local wineries, art, craft beer and live bands.
- South County is where you’ll find over 15 wineries (plus beer, food and live music) at Uncork Corralitos from 1-4 p.m. at Alladin Nursery & Gift Shop, 2905 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville.
- In Capitola, that day is the Pleasure Point Sip & Stroll featuring wine and beer tasting from noon to 5 p.m. Each of these events require advanced tickets, so get them while you can.
Also on Saturday, Oct. 21, is Passport Celebration Day. Purchase a wine passport and visit participating wineries throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, each offering something special. For a list of participating wineries and to purchase your Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Passport, go online here.
Also from the Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains organization, tickets just went on sale for Premier Cruz, the popular annual event that is an exclusive tasting of cabernet sauvignon wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains followed by an intimate wine dinner prepared by chef Ross Hanson of Oak & Rye. This year the event will be held at Vidovich Vineyards on Montebello Road in Cupertino. Over 17 wineries will be pouring current cabernet sauvignon vintages alongside library wines. This event always sells out. You can purchase tickets for just the tasting or for the entire event.
Until next time … cheers!
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