The Santa Cruz Mountains
California Wine Country, Version 1.0 . . .
The Santa Cruz Mountains region is one of the first areas of California to be developed for the commercial production of wine. The early pioneers were truly remarkable characters – visionaries and adventurers all. Like the mountains themselves, these early vintners were larger than life. John Burns, John and George Jarvis, Charles Lefranc, John Stewart, and Paul Masson were some of the early settlers. Each of these remarkable men contributed significantly to the industry of the region and to the rich history of California wine.
From the divine to the daring
Throughout California, the Spanish were the first to cultivate vines and make wine for their Mission system that dotted the coastline from San Diego to San Francisco. In the Santa Cruz region that occurred between 1804 and 1807. The premium wines that we know today came later.
The legendary Charles Lefranc is credited for planting the first cuttings of the fine European grapes that we recognize today (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc.) at the Almaden Winery site in 1852. In the 1850’s that hardly meant a trip to the local nursery; Lefranc’s transit from California from France was via sailing ships around treacherous Cape Horn.
Almaden is also the first commercial winery in California, founded in 1852 by Frenchmen Etienne Theé. Theé employed Lefranc, who would later marry Theé’s daughter Adele. Much later Almaden would become the first winery in California to release wine named after the grape, or “varietal” – the humble but popular White Grenache Rosé.
Scotsman John Burns settled in the area in 1851, and planted his first vines in 1853. Burns named the mountain where his vineyard grew "Ben Lomond" (meaning Mount Lomond), which was the name of an old wine district in Scotland. Yes, there were wine districts in Scotland!
The brothers John and George Jarvis established a vineyard above Scotts Valley in a place they named "Vine Hill." It was wine from Vine Hill that received the first international recognition for the region winning an award in 1884. The Ben Lomond Wine Co. won prizes at World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889, Chicago in 1893, and San Francisco in 1894.
Perhaps the most serious Santa Cruz County vintner was Dr. John A. Stewart, a Scot who serendipitously came to Scotts Valley in 1883 and established Etta Hill vineyard. Stewart replicated best practices of the most renowned French vineyards of the day. In an “everything that is old is new again” fashion, Stewart achieved remarkable quality for the day by blending wines in the French style. Blending varietals was not practiced in California at the time.
After being introduced to wine making by Charles Lefranc, Paul Masson emigrated from his native Burgundy to begin the production of sparkling wine. Masson released his first sparkling wine (scandalously under the name “Champagne”) at the Almaden Winery in 1892. The name Paul Masson would, of course, go on to become one of the most recognizable brand names of wine in California or the world.
In 1889 Pierre Pourroy, recently arrived from France all but destitute, met fellow Frenchman and vintner Jean Narcisse Aubry. Pourroy fell in love not only with wine making but Aubry’s daughter Marie. The two were married in 1891. Pierre with his brother Eloi and bride Marie was able to save enough money to buy 80 acres of land from Adrien Bonnet. The Pourroy brothers later purchased 200 acres from Aubry. In 1916 they built Montmarte, the winery and ranch named after the famous neighborhood in Paris. The core of this property is active today – Savannah-Chanelle Winery!
In the footsteps of the ghosts of great men
The next wave of visionaries in the Santa Cruz Mountains was equally formidable.
Martin Ray was a protégé of Paul Masson, purchasing Masson’s old vineyard in 1936. Ray was adamant about the potential for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the region. Ray was also a clear and resonant voice for bottling of wine under its varietal name – contrary to the custom of the day of calling the wines the generic names Chablis or Burgundy.
Ray later passed the baton to Dr. David Bruce who founded his eponymous winery in 1961 a mile away from the Martin Ray winery. Dr. Bruce was one of the first to put California Pinot Noir wines on the world stage. Tony Craig, winemaker at Savannah-Chanelle, learned his craft while working with Dr. Bruce.
Later still Ridge Vineyard was founded in the early 1960’s with the purchase of the famous Monte Bello vineyard. Paul Draper joined Ridge in 1969, and today the winery continues to be recognized for the production of world-class wines.
History and quality without fad and fashion
Jon Bonné, the esteemed wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, called the Santa Cruz Mountains “A perfect laboratory for winemaking not held hostage to fashion.” Bonné further speculates that this “has allowed a style of wine to flourish that skipped the industry’s steroidal tendencies of the past 20 years.” Bonné concludes - “It hosts some of California’s defining wines and vineyards, and yet fame has eluded the region itself.”
This sentiment is echoed by Antonio Galloni, writing for the Wine Advocate in August of 2012, when he offered “There is no doubt in my mind the Santa Cruz mountains is the greatest and most overlooked terroir in the United States. Period.”
The quality of wine produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains is uniformly high, as you can see from comments above. Still, the region has not been fully recognized or appreciated compared to the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma. This leaves a wonderful opportunity for wine tourists and professionals alike to discover the taste of “Old California.”
Today the Santa Cruz Mountains boasts AVA (American Viticultural Area) status – granted in 1981. The AVA area is only approximately 1,500 acres, but compromises over 200 small wineries; most are family owned. The area also provides immediate access to the Silcon Valley, the charming mountain towns of Los Gatos and Saratoga, and excellent hiking and camping in the mountains themselves. It is an easy and scenic drive to the beautiful coastal communities of Santa Cruz, Carmel, and Monterey.