“Cal-Ital” wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains

The Santa Cruz Mountains (SCM) appellation is known mainly for Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. But wine makers around here actually do grow an assortment of other grapes including Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, and plenty of others in experimental quantities. Aside from that, many of them buy grapes from other regions and in general, make a diverse set of wine, both from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and close-by appellations.

Despite its diversity, the Santa Cruz Mountains is not my favorite California appellation. But it’s where I live so I’ve had the opportunity to try almost everything there is. However, I really have had to hunt for wines that excite me here.

So this summer I decided to challenge myself and investigate what SCM wineries were doing with Italian varieties. I needed to give the subject a little more attention. Were there any great wines out there I was missing? I knew that “Cal-Ital” wines existed here in Santa Cruz, but I hadn’t really sat down and explored a bunch all at once.

To keep my bias at bay I decided that rather than just opening all the bottles and tasting them myself, I’d design a blind tasting and invite a few oenophile friends over so I could use them as my tasting panel. I also decided to coordinate the tasting with a “Farmer’s Market Dinner” (FM Dinner), which I highly recommend doing if you’ve got a farmers market in your area. Luckily we have a great one in Santa Cruz.

The idea of the FM Dinner is to get friends together in a spontaneous way, where everyone contributes a dish made entirely or mostly from ingredients that were just purchased at the FM — that day. It is amazing what people will come up with just  a couple of hours to prepare and no prior planning involved.

Food and wine produced from the same general locations pair naturally well together, so I decided that this approach would be the best way to showcase the SCM Cal-Ital wines, as opposed to cooking some exotic Italian dishes.

The following is the menu we came up with.

Salad:

Grilled peaches, arugula, pistachios, chevre, and rosemary oil

Bruschetta:

Sliced Francese bread topped with a mixture of diced fresh heirloom tomatoes,

basil, garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar

Cornmeal crust pizza:

Mozzarella, chevre, padrón peppers, scallions, nasturtiums, and pine nuts

Plum tart:

Made from fresh home-grown plums

The wines I picked don’t make up a comprehensive list of all of the SCM Cal-Ital wines out there, but they are a good representation of what is available. One of my first discoveries was that most of the Italian grapes were being purchased from outside of the SCM appellation. The exceptions are Martin Ranch and Bargetto. Martin Ranch grows Italian varieties on their estate in sites that are near and overlapping the border of the Santa Clara Valley. Bargetto’s Regan Vineyard is in the Green Valley area of Corralitos and on it they grow Merlot (14 acres), Chardonnay (11 acres), Pinot noir (5.5 acres), Pinot grigio (2.5 acres), Dolcetto (1.5 acres), Nebbiolo (1 acre), and Refosco (0.5 acres). The soil type of the Regan Vineyard is clay and loam and the rolling vineyard sits at about 500 feet a.s.l.

Below are the wines, in the order we tried them, all blind. Before we started, I gave everyone a list of the grapes to be looking for. (So it ended up as a sort of matching game.) The last one was obvious because it was the only white.

Nicholson Vineyards Terra Cotta Red 2009. California. Sangiovese 50% (Santa Clara Valley AVA), Syrah 50% (Monterey AVA). Aged 19 months in new and used French oak.

My notes: Pink magenta in color with a ripe, spicy, and smoky plum bouquet. Good ripe fruit, hot and spicy (but not outrageous), and good tannins.

Notes from my panelists: Black cherry, strawberry jam, vanilla, oregano, perfume, tart, smoky with good body and tannins.

Explanation: I was absolutely sure this one was the 100% Sangiovese. It really tasted like a Sangiovese, and compared to the next one, was lighter in body and more tart. Most everyone was in the same boat as me. But alas, we were wrong. The Syrah must be a mellow and fruity Syrah without a lot of meaty, peppery, bacon or eukalyptus characteristics. I can usually spot Syrah in a blend, even in minute percentages (because I don’t like those meaty flavors). But I couldn’t in this one. As it turns out, the Syrah is from a vineyard in a warmer, lower spot, near a town called Chualar, and so wouldn’t develop those heady characteristics of a cool climate Syrah. While in the Monterey AVA, it’s a warm location.

$23  ★☆

Martin Ranch Winery Thérèse Vineyards Sangiovese 2008. Santa Clara Valley AVA. Sangiovese 100%. Eighty percent of the Sangiovese comes from the estate Dos Niñas Vineyard’s first harvest of certified Brunello clones and 20% comes from the estate Fladeboe Vineyard, both on the eastern side of the Santa Cruz mountains, technically in the Santa Clara Valley AVA. Aged 34 months in Hungarian casks.

My notes: Ruby red and semi-clear. Pine and cedar aromas with deep dark berries and ripe plums. A strong note of olive, leather, and clove.

Notes from my panelists: Vegetal, cloves, tobacco, leather, vanilla, and mint on the nose; black cherry, plum, slate, oak, spice and acid.

Explanation: We thought it was the Syrah-Sangiovese blend but in fact it was the 100% Sangiovese. My theory is that the nearly 3 years aging in Hungarian casks gave enough exotic aromas, flavors, and structure to make us think of Syrah.

$29  ★

Bargetto Dolcetto 2009. Santa Barbara County. Dolcetto 85%, Zinfandel 10%, Petite Sirah 5%. (And actually this wine is only 85% Santa Barbara County; the rest comes from the Monterey and Lodi appellations.) Aged for 15 months in 33% new French oak. Harvested September 29 — October 7, almost a month later than most Piemontese Dolcetto is harvested.

My notes: Clear, watermelon pink in color. Glycerin texture; no tannins. Spicy vanilla, strawberry, and cinnamon. High acid. Reminds me of a cheap Pinot noir.

Notes from my panelists: Pinot noir smell with baking spices and earth. Flavors include: bitter cherry, herby, farmy. High acidity; no tannins.

Explanation: When I went to Santa Barbara a few years back, I found the Pinot noir from that region to have a general imbalance of acidity and smooth sweet strawberry fruit. This one is the same way but unfortunately it is Dolcetto. Dolcetto normally has a ton of tannins, dark fruit, and is tart and concentrated. This one was nothing like that. Even the addition of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah didn’t do anything to bring it around. I wonder how this Dolcetto would have been if it had never been aged in oak, but only remained in stainless steel. Strange.

$18

Downhill Susannah’s Barbera 2007. California. I could not obtain any technical information on this wine.

My notes: Ruby brick color; semi-opaque. Sweet plum and a touch of rubber in the nose, leading to intense plum fruit flavors, a touch of licorice, a nice mineraity, and a tart finish.

Notes from my panelists: Blood red in color with aromas of fruitcake, menthol, oregano, and dill. Big and spicy but smooths out while in the glass. Dried fruit/raisin character. Watery finish.

Explanation: I still can’t believe this one is a California Barbera. It had a great structure, aromas, and minerality. Some thought it was a Dolcetto based on my general description of Dolcetto, which made absolute sense to me. I feel like I should try another bottle to convince myself… for the price, it would be worth it. Future vintages of the Downhill Barbera will come from the famous Cooper Vineyard in Amador County so I expect it could taste a lot different form this one.

$18 ★★

Bargetto LA VITA 2007. Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (Regan Estate Vineyards). Dolcetto 56%, Refosco 35%, Nebbiolo 9%. Aged for 25 months in 33% new French oak. Harvested October 11 — November 7, fairly late in comparison to Italy.

My notes: Purple magenta. Closed. Cherry, plum, freshly cut wood. On the palate, very much more like Dolcetto than their other one: a good deal of tannins but a little bitter: the fruit is black licorice and currant. A little hot in the finish but still closed.

Notes from my panelists: Dark color, elusive, herbal and menthol nose, tart and dry with noticeable acidity. Can taste the oak.

Explanation: To me the Dolcetto took over this blend, in a good way. I couldn’t notice any Nebbiolo but the Refosco probably helped to bold up the mid-palate and add some spices and herbal characters. I didn’t like this wine at first but actually it was really good on the second day, telling me it is a wine to be aged, at least for a few years, with some impressive structure and tannins. The price isn’t great, however.

$60. ★

Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Muscat 2009. Monterey AVA. Moscato giallo 98%, Loureiro 2%. No oak. Certified biodynamic.

My notes: Bouquet of jasmine, lychees, and white peaches. Tastes like soap. Bitter.

Notes from my panelists: No one wrote very much. They agreed it was bitter but everyone else liked it a lot more than I did.

My explanation: I have discovered from unfortunate choices in by-the-glass situations and at Alto Adige tastings, that I simply cannot stand Moscato giallo. When I tasted this one, I knew it had to be a Muscat of the “giallo” variety because of the intense floral perfume and bitter flavors. After researching it on the Bonny Doon Vineyard website, I was confirmed. It is mostly Moscato giallo (with a little tiny bit of a Spanish (Galician) grape called, Loureiro). While an impressively light white with good fruit and minerals, I cannot get past the bitter flavor. The aromas, to me, are also somewhat nauseating.

$18

In the end, while I don’t think the SCM appellation is the best for Italian varieties in California, there are few gems out there made by Santa Cruz wine makers. You just have to keep an ear to the ground to find them. I certainly discovered a couple of impressive wines from this investigation and I plan to buy both the Nicholson Terra Cotta Red and Downhill Barbera again. If you’re in Santa Cruz, good places to find these wines are Vino Cruz downtown, and Shopper’s Corner on Soquel Avenue.

Also I’d like to extend a special thanks to my tasting panelists and chefs: Josh, Claire, Jordana, and Jeff.

Some of my favorite producers for Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and/or Cabernet in the SCM appellation are Varner, Windy Oaks, Sarah’s Vineyard, Alfaro, Muns, Sonnet, Mount Eden, Kathryn Kennedy, and Ridge. Other wineries with consistently good scores include Rhys and Big Basin.

A “Cal-Ital” wine is a wine made from grapes indigenous to Italy but grown on California soil.

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