The backyard Côte d’Or

Silicon Valley’s technology barons are leading a winemaking renaissance in their backyard. Roger Morris reports

Landscape Vineyard, Santa Cruz
Landscape Vineyard, Santa Cruz

David Amadia ushers a small group of visitors from Ridge Vineyards’ mountaintop tasting room out into the waning afternoon sun, past the signs warning to beware of rattlesnakes and into a picnic area on a precipice overlooking the broad valley. It is a spectacular view.

To the left is San Francisco Bay, spreading south past the international airport and down into the urban sprawl that is San Jose. Straight ahead and miles away, even as the crow flies, are the rugged, forested canyon lands of the Diablo Range. To the right, but out of sight over the intervening hills, are the fertile, produce-centric flatlands around Salinas – Steinbeck Country.

Then Amadia, Ridge’s unassuming president, calls attention to a circular object closer to the foot of the mountains where he is standing, a huge whitish wheel nestled neatly among the network of streets and urban greenery like a flying saucer peacefully landed. “That’s the new Apple headquarters,” he says with a grin as his audience lets out a chorus of “Wows!” and “Reallys?”. “About 18,000 people will work there.”

Cometh the techies

Amadia’s impromptu tourist-guide turn has more than its share of unspoken parallels. After all, the four founders of Ridge Vineyards – who made their first three-quarters of a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon from old vines on this spot in 1960 and so helped to put the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area) on the world map for serious winegrowing – were themselves all techies, engineers from the nearby Stanford Research Institute. And today it is the techies of Silicon Valley, the nouveau-riche founders and CEOs of the agglomeration of digital companies that have transformed the sleepy communities in the foothills, who are leading a second wave of growth for the Santa Cruz Mountains wine industry. It’s their backyard Côte d’Or, specialising in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Although such pioneers of the post-Prohibition California wine industry as Paul Masson and Martin Ray made wine here, during most of the past 50 years the winemaking reputation of the Santa Cruz Mountains was pretty much limited to Ridge and Mount Eden as far as wine connoisseurs were concerned. While that may not be a fair or even accurate assessment, few people not taking their sommelier exams could name five wineries from the AVA, or even recognise it is an AVA. 

Now that is changing.

“The region has gone through sharp growth over the past 25 years,” says Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, noting that these mountains were once known as the home of hippies living off the grid. “But world-class wines produced by world-class pocketbooks make almost anything possible.”

While wealth alone does not ensure quality or success in the wine business, it certainly helps. Planting and properly maintaining vineyards in a mountainous terrain, and building wineries, buying equipment and hiring qualified people to make and market the wine is expensive. Still, wine critics generally agree that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who made their fortune in the tech business have invested in wine wisely.

The list of tech-related wineries founded in the past 20 years, mostly start-ups rather than takeovers, is long and blue-chip. Rhys winery is owned by Kevin Harvey, co-founder of Benchmark Capital, which invested in many of the valley’s billion-dollar tech companies. David House, former executive at Intel and Bay Networks, founded the House Family Winery. Mindego Ridge’s co-owner, David Gollnick, was a medical laser pioneer at Coherent Medical Group and now serves on the Cutera board. T.J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor, applied his technical smarts in building the futuristic Clos de la Tech. The software skills of Eden Estates’ John Couch helped boost the fortunes of Apple and Hewlett-Packard. Kings Mountain Vineyards’ Mike Markkula was the second CEO at Apple. Kelsey Taussig’s voice recognition research at Nuance paved the way for humans to have conversations with Siri and Alexa. Today, Taussig loves digging out weeds around vines at Split Rail Winery, which she co-owns with husband Carl, director of advance materials for Amazon. Both are MIT grads. Not surprisingly, these captains of the tech industry are as ambitious in making wine as they were in writing code and uncovering unmet needs. 

“I’m using the same 1830s winemaking process that was used by Julien Ouvrard [in Burgundy] in what was then simply La Romanée,” Rodgers explains, “but I’ve applied technology to the process. Making wine isn’t an art; it’s a science.” His irrigation system – patented, of course – is solar-powered with underground moisture sensors. To achieve a traditional gravity-flow system for winemaking, Rodgers drilled three caves into the mountainside, each at a different level so wine flows naturally from one to the other.

House’s winemaker and Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA) president, Jim Cargill, notes the irony of using modern means to make traditional wines. “Our technology is proving that what Paul Masson was doing to make wine 100 years ago was the right way,” he says.

But more than anything else, the Silicon Valley wineries are showing that a can-do attitude wedded to money clears away most obstacles. While Rhys’s state-of-the-art winery and underground cellar are impressive, even more impressive is the attitude that winery director Javier Tapia Meza and owner Harvey exhibit. “I was tasting wine in San Francisco with a sommelier, and he said I should try this Sicilian wine made with the Nerello Mascalese grape,” Tapia says. “I loved it and texted Kevin, and he said I needed to check it out. The next week I was on a plane to Sicily.” Rhys is now a partner in making Aeris Sicilian wines.

And while Ridge still leads Santa Cruz wineries in critical recognition, getting multiple 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate, another eight Santa Cruz wineries, including Rhys and Mindego Ridge, have recently scored in the mid-90s.

One of the things that has held back the region is its remoteness. The Santa Cruz Mountains are the most difficult Californian wine region to geographically comprehend and to physically navigate. The region is heavily forested and is divided by deep ravines and steep ridges accessed mostly by narrow, winding roads. Ridge and Rhys are on adjoining hilltops, for example, but it takes about an hour to drive from one to the other.

“And we’re divided by the San Andreas Fault,” Amadia tells his visitors. “We are standing on the North American plate connected to New York, and Rhys is on the Pacific plate connected to China. Our vineyard is atop a ten-mile block of coral reef that migrated here from Indonesia.” Or as banker McMillan puts it: “The Santa Cruz Mountains region has a fault line down its middle, with Cabernet Sauvignon growing on one side [the east] and Pinot Noir on the other [the west].” 

An overview

The appellation encompasses approximately 480,000 acres or 194,250ha, from Woodside in the north to Watsonville in the south, which is about 160km in driving distance. According to the SCMWA, there are more than 60 wineries and 200 small vineyards growing approximately 526ha of grapes. There are no official production figures for the region, but the association says it is divided about one-fourth evenly among Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and other varieties, most notably Merlot and Zinfandel.

The once-sleepy hillside town of Saratoga is where Silicon Valley meets the mountains and where several wineries have set up tasting rooms. Its population has grown to 31,000, and the median household income is $173,000, almost triple the figure for California as a whole. The median price of a home here is more than $1,933,000, double the San Jose regional median. While this wealth has brought winery investment and a wine-savvy consumer base, it also has meant that vineyard workers and tasting room personnel have difficulty in finding affordable housing. Grape and land prices have also risen sharply.

Yet fortunately, when the AVA was founded in 1981, it was mostly defined by its mountain topography, following the fog line along the coast and encompassing vineyards with elevations up to 792.5m. Simply put, most vineyards are too rugged to be threatened by urban incursion. Even where there are multimillion-dollar homes, there is often a wine component, as many millionaires’ backyards are producing vineyards. “We call them landscape vineyards,” says Keikilani McKay, SCMWA’s executive director. Clos LaChance made its debut by “farming” more than 40 of these small vineyards and making wines from them. 

And there seems to be little friction between old-timers and newcomers, as most adopt the philosophy that a rising tide raises all ships. Plus the newcomers are quick to pay homage to the pioneers. Mindego Ridge’s Gollnick even applies medical marketing terminology to the situation: “All these people did the pioneer work,” he says. “I feel a little guilty being a fast follower.” 

Roger Morris

Roger Morris visited Santa Cruz as a guest of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association. 

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.

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