Portuguese Grapes in California
Santa Cruz County is partly a bedroom community for Silicon Valley engineers, who wind their way along Highway 17 over the mountain between Santa Cruz and the Valley. Most of them don’t expect to work for the same company for more than three years. Jeff Emery is a Santa Cruz grape farmer and winemaker, and his life is a stark contrast to the tech people, who visit his tasting room. Despite its forested mountain terrain, the area has a long agricultural history, and farmers tend to remain on the land that they know, where they build a knowledge base over time. “I’ve never written a resume. I’ve never filled out a job application,” Jeff smiles. Now 52, he took the job working for Ken Burnap at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard three years before he was legally old enough to drink wine. Today, he owns the winery. He has more than a 30-year history of making Pinot Noir from vineyards planted in the same Vine Hill neighborhood on the same mountain. Even his winemaking style, European and food friendly, has been consistent all these years since the beginning of his apprenticeship with Ken Burnap, who was the architect of what became Jeff’s style too. Regardless of the continuity in his life, Jeff says, “It’s important to shake out the rug every decade to avoid complacency, try things that are new.” The “new things” in the previous decade were Portuguese and Spanish wines, which Jeff discovered in 1999 when he visited the two countries and fell in love especially with Portuguese red grape varieties. Back in California, his enthusiasm continued to grow, and in 2008, he created the Quinta Cruz brand to showcase his increasing portfolio of wines, made from Iberian Peninsula grapes now rooted in California. Our conversation is slightly edited for clarity.
You’ve owned this brand, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, since 2004 but farmed the vineyard and made the wine since you were in college.
One day in 1979, I came to help Ken Burnap bottle wine, and I never left. I was a sophomore at the University of California in Santa Cruz at the time, getting a degree in geology and earth science that I’ve never used. I worked with Ken and with the brand for 25 years, and when he retired, I took over. Ken’s idea was that California Pinot Noir was so horrible in the 1960s because it was all grown in the Napa Valley, where it was too hot for Pinot. We all know that now, but they didn’t know it then. Ken had done all this independent research because he loved French Burgundy, collected Burgundy, and was convinced that Santa Cruz Mountains or Russian River would be the best places in California to grow it. In 1974, he bought the Jarvis Vineyard in the Vine Hill area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and right out of the chute, his very first vintage in 1975 got tons of awards and accolades. He was very much in the spotlight with the Pinot that came off the vineyard, one of the top five along with Joseph Swan, Chalone, ZD, and Mount Eden. So we farmed 10 acres of estate Pinot there, and he also bought fruit for a Cabernet and a Petite Sirah.
I didn’t have enough dollars in the shoebox to buy the property, and he needed to sell it to really retire. So I took over the business, the equipment, and the inventory but had to move off the site. I lost that grape source by definition, but by pure luck, I picked up the Branciforte Creek Pinot vineyard just a mile down the road on the same mountain and Bailey’s Branciforte Ridge vineyard just another mile away. So I’ve spent a whole career with Pinot Noir from that mountain, and I still have those two sources right there. Ken’s winemaking approach was very European, hands off. The wine comes from the grapes, not manipulating the wines a lot in the winemaking process. In short, it was a wonderful collaborative apprenticeship. Over the 25 years of working with him, I did more and more; he did less and less. He took a long slow retirement. At first, he was gone one or two weeks, then one or two months. The two final years that I worked for him as an employee, he was out of the country. I never even saw him. So when he retired, I couldn’t find a real job. I didn’t want to find a real job. I wanted to stay with the brand, and he made that very possible.
In addition to the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard wines, you have the new Quinta Cruz label for Portuguese and Spanish varieties. How did that happen?
I love to travel in the off season and just by chance went to Portugal twice three years apart and just fell in love with the red table wines. We went in January, the perfect time to go. Everything’s open. The weather’s perfect like California, and there are no tourists. It’s a small country, incredible food, super nice people, and expensive wine in a restaurant is $15. I was just personally interested in trying to make these varieties. I’d like to take credit for good market timing because it turned out to be, but I was going to do it anyhow just because I wanted to play with it. I was lucky enough to come home to find some growers either visionary enough or crazy enough to grow them. Spanish and Portuguese varietals are really starting to take off.
As soon as I came home from the second trip to Portugal, I saw an ad in the Wine Country Classified for Portuguese varieties. The Pierce family in the San Antonio Valley in Monterey County had planted them, but I think they were just trying to see if anybody was going to buy these grapes after they put them in the ground. I contacted them, super nice family, and we started working together right away. They grow a lot of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Touriga National, Graciano, and are doing test lots of many interesting Portuguese varieties, easily two dozen. Graciano for instance, only two vineyards in the state have it. I helped them out with some home wines that they were making from the early fruit. So I have very close interactions with them. I go down there a lot and taste the four or five varieties that I buy from the ranch. When I go down to pick up the first one to ripen, I’m sampling the next one and so on. I drive the truck down to get the fruit, so I can be out in the vineyard checking the next variety that I’m going to pick. So I’m pretty hands-on even thought it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive each way. I buy Verdelho from Lodi. I don’t mess with the winemaking at all. It just comes in balanced even though it’s a hot climate. Many people try to plant Merlot and Cab there, and it just makes cooked wine. But these grapes that grew up in the hot climate of the Iberian Peninsula do well in Lodi. I buy Grenache from Bill and Vicky Crawford in Mendocino. On our scale, it doesn’t make sense to be the farmer for all these wines. There are a lot of good growers out there. It’s very much a buyers market now.
You’re making these terrific wines, but they’re taking you away from this amazing cool-climate Santa Cruz Mountains appellation that you inhabit.
Well, I’m still very much here too and dedicated to local Pinot and Cabernet. If I found Tempranillo here, I’d buy it in a moment. I’m trying to convince growers that Tempranillo will grow beautifully here in the Santa Cruz Mountains in slightly warmer zones like the East Side and Summit where Cabernet grows. I don’t have the ability to plant and farm it, so I have to convince growers that it’s a good idea in terms of having a local source. This is a great region, but I’ve been on the board for the winegrowers association for longer than I can remember, and again and again we’ve tried to market ourselves, but the reviewers forget we exist. I understand some of the issues. It’s a huge appellation. It has so many micro climates. It’s more Cab on the east side and Pinot on the west side and other varieties in between, so it’s a big area to get a handle on. It’s not a discrete little piece like Napa County, which is Napa Valley. It is the first appellation in the U.S. to be based on climatalogical, geographical, geological factors like the European model. The Santa Cruz Mountains appellation covers three counties, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties and is based on elevation. Nominally on the west side, any area below 400 feet in not in the appellation, and on the east side anything below 800 feet is not included. The mountain range goes north to south, so Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are on either side, and Santa Cruz in on the west side.
There’s been talk of creating sub appellations. We already have one. Ben Lomond Mountain got established years ago. But I don’t think anyone has the time for the bureaucracy that’s involved. The process to get an appellation approved is unbelievably Byzantine. You’ve got to have some very dedicated volunteers, who ignore their own businesses while they go do this. And I’m not so sure that it’s important. Our winery association has divided up sub regions in terms of our marketing materials, so we have these pods, Corallites, Summit, Woodside. To me that’s enough. To get appellations, someone’s going to have to draw a hard firm line somewhere. That’s a difficult thing to do when you have such varied terrain like we do here. I work at vineyards that are close to each other with the same grape variety planted, and they ripen a month apart because they have different exposures. What do you use as your criteria to draw firm lines? So I think loose regions make sense without having to create a legal appellation for a label. People talk about where we grow our Pinot, which historically has been called Vine Hill District. It’s had vines since 1863, so I can say that in the text on the back label, or you can refer to Summit area, or Corallites area. People who live here know that. You can say Woodside. That means something. You can say Saratoga. I think all of those are very applicable sub groupings without being appellations.
This is a picturesque street. How many wineries are located in these warehouses?
On this particular street there are 12 wineries. It just organically happened. No one said let’s have a wine ghetto. And it’s worked really well especially in the context of a region like the Santa Cruz Mountains, where it’s so hard to get around. It’s the second smallest county in the state, but people visiting don’t realize the driving time between wineries. This warehouse that we’re in was Bonny Doon Vineyard. They owned the whole thing, did their whole production here. Bonny Doon Vineyard went through two major downsizings and is way smaller than it used to be. With the second downsizing, the company sold this building. I’d been looking for such a place for several years. The guy who bought it wanted to do a food and wine thing. It was already a winery so it was a slam dunk in terms of city permits and that kind of thing. We moved in June 2008. Before, we were located up in the mountains, hidden away, so this is relatively new to be in town with a tasting room. It serves us all very well to be together.
California Wines of the Month
Quinta Cruz – 2010 Verdelho
Winemaker Jeff Emery’s Notes
Verdelho most likely originated in Sicily and might have been introduced in the 15th Century in into the Madeira Islands east of Morocco. It later expanded into the Douro Valley in northern Portugal and then to the Anjou region in the Loire Valley of western France. Verdelho is the dominant white grape of Madeira wines. It is still found in the Douro Valley of Portugal and the Loire Valley of Western France. The grapes for this wine are grown in the Alta Mesa region east of Lodi in California’s Central Valley. This is a great example of putting a variety in the appropriate climate. Verdelho comes from the warmer regions of Portugal and Spain and has terrific natural acidity even in these climates. The quality of California wine would be much benefited from more growers planting these climate-appropriate varieties in the Central Valley instead of trying to grow cooler-climate French varieties there. This 2010 Verdelho was fermented and stored without any active oak and has a lively acidity that allows it to go great with many foods. It is crisp and lively with aromas and flavors of ripe peaches, white nectarines, apricots, honeydew melon, citrus peel, and even a touch of lilac and other flowers (12.5% alcohol).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Jeff Emery made just 197 cases of this superb white wine from grapes that were harvested at Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi. At just 12.5% alcohol, you’ll be able to refill your glass multiple times, and you’ll want to. This 2010 Verdelho is crisp with intense flavors that alternate between stone fruit, citrus, flowers, and spice. Serve chilled. So delicious….
Quinta Cruz – 2009 Tempranillo
Winemaker Jeff Emery’s Notes
Tempranillo is the most commonly planted red variety throughout Portugal and Spain, but it is hardly known in the U.S. although catching on quickly. It has many synonyms, the most common of which are Tinta Roriz in northern Portugal where it is also important in Port. In southern Portugal, the variety is called Aragonez, and in southern Spain it is called Valdepenas. But there are more than 30 synonyms for this variety throughout the Iberian Peninsula, depending on the area where the grape is grown. Tempranillo is a very food-versatile variety, much like Pinot Noir. You can enjoy a good Tempranillo throughout a meal of many courses, and it will complement almost everything. This 2009 release is the deepest and most complex yet of the Tempranillo that we’ve made from Pierce Ranch in the San Antonio Valley. It is still a young vineyard, and we see the character from the vineyard getting stronger every year as the vines mature. The wine has great amounts of cranberry, pomegranate, and sour cherry fruit with nuances of smoky-earthy spice. It has the intensity of a mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon but the complexity and food-paring capability of a Pinot Noir (14.1% alcohol).
Anna Maria’s Notes
With jewel-like color, you can clearly see your fingers at the bottom of the glass, and the flavors are extraordinary. Jeff made 402 cases of this beautiful wine, which has all of the flavor and finesse of Pinot Noir but is a lot less costly. Serve at cool room temperature.
Quinta Cruz – 2008 Touriga
Winemaker Jeff Emery’s Notes
Touriga is a name that we are more or less forced to use for what is actually two very distinct varietals, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Federal authorities, who approve labels for commercial wine in the U.S, unfortunately did not recognize these two clearly separate varieties and allowed only the name Touriga on the label. A direct analogy would be if they allowed only the term Cabernet for any wine made from either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Government inadequacy aside, we feel that this wine, more than any other in the Quinta Cruz brand, shows off why we focus on these almost forgotten native varieties of Portugal. You will find many aromas and flavors that you probably have never before experienced in a wine. Many subtle floral elements lurk in the wine, including rose petals, violets, and lavender, along with other hard to define complex perfume and spice aromas. Another layer of aromas and flavors hints at cocoa, coffee, and fragrant damp earth after a rain. The wine is an aromatic chameleon, changing every single time you stick your nose into the glass! This is by far our favorite bottling of this wine so far. It has a tremendous amount of rose petal complexity but is grounded by moderate structure and lots of darker and deeper characters too. Sometimes the rose petal character can dominate a wine too much and show as a little too perfume-like. But we feel that this wine has just the right balance of high and low notes (13% alcohol).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Jeff Emery made 98 cases this delicious wine, a blend of 76% Touriga Nacional and 24% Touriga Franca. The wine impresses with intriguing aromas and flavors, and not coincidentally, is just 13% alcohol. Is there a connection between modest alcohol and intense varietal flavor? Yes, indeed. When the winemaker harvests grapes before they raisin on the vine, they retain varietal flavor and aroma like any other fruit would. And since sugar ferments to alcohol, less ripe fruit will convert to lower alcohol in the wine. Alcohol content will tell you a lot about the flavors in the bottle, but in the font size that it normally appears on the label, the information has the same dimensions as a flea. Next time you go to a wine shop, bring a microscope.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard – 2008 Pinot Noir, Branciforte Creek Vineyard
Winemaker Jeff Emery’s Notes
Branciforte Creek Vineyard is located on Jarvis Road in the Vine Hill area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, just a mile away from our well-known Estate Vineyard on the same road. The vines were planted in 1988 on this site where grapes have been growing since 1863. The vineyard has low yields of very flavorful fruit year after year and represents the best of “old school” Pinot Noir, before all of those cola-cherry focused “modern” clones became popular. This vineyard is planted with the Pommard Clone, a clone of Pinot Noir that results in a more traditional, Burgundian take on the variety. You don’t get just lots of cherry-berry fruit. Instead, all kinds of intriguing back flavors and aromas, like dried leaves, damp earth, warming spices, and fennel can be found in nuanced layers behind and around the fruit. The 2008 vintage was one with rather small berries and low crop levels due to a bad spring frost. These conditions produced grapes with greatly concentrated flavor from the high skin to juice ratio in the fermentation. The wine opens up with some time in a decanter or an open bottle, with new layers of complexity appearing as you enjoy the wine (14% alcohol).
Anna Maria’s Notes
In a sense, Pinot Noir has become a victim of its own success. As every California winery rushed to satisfy consumer demand and included Pinot Noir in its portfolio, the wine lost some of its identity. Jeff Emery has a thirty year career with this particular grape. When you taste this Pinot Noir, it will taste like no other wine, not Syrah, not Merlot, not Grenache. This is real Pinot Noir. Enjoy!
Menu of the Month
Serving platters with broiled tomatoes stuffed with breadcrumbs and fresh herbs,
eggplant rounds topped with chopped garlic, parsley, and olive oil,
fresh mozzarella slices, with drizzled olive oil, a sprinkling of salt,
and slivers of fresh basil, assorted Fra Mani salumi without nitrates,
served with freshly baked country bread
Linguine pasta, drained and immediately tossed with chopped,
vine-ripened tomatoes, finely chopped garlic,
chopped fresh basil leaves, salt, and extra virgin olive oil
Red leaf lettuce with cucumber, red onion, chopped parsley,
and lemon zest, tossed with lemon, finely chopped garlic, and olive oil dressing
Raspberry sorbetto, topped with assorted fresh berries, and served with lemon cookies
Recipe of the Month
Broiled tomatoes with breadcrumbs and fresh herbs& eggplant rounds topped with chopped garlic, parsley, and olive oil
Platters laden with summer’s colorful bounty will stimulate both the eye and the palate and need not be labor intensive. The two simple preparations below are great for first courses or as sides for a main course. An added advantage, the eggplant rounds can be prepared ahead.
Baked tomatoes with fresh herbs
Cut tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out juice and seed sacs.
Chop and mix together in a food processor 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon bread crumbs for each tomato and a handful of fresh basil and parsley or parsley and oregano and salt to taste.
Stuff each tomato half with the mixture, place in baking dish, and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees F until tops are browned. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Eggplant rounds, topped with chopped garlic, parsley, and olive oil
Slice large eggplant in 3/8 inch thick rounds and place on un-greased cookie sheet in 400 degree F oven until soft and slightly browned but not mushy.
In food processor, chop finely 2 cloves garlic and a handful of parsley together with olive oil and salt to form a paste. When eggplant rounds are cooked, spread with the garlic-parsley mixture. Store in covered glass container or serve immediately.