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Meet the Press

The crush is on, and this year we decided to let local vintners be tastemakers of a different kind when we asked them what they're drinking--and how this year's harvest is shaping up for wine lovers

By Steve Billings

I remember the string of days back in March--warm, sunny, beach days that happened upon us out of nowhere but were certainly welcome.

After the weather cooled a few days later, I started hearing murmurs, concerned ones.

That early spring hot spell resulted in an early awakening for wine grapes, a premature call to action which couldn't be ignored, for there are no false starts in agriculture--just oddities, anomalies, bad frickin' timing.

So the buds broke early this year and the grapes embarked on their growth and ripening while still potentially susceptible to late frosts.

If you're a winemaker, you don't need this kind of stress early in the growing season. The month of March should still be quiet time. Fretful moments should be reserved for later in the summer--while monitoring sugar levels, cursing extended heat waves, fixing vineyard equipment--and for the endless work of harvest, when grapes wait for no one, and the fruit needs to be picked and picked now, damn it. If it isn't, it won't matter what's done with it in the winery.

Thankfully, this year's early stress did not bring about catastrophe. In fact, early reports on the harvest suggest high quality with slightly lower than normal yields. This summer we have seen plenty of warm, dry days (but not scorchingly hot) followed by cool evenings, a beneficial cycle that grapes need to achieve optimum ripeness, balance and quality.

On average, grapes are being picked two, four, even six weeks ahead of schedule this year, making for both the earliest grape harvest in years and very busy wineries and winemakers.

Amazingly, amid the pressing madness, vintners were still willing to spare a couple of minutes answering my questions about the wines that they enjoy either from the Santa Cruz Mountains (their own or from other producers), or from further-flung locales.

As a consumer, it's no easy task to pick a great wine. So instead of wading through dizzying store shelves, why not let our local winemaker talent share some insider information on a few recently imbibed bottles. The Santa Cruz Mountain region is home to 40-plus wineries of varying size, many of them small operations, run by passionate producers who spend most of their time assessing grapes and the wines they produce. We spoke to five of them about this year's crop and what they're drinking.

Val Ahlgren, Ahlgren Vineyard

On the Harvest: "The flavors are, this year, without exception, extraordinary. There is richness in the whites, chardonnay and semillon, and in the reds. Just delicious! You are right about busy! As of this very moment, Dexter [Ahlgren] is on his way to Ventana Vineyard to pick up the syrah. Yesterday, Dexter and I went to Bates' Ranch to check out the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. The merlot is already here at the winery and fermenting. Also, chardonnay from Ventana and semillon from Livermore Valley are pressed, in the barrels, and fermentations are complete. Pinot noir from Richard and Diane Kleine's Larson Road vineyard above Aptos is wonderful and slowly fermenting its way from grape juice to a most promising wine. And, proud to say, the first little batch of grapes from our 1acre estate pinot noir vineyard are also tucked into a fermentor, turning themselves into wine."

What They're Drinking: "It is hard for us, as winemakers, to recommend any specific wine of ours. We choose the wine to drink according to the food or the event where we plan to enjoy it. The Ahlgren Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet, Bates' Ranch, vintage 1999, is drinking very well. It has some bottle age on it, and that is always a big plus. We will soon be releasing an unfiltered Ventana chardonnay, vintage 2003, that shows extra special qualities. It was clarifying naturally so well and had such lovely aroma and flavors we decided to bottle it without bothering it with filtration. A first unfiltered white for us in all these years since 1976. Our reds are almost always unfined and unfiltered. Of course, the syrahs--Paso Robles and Ventana--are favorites too."

Peter Bargetto, Soquel Vineyards

On the Harvest: "Every vineyard is so different. This year, I am excited about our Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir, which we sourced from three different vineyards; the Martin Ray Vineyard that dates from the 1890s, Ed Muns Vineyard in East Loma Prieta and also Trout Gulch Vineyard, which Ryan Beauregard took over farming in 2003. Since that happened, the fruit has never been better. By the way, he is making some of the finest wines in the county."

What He's Drinking: Peter and his family travel to Italy every year, spending a fair amount of time in Piemonte, in northern Italy, from where his family originates. He loves both the nebbiolo and barbera-based red wines of Pio Cesare, one of the finest producers in the region. On the lighter side, Pio Cesare produces a light, crisp, unoaked white wine made from the little-known Arneis grape which he says is fantastic with lighter fish dishes. When I talked to him by phone one recent evening, he said that the bottle of Clarksburg Chenin Blanc from Dry Creek Valley, with its bright melon flavors, was a solid accompaniment to the spicy Thai food he and his wife were eating. Though he admits to really enjoying his brother Tom's noncommercial cabernet/merlot blend aged 28 months in French oak, Peter has much praise for his fellow commercial producers. Here are some of his picks:

Salamandre Wine Cellars 2002 Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco: "This is a great bottle of wine. Top notch. It is a lighter wine, very soft tannins and notes of sweet French oak.

Ahlgren Vineyard Semillon: "Not a lot of people produce wines from this grape. Theirs tastes like it is barrel-fermented, has long lingering flavors, is clean and very well made."

Alison Crowe, Byington Winery and Vineyard

On the Harvest: "This was a classic 'hang time' harvest where those that balked and picked early during that September heat spike will live to regret it as they're faced with green flavors and unripe aromatic profiles when wines get barreled down later this fall. Though I don't advocate letting the grapes hang on the vine until they're raisins, as a matter of course--like many 'fashionable' winemakers supposedly say they do, I just wasn't seeing the flavor development I wanted until the sugars pushed well into the 26-28 Brix range on even our Estate Pinot Noir here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Luckily I have the freedom at Byington to make the best wine possible, so my staff and I rode through the hot spell and picked when things cooled down. Our patience really paid off as many of the sugars actually went backwards--sounds weird, but it does happen out there--and we were able to pick with more developed tannins and really ripe, round flavor profiles. Look to 2004 to be, for those wineries willing to make wine on the edge, a big, fat, flavorful year with long, slow malolactic fermentations contributing to super-silky mouthfeels balanced by higher alcohols and bracing acidity--always good for long ageability. Those losing out in 2004 will be those California wineries whose style is more on the delicate side--unless they're a sparkling producer which means they picked before the hot spell--which probably had their aromatics blown out of the water as they got caught by the super-early ripening. Byington is more of a Bordeaux-style winery which relies on fatness, mouthfeel and power in our cabs from Paso Robles' west side--actually a very cool, late-ripening area, the mountains around Geyserville--very, very late ripening--as well as Hecker Pass (above Gilroy--even later ripening) so I think this year will really show off what we do extraordinarily well."

What She's Drinking:

Byington 2003 Liage Central Coast: "About $22 per bottle retail. A racy little blend of sauvignon blanc and Viognier from Monterey County that is lean but lush in the aromatics."

Roederer NV Brut Sparkling (North Coast): Roederer produces high quality sparkling wines (champagne method). The family-owned estate is located in Mendocino County.

Peggy Crews, Pelican Ranch Winery

On the Harvest: "This year's crush has been fast and furious. Although some fruit has come in at the usual time, others are way ahead of schedule. A good example of this is our syrah from Ventana Vineyard in Arroyo Seco. Our 2001 vintage was harvested on Nov. 27. This year's fruit came in two months earlier! Although the past month has been pretty intense, we're looking forward to having all the wine tucked away in barrels earlier than usual so we can enjoy the rest of the fall season."

What They're Drinking: These are picks from Peggy and her husband Phil:

Soquel Vineyards Proprietor's Reserve Chardonnay: "Classic Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay. Full-flavored, great aftertaste, well-balanced. Nice green apple and lemon flavors."

Ridge Vineyard, 2002 Lytton Springs Zinfandel: "Dark, rich color, full mouthfeel. Complemented and stood up nicely to our meals at Avanti--I had steak and Phil had their sausage and pepper special."

Pelican Ranch Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir: "Terrific. Lots of cherry and vanilla flavors."

Ryan Beauregard, Beauregard Vineyard

On the Harvest: "We had a big heat spike about a month ago that got many growers excited and wanting to pull their grapes. Basically, a lot of growers were jumping the gun. For this year's harvest, you definitely want to pick based on flavors and not just chemistry because though the sugars were high, the fruit wasn't necessarily ready. So--because of the heat spike--we watered the heck out of the vines and let them get up to higher than normal sugars. You can tell when grapes are ready to pick because when the berries are ripe the seeds are brown, and if they're not they'll be green. Also, if they're not ready, they just won't taste right. I don't harvest based on the numbers, I pick when the grapes are ready to make wine. I harvested and pressed some really awesome pinot noir picked this morning (Oct. 1) from a vineyard in Aptos formerly known as Trout Gulch Vineyard. My dad and I have been farming that vineyard for two crops now. My dad's been growing grapes in SC for over 35 years now."

What He's Drinking: Ryan is excited by the entire lineup from Soquel Vineyard, especially the 2002 Chardonnay sourced from the Bald Mountain Vineyard. He describes it as a real, true Santa Cruz Mountain chardonnay, very floral, lots of mineral flavors, with just the right amount of oak. He's also trying to get his brother to bring Lake County High Valley Estate Sauvignon Blanc to Shopper's Corner, which he thinks would be the only place to find it in the area. He says that the grapes are sourced from a very high elevation, 3,000-plus feet. "It is the best sauvignon blanc I've ever had, really an incredible wine. Lots of huge apricot, pineapple and citrus flavors. Very clean, refreshing and vinified entirely in stainless steel, so no oak."

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From the October 6-13, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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