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Testarossa Vineyards


Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Cask and You Shall Receive: Testarossa is known primarily for its pinot noir, and with the popularity of pinot going through the roof (thanks at least in part to the film 'Sideways'), the winery has become one of the hottest in California.

Red All Over

Perched in the hills above Lexington Reservoir, Testarossa Vineyards is on its way to being the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley

By Jim Harrington

THE TESTAROSSA tale is a classic Silicon Valley success story. A husband and a wife take a small business that they started in the garage of their Sunnyvale home, and a few years later, find themselves sitting on top of the world. Only it wasn't computer parts or software designs they were tinkering with. It was grapes. And the top of the world is the historic Novitiate Jesuit grounds in the Los Gatos hills above Lexington Reservoir, the headquarters of their family-owned Testarossa Vineyards.

Thanks to glowing reviews from the wine press, a loyal customer base primarily for their pinot noir, a limited production run of 10,000 cases and a far-reaching company commitment to quality, Testarossa is currently one of the hottest wineries in California.

"We are working on making this the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley," says Rob Jensen, 42, co-owner of Testarossa with his wife, Diana, 39. "We've worked very hard here to not compromise one ounce of our commitment to quality."

A Taste of Life Beyond Tech

The Testarossa story starts when the couple met while studying electrical engineering at Santa Clara University. Soon after Diana graduated in 1986, the couple wed and began working in high tech—Rob as a salesman for Mountain View's Veritas Software and Diana doing marketing for San Jose's Cypress Semiconductors—before finding their true calling with wine.

"Selling wine is a lot more fun than selling software or computer chips," Diana says. "Not everyone gets to make a living out of doing what they love."

They had always been passionate about food and wine, choosing to spend their date nights at a good restaurant rather than the cinema. On the weekends, they began volunteering at the tasting room at Cinnabar winery in Saratoga. Rob, in particular, made a big impression as he called upon his sales background to make sure empty-handed visitors to the winery were leaving with their arms full of Cinnabar wine.

A Future in Future Futures

Once they got the taste for wine, Rob and Diana were hooked and decided to take the hobby to the next level. The weekends at Cinnabar came to an end, and they began spending Saturdays and Sundays tending to a small vineyard in Felton with the intent of making their own wine.

The first bottle was produced in their garage, with a hands-on process that is documented in photos hung in the winery's tasting room, but it didn't end there. To finance a more ambitious venture, the couple sold what they called "future futures" for $100 a pop to fellow grape lovers who were willing to invest in advance for a case of wine later.

Using the grapes from Felton and beyond, as well as the production equipment and available storage space at a local winery, the Jensens produced a batch of 200 cases in 1994. Those bottles sold quickly, and the couple bumped up production to roughly 1,000 cases for 1995.

"Our best friends call us 'Hobby-Run-Amok Vineyards,' but we didn't think that would look good on a label," Diana says. "Still, that pretty accurately sums us up. It really was a hobby that got out of control, and we tried to rein it in so we wouldn't go bankrupt."

Bankruptcy was indeed a worry early on. Luckily, another Silicon Valley success story would occur and, at least temporarily, alleviate the concerns. Veritas went public, and Rob cashed in a year's worth of vesting to help fund the baby winery's bills. As a result, the couple ended up with $100 left over after paying for its initial run.

Red Heads

Rob's auburn hair provided the inspiration for the name Testarossa, which is the Italian word for "redhead." Indeed, he is a fiery and passionate individual who decorates his office with both models of Ferrari Testarossas and awards that his wine has won.

Diana, by contrast, is more easygoing and calm. The differences in personality, as well as what interests each professionally, complement each other. Rob deals very closely with the winemaker and cellar stuff, proudly boasting that he's tasted from every barrel to later become Testarossa, while Diana runs everything to do with the event and tasting centers.

"When we first got into this, she was interested in the food and entertaining side first and the wine second. I was interested in the wine first and food and entertaining second," he says. "She's more laid-back, and I'm more of the grab-the-bull-by-the-horns and do something. I like to be the outspoken promoter, and she likes to be the soft-spoken one that lets the wine do the talking."

These early wines certainly have had a lot to say from the very start. In fact, Wine Spectator gave Testarossa's 1994 pinot noir an impressive 91-point rating.

"It has been a dazzling debut for the novice vintners," cheered the magazine. It wasn't long before the winery was considered one of the best in the Santa Cruz Mountains region, an area that Diana says produces some excellent wines but lacks an overall cohesive feeling.

"You think Russian River Valley, and there is a lot of good pinot noir that comes out of there," she says by example. "I don't think there is enough of a concentration of one type, or quality, for people to get that here."

Testarossa Vineyards was headquartered for its first three years out of a tiny office area in the couple's bedroom. They used grapes grown at other vineyards and had "custom crush" arrangements with other wineries. Still, with two young kids competing for space with sales orders and business proposals, the Jensens' Sunnyvale home was operating at beyond maximum capacity.

Then in 1997, the Jensens heard that the old Novitiate Winery had space available. Originally built in 1888 by Jesuit priests who had come from Italy, the Novitiate would continue to make wine for nearly a century before finally halting production in 1986. The Jensens jumped at the chance to move to these historic grounds and quickly entered into a lengthy discussion with the Jesuit owners that eventually resulted in a lease agreement. The fact that the Jensens were married by a Jesuit priest and graduated from a Jesuit university didn't hurt the negotiation.

"They had some bad experiences with some tenants in the past," Rob says. "So what probably should have been a four-to-six-week negotiation ended up taking four to six months. They'd much rather have no tenant than a bad tenant." The new digs would allow the winery to continue to grow at a carefully controlled pace of 1,000 cases per year.

Sideways Growth

Testarossa, which currently has roughly 25 full-time employees, has an on-site lab, pressing equipment and a storage area. However, it still doesn't grow its own grapes, something that the Jensens hope will change if they can convince their landlords to allow them to replant the old vineyards with whatever type of grape deemed best suited for the site and climate.

"The vineyard was first planted in 1888, and whatever we plant we hope will last 100 years as well," Rob says.

It could happen. The relationship between the winery and the Jesuits has grown strong over the nine years. In fact, Testarossa has recently resurrected the old Novitiate label that the Jesuits used for nearly 100 years and is using it on a pinot noir rosé.

Testarossa is famed for its pinot noir. Although they have a popular chardonnay and a syrah, roughly 70 percent of the winery's production is pinot. That's a very good thing given the current climate. Thanks to the pinot love song of a film known as Sideways, that varietal is the hottest thing on the market. While some wine snobs now joke that you can tell the newcomer in the tasting room by how loudly he professes his love for pinot, others have embraced the trend and eagerly await Sideways 2. In fact, Testarossa hosts "A Pinot Noir Tasting from the Santa Cruz Mountains" on April 10 (see info below).

Pinot fans old and new can find Testarossa in restaurants all over the South Bay and peninsula. The pinots range from the big, fruity Palazzio to the intense Bien Nacido Vineyard Noir-Elder to the complex Rosella's Vineyard, which offers a swirling nose of vanilla bean, raspberry and spice. The best place to find Testarossa pinot is at the on-site tasting room, where the winery sells a staggering 70 percent of its wine.

Due in part to its proximity to downtown Los Gatos, just a half-mile down twisty College Avenue, the winery's year-old tasting room has become perhaps the most popular of any winery in Santa Clara County. There are some tourists who trek up the mountain to Testarossa, but mainly it's just the Silicon Valley versions of Norm and Cliff waiting for Sam or Woody to fill their glasses.

"We've sort of developed a regular crew," Diana says. "I almost feel like it's Cheers because I keep seeing the same faces when I walk in there."

A Pinot Noir Tasting From the Santa Cruz Mountains will be held on April 10, 15pm, at Testarossa Vineyards, 300 College Ave., Los Gatos. Admission is $30 advance; $40 door. For information, call 831.479.9463 or visit www.SCMWA.com.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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