One Wild Ride: Exploring Santa Cruz’s wine country
On the continuum of things that make no sense to me, spitting good wine into a tin bucket falls somewhere between intelligent design and every David Lynch film I have ever seen. And so, even though “spitters” would crucify me for it during my eight-hour speed-tasting tour of Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, I was determined to drink up. A rising blood alcohol level would help me deal with my friend Rod, who had yet to apologize for abruptly blowing off my East Coast wedding three years earlier.
“Tobacco-y,” is what Rod, a Bay Area cook, said after expectorating the 2004 Lindsay Paige Pinot Noir into the receptacle at our first stop, Alfaro Family Vineyards.
This descriptor baffled even the winemaker. “Hmm . . . interesting,” Richard Alfaro replied with raised brow.
Nearly a decade ago, 46-year-old Alfaro sold his eponymous Santa Cruz bakery to Sara Lee Corp. for “not as much as much as people think,” he told us, and began cruising county roads just south of Santa Cruz and east of Highway 1 for a parcel where he could grow grapes. He found it in a neglected apple orchard off Hames Road near Corralitos, a speck of a town in a 70-mile-long zone supporting at least 72 wineries.
Wine has been produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the late 1880s, but during Prohibition, apple trees largely supplanted grape vines. Today, with land values tethered to the temperate coast to the west and the Silicon Valley to the east, most wineries buy their fruit from growers elsewhere. Alfaro has planted only 30 of his 75 acres, in part because the varied microclimates and terrain make grape growing tricky.
The three of us were huddled on a Saturday morning inside Alfaro’s warehouse with three uncorked bottles resting atop a stainless-steel storage drum. The midwinter sun ricocheted off Italian fermenters sitting outside the open doors. Several glasses into our tasting of “buttery” Chardonnays and “ashy” Pinots, Alfaro fired up his Kawasaki mule, an all-terrain vehicle, to give us a closer look at his vines. But first he adjusted his headband to keep his long, cool-dad hair from whipping him in the face. “This is our Pinot,” he shouted over his shoulder as we charged over the crest of a hill and into a valley with rows of dormant vines. Alfaro cut the engine and dismounted next to a pile of vine shoots. It was the remnants of pruning season. “This whole area is perfect for Pinot because there are lots of warm days and cold nights,” he said.
On the ride back down to the warehouse, I spotted a makeshift paintball course. “My wife wants me to take it down,” Alfaro yelled as we bounced by flats of plywood that were propped against eucalyptus stumps to serve as hide-outs for players. Emboldened by the booze and the country air, I wanted to shoot something just then, and I knew that Rod could tell because, just as I was about to ask if I could borrow a gun, he pointed at his watch.
As the crow flies, the distance between vineyards here isn’t much, but Rod’s Volvo wagon puttered along the jags of Hazel Dell Road, dodging watershed runoff, potholes and cyclists sheathed in Lycra and wraparound sunglasses. We were en route to Windy Oaks Estate Winery & Vineyards.
By now the sun was high in the sky, and a wide spray of beams pushed through the redwoods. After ascending on a dank stretch of asphalt straight out of the “Legend of Bigfoot,” we finally spied a pair of upright wine barrels flanking a gravel driveway. No sign marked the turn, just a street number: 550. As Rod steered onto the pavement, I spotted bottles and glasses on a table inside an off-the-rack warehouse not unlike Alfaro’s. Beyond it, the slope steepened on its ascent to 1,000 feet above Monterey Bay.
“Whoa,” Rod said, reading my mind. “Eat something.” He excavated from under the driver’s seat a bag of granola bars and peanut butter crackers. “Emergency sustenance for the kids,” he said. Only after I had shoved crackers in my mouth and pronounced them “sticky” did he add, “They’ve been in there for over a year.”
Fewer than half of the Santa Cruz vineyards and wineries have tasting rooms, and most of those that do limit their operating hours to weekends. Four times a year—in January, April, July and November—the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Assn. sponsors “Passport Days” in which about 50 wineries open for visitors. But most places welcome anyone who consults the association brochure and calls ahead to make an appointment.
After Rod and I introduced ourselves to Jim Schultze, winemaker and co-owner, along with wife Judy, of Windy Oaks, he poured us a glass of his 2004 Estate “One-Acre” Chardonnay, so named for the small plot on which the grape is planted. I felt a little guilty downing such a precious commodity, but Judy mistook the source of my discomfort. “I don’t like spitting either,” she said.
An additional 14 acres are devoted to Pinot, and in the Windy Oaks’ brochure, the couple, both in their 50s and until 10 years ago globe-trotting high-tech consultants, tout their Burgundian-style Pinot Noir, with its “elegant fruit kick, a long and satisfying finish, and some mineral nuances that reflect the unique terroir of the vineyard.” At small vineyards, duties are divided among family or friends. One person takes the role of winemaker, while the other, in this case Judy, handles marketing, a position that demands lots of grass-roots hustling.
Under the influence now of eight glasses of wine, I was in no condition for another vineyard slog, especially on foot, but off we hiked to the ridge to check out the view and, Judy said, the “Zen Bell.” There it hung, resembling a hunk of industrial waste, under the spidery canopy of four bare oaks. Judy picked up a mallet with an old baseball affixed to its end and tapped the metal. She intended to soothe us with the sound, but instead it triggered a rumble in my gut. I looked at Rod.
“Thank you for the tour, Judy,” he said.
Back in the Volvo, riding shotgun with the window cracked, my thoughts strayed from the cool wind of the forest to a humid Pennsylvania night in 1988 when I had called my best friend.
“Dude,” I cried into the cordless, “Can you come over here and pick me up?”
Within minutes Rod’s battered pickup appeared at the top of my driveway, its headlights obscured by a copse of bamboo. My parents had been fighting all night, and I’d had enough. I slipped out the back door and crawled into the cab, sobbing intermittently as Rod sped toward our favorite watering hole. There, from the elevated third tee of the golf course, we sat wordlessly pounding a pilfered six-pack, chucking the empties into the moonlit river 50 feet below.
“How are your parents?” Rod asked as he pulled the Volvo into the Zayante Vineyards’ driveway. After trailing the inevitable weekend caravan of convertibles on Highway 1 to get to the Highway 17 turnoff, we had doglegged for almost an hour to reach our destination.
“They’re getting divorced,” I replied.
“Yeah, it’s been a big fat mess since right after my wedding.”
“Right,” Rod said, throwing the wagon into park. “Dude, that stinks.”
Greg Nolten greeted us at the front door of his house, a brown two-story fronted by an unkempt garden. The sun had weakened, and as he escorted us onto the wraparound porch, the night sky was claiming the distant Monterey Peninsula. Kathleen Starkey-Nolten, Greg’s wife and co-owner—along with Greg’s mother, Marion Nolten—of Zayante, delivered glasses of their 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Syrah.
Although the couple have been hard at the wine business for years, Kathleen said, Greg didn’t quit his day job as a mail carrier until last year. As I drank and the spitters discharged, the smell of venison drifted onto the porch. Greg bolted for the kitchen, and we followed. A thick haunch was sitting in a roaster, plum-colored from spending six days in one of Nolten’s wine marinades.
“It looks dry,” Greg said, eyeing the cooked meat. “Any suggestions?”
“Bacon,” Rod said. “Just lay some strips on top to baste it.”
Before we said goodbye, I took one last swig of a 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Clos du Z—a Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah hybrid produced only by Zayante. With its generous boysenberry flavor, it might have been a good companion for the venison.
When Rod flung open the hotel room door at the Hilton, the clock radio read 7:45. He kicked his shoes across the floor while I poured what was left of Alfaro’s Pinot into a pair of beat-up highball glasses.
“What do you want to do tonight?” he asked a few minutes later. Eventually we would gorge on tapas at a downtown Santa Cruz wine bar called Soif. The next morning, we would play a round of golf at nearby Pasatiempo, a semiprivate Alister MacKenzie-designed course that, with a hangover like mine, appeared nauseatingly green.
But not yet. I took a swig of wine and folded my pillow in half as a headrest. We lay there on our respective queen-sized mattresses, bedspreads turned down, and watched a muted broadcast of a Cal basketball game.
After a minute or two, Rod spoke up. “My mom’s getting divorced again,” he said. “It was a long time coming.”
“That sucks,” I said.
I got up and grabbed the Pinot and emptied the last couple of drops into our glasses. On the television, guys scurried across the hardwood. We watched without the sound for another beat, and then I aimed the remote at the screen and turned on the volume.
Charlie Schroeder is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
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