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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 06, 2002

A vineyard of one's own A vineyard of one's own (November 06, 2002)

The renaissance of local winemaking

Our last day in the country may well be given to the district around San Jose and Santa Clara. By the calendar it is late in October. The pickers are through with their work, the press-rooms are silent. From the Mission Vineyard we look far away across the levels to the hills of the Coast Range. Everywhere is a garden or a vineyard. Land in the neighborhood is fabulously high, and no section of the State is more productive. Here the Franciscan fathers, as at San Gabriel, had their missions. In the dreamy silence we now enjoy they passed their peaceful days. The wine industry has been materially increased in Santa Clara County the past few years, and the area of vineyards has now extended far beyond its old boundaries. The foot-hills are generally cultivated, and the wines are yearly becoming of better grade.

-- Edwards Roberts, article on California winemaking, Harper's Weekly, March 9, 1889

By Sharon Driscoll

Almanac staff writer

It was known as the Chaine d'Or, a golden chain of fertile land in the Santa Cruz Mountains stretching from Los Gatos to Woodside, with an ideal climate for growing grapes.

By the late 1800s it's estimated that there were 800 acres of vineyards in the northern tip, with wineries such as Edgar Preston's on Old La Honda Road and Emmet Rixford's La Cuesta in Woodside producing award-winning vintages that were exported throughout the country and beyond.

Today, it's as though ghosts of vintners past are rising from the ashes of the 1800s' phylloxera epidemic, when the tiny root louse wiped out entire vineyards, and Prohibition of the early 1900s, which forced many growers to abandon their vines for orchards.

Perhaps this local renaissance began in 1963 when Bob Mullen turned his small residential vineyard in Woodside into a commercial enterprise and started producing high-quality wines with grapes coaxed from some of the very same vines from the old La Cuesta vineyard.

Today there are only three other commercial wineries in Woodside and Portola Valley: Cronin, opened in 1980; Thomas Fogarty, in 1982; and Chaine d'Or, in 1991.

And while the rush to turn the area's landscape into a sea of vineyards -- which some horse enthusiasts feared -- has not materialized, small-scale residential grape-growing and winemaking has blossomed.

No official count is available on the mom and pop back-yard operations, but Phil Montalbano, owner of the wine- and beer-making supply store Fermentation Frenzy in Los Altos, roughly estimates he has around 500 winemaking customers in the area.

But many winemakers do not grow their own grapes, so he guesses that there are about 100 non-commercial vineyards in people's yards locally, stretching from Woodside to Saratoga.

That there has been a local renaissance in grape-growing and winemaking over the last few years is evident when driving through Woodside and Portola Valley, where new posts and young vines seem to appear each year.

Bob Mullen, owner of Woodside Vineyards, has made it his business to help locals plant new vineyards to ensure a supply of grapes for his wines. He estimates that since 1991, when he started the vineyard management side of his winemaking business, they've planted 18 new vineyards, which his company maintains and then buys grapes from.

But for the last five years, Mr. Mullen says, they've passed most requests to plant new vineyards over to other companies because they're just too busy.

"Winemaking is definitely coming back," says Mr. Mullen. "When we got our bond in 1963 to have the commercial winery, there were 100 to 120 wineries in the state. Today it's about 858 and increasing all the time."

Back in the 1960s, Dr. Marts Beekley started making wine, too. By 1968, he and his wife Sue had bought their home in Atherton, a plot large enough for a good section of grape vines. And while Sue pined after a new kitchen, the young couple bought vines instead. So began what is now a firmly rooted family tradition, complete with grape-picking parties and wine tastings.

Unlike wealthier amateurs, Dr. Beekley planted his own vines, and cultivates and prunes them himself. There is no irrigation system; he jokes that he's too cheap to spend money on the water. So he depends on Mother Nature and his own sweat for his grapes to ripen, Bob Mullen for advice on when it's time to harvest, and friends to help with the picking and winemaking.

"Yeah, I call Bob, and he usually tells me to hang in there and wait a bit," says Dr. Beekley of the wait for autumn grape-picking, when the fruit's sugar level needs to be just right to make good wine.

Dr. Beekley, who is now retired, points out that owning a home vineyard and making wine require a substantial time and money commitment for which there is little financial return. Growers can sell their grapes, but are forbidden from selling the wine they make, which cannot exceed 200 gallons a year.

But financial return is not what Dr. Beekley is after.

"It's a hobby," he says, looking proudly out on his vines. "It's like anybody who plants something. I like to see it grow. And it gets better over time."

Up the hill in Woodside, it took a lot of muscle and back work to terrace and plant Joe and Kay Adler's tiny hillside vineyard in 1993.

Joe translates the family's motto, "en vino fibula," as, "every wine tells a story." The Adler children, who participate in the grape-picking and winemaking, often illustrate the story of the year's vintage with drawings used for the bottle labels. After nearly 10 years of making wine for themselves and several local families, the Adlers have quite a collection of their own labels, and wines.

With both parents working full time -- Ms. Adler in private banking and Mr. Adler as the CEO of a software company -- the Adlers tend to their vines on weekends and evenings. But the big push is in autumn, when the grapes are picked and the wine made. So what motivates them to put so much energy and money into this enterprise?

"The economics of it don't make any sense at all," says Joe.

He estimates that it takes about 16 pounds of grapes to make a gallon of wine, so at a cost of around $32 for the grapes alone it's hard to compete with the reasonably priced wines available at Trader Joe's.

"It's purely for the fun of it. We give our wine away, enjoy it with friends," he says.

What can set these small-vineyard wines apart from those that are mass-produced is their quality.

Because they have such a small operation, the Adlers can afford to invest in the best barrels to age their wine in, and take the time to keep traditional old-world, labor-intensive winemaking methods alive. There are no steel barrels or automatic "punch downs" here. Instead, while red grapes are fermenting, the Adlers manually "punch down" the grape skins, pushing them into the liquid to leach as much flavor out of them as they can. And, once the wine is bottled, very little chemical additive is used.

"We are absolutely back to basics -- and that's what makes our wines so good," he says.

Duane Cronin of Cronin Vineyards -- a small operation run out of the family's home in Woodside, started when he still had his day job at IBM -- echoes Joe's sentiments. They run their winery in traditional European ways, and are "hands on" in the process. And that means working nights and weekends, especially in the beginning years.

"We'd do the grape-pressing and punching down at night," says Nancy Cronin, who actively participates in the winemaking.

"What we do, large wineries can't, like punching the grapes down by hand and producing whites that are exclusively barrel-fermented, and aging all the wines in oak," says Mr. Cronin.

Some people aren't quite prepared for the amount of work growing grapes and making wine will require. Maintaining a beautiful vineyard requires care, and making wine entails a fair amount of drudgery.

Barb Vetter says it was her husband Jim's idea to plant a vineyard on their Portola Valley property. And while she enjoys getting out there and pruning the vines, she says all the sterilizing to clean the winemaking equipment requires more work than she had imagined.

"While everyone was out picking grapes and having fun, I was cleaning," she says.

Ken Wornick's vineyard management and winemaking company, Post & Trellis in Burlingame, takes that drudgery out of the process for those with enough money but not enough time or commitment to take on the job. With 25 local clients, he has met people who grow grapes and make wine for a whole range of reasons.

"Ultimately, I think the reason more and more people are getting into winemaking is to bring a bit of Napa into their lives," he says.

Some do it for ego, some out of a passion for wine. Still others simply want the landscaping that goes with a vineyard.

"I have some clients who have never come to my winery to see their grapes become wine," says Mr. Wornick. "A vineyard is relatively cheaper landscaping, and then there's a return if they sell the grapes."


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