"Silicon Valley" - it's easy to forget this area's role as California's first premium wine production region - the Santa Clara Valley. Native Americans named it "the Valley of the Heart's Delight." French and Italian immigrants who settled here during the Gold Rush era recognized the rich soils and Mediteranean climate as the perfect New World home for their European grape varietals. And so it begins...
The history of winemaking and viticulture in the Santa Clara Valley goes back to the 18th Century. From the discovery of native "Vitis Californica" grapes growing wild and the first plantings of Mission grapes at the Santa Clara Mission in 1798, through boom years and depression, phylloxera and prohibition, the region has some of the richest tradition of anywhere in the country.
Then came the rise of Silicon Valley and the farmland gave way to technology parks, housing and shopping malls. Well known, respected wineries such as Mirassou and Almadén were sold and their old vineyards torn up and subdivided. In much of the county its viticultural history is represented by little more than street names and historical markers. Winegrowing continued in the south of the county; around Hecker Pass and Watsonville Road a number of family owned wineries continued to produce wines, mostly for local consumption.
The 1970s saw a great deal of change. Bonesio Winery founded in 1916 (BW2908) was purchased by Croatian born Nikola Chargin in 1972, who changed the name to Kirigin Cellars. The Cassa Brothers winery which had operated from 1948 to 1969 was bought by the Fortino family. Brothers Ernest and Mario operated the Fortino Winery (BW 4463) together until 1972 when Mario established the Hecker Pass winery (BW 4610) a short distance up the road.
Guglielmo Winery (BW3656) had been making wine since Repeal, largely under private labels for restaurants. In 1969 they launched their own Mount Madonna label, which later was renamed to Guglielmo.
Thomas Kruse, a seller of home winemaking supplies, launched his eponymous winery (BW 4566) in 1971. He has gone on to help several other small vineyards and wineries get started.
The partnership of Turgeon & Lohr was formed in 1972, with the purchase and planting of 280 acres in the Arroyo Seco appellation of Monterey County. The winery in downtown San Jose was completed in 1974. The partnership continued until 1984 when Bernie sold his share; the winery was then rebranded as J Lohr. Following a four year break running a brewpub in Santa Cruz, Bernie purchased a ranch near Aptos and founded Trout Gulch Vineyards, a small winery producing Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
School teachers Terry and Mary Kay Parks founded the Sycamore Creek winery (BW 4759) in 1976. Some of their early vintages were exceptional, with their 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon still being in fine condition 30 years later.
Sarah's Vineyard (BW 4868) was established by Marilyn "Sarah" Clark in 1978. An enigmatic woman, she reputedly took the name Sarah from the previous owner of the property. She was also known as Marilyn Otteman, though it's unclear whether she was ever married. Her first vintages were made with purchased grapes, then in 1980 she began planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In its early years the winery established a reputation for good quality, ageable Chardonnay.
In 1980 the Bertero winery (BW1625) was purchased by the Vanni family and renamed Solis Winery. (There had already been an earlier Solis Winery (BW 809) in the area which had closed in 1970). The old Zinfandel and Carignane grapes were initially replaced by Chardonnay and Merlot with several other varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, being added later. The winery's reputation has gradually been growing; in particular their estate Fiano (a white grape from Campania in Italy) is excellent.
In 1987 the historic Almadén vineyard was sold to a development company. The vineyards south of Blossom Hill Road are now a housing community. Little remains of the old winery save for one brick building which housed the original wine making and storage rooms and few token grapevines planted in a park.
The area's resurgence gained pace in 1989. The key event was the designation of a distinct American Viticultural Area, or AVA; prior to this the region's wines were typically labeled 'Central Coast' or 'Santa Clara County'. Gene Guglielmo, grandson of winery founder Emilio, researched and filed the petition, and on March 28th 1989 the Santa Clara Valley AVA was finally declared. It encompasses an area of over 300,000 acres within Santa Clara County and included all the existing wineries in the area not currently part of an AVA, as well as several notable vineyards, such as the Vanumanutagi, Dorcich and Wiedeman vineyards. On the northeast side it reaches as far as Fremont, including the historic Leland Stanford Winery, which was then home to Weibel (though that company has since relocated to Hopland). On the west side it encompasses Mountain View where the Gemello winery once stood, and the campus of Stanford University, site of another of Leland Stanford's old vineyards. To the southwest it includes Uvas Creek and Uvas Canyon, named for the native grapes that grew wild there. By following the 800' contour it takes in the Redwood Retreat valley, which had also been included within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. To the southeast it encompasses the Pacheco Pass AVA, established 5 years earlier following a petition by the Zanger family, owners of Casa di Fruita. In addition it includes the San Ysidro and Le Mistral Vineyards which now lie within the San Ysidro District AVA, though that petition would not be approved until November the following year.
The first new vineyard to be planted within the newly formed AVA was the 20 acre Mannstand vineyard. For the first two harvests the fruit was all sold to Storrs in Santa Cruz. Then in 1996 the owners began wine production under the Mann Cellars label.
In 1991 the Oetinger family planted vineyards at their property on Redwood Retreat Road. Perhaps replanted would be more accurate; 100 years earlier their great-grandparents had built a 20 room hotel, supported by its own vineyards and orchards. Matt Oetinger now manages the vineyard as well as the nearby Vanumanutagi Vineyard and makes wine under the Fernwood Cellars label.
Further down the same road, Dan & Therese Martin began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties on their 17 acres in 1993. Initially the grapes were sold to Ahlgren, River Run and SCMV under the name Harvest Moon Vineyard; they later bonded as Martin Ranch Winery. Their first commercial release was in 2002 with the introduction of labels J.D. Hurley and Therese Vineyards wines.
Bill Holt and Ted Medeiros began growing grapes at their Uvas Creek Vineyard in 1998. Meticulous attention to detail soon established a reputation for some of the highest quality fruit in the region. Then in 2005 they purchased the Sycamore Creek winery, along with its old head-pruned vines. The Parks had retired in the late 1980s and sold out to a member of the Morita family, who own Sony. (The rather unremarkable wines produced in the 1990s had been mostly exported to Japan and poured at corporate functions, though there was a loyal local market.) With their first vintage the new owners earned a double gold for Zinfandel at the 2009 SF Chronicle wine competition.
1999 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious new plantings in the area for many years. Bill and Brenda Murphy had originally planted ¾ acres as landscaping at their home in Saratoga. In 1993 they became bonded (BW 5969) and released their first vintage, 1992 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They initially expanded by launching a vineyard management company called CK Vines, installing and maintaining residential vineyards in the mountains. Then in 1999 the opportunity arose to acquire 150 acres in San Martin around the CordeValle golf course and resort. This has since been planted with over 15 different varieties. The state-of-the-art winery and tasting rooms opened in time for the 2002 vintage.
Nikola Chargin, then aged 84, retired in 2000 and sold Kirigin Cellars to Dhruv Khanna, one of the founders of Covad. Khanna's sole influence has been the establishment of a regulation cricket pitch - the first in the bay area - on the vineyard grounds; other than that he has allowed the winery to continue as it was.
That same year Marilyn Clark also retired. Tim Slater became the new owner of Sarah's Vineyard and began a program of investment, refurbishing the vineyards and installing new winemaking, bottling and laboratory gear. His efforts over the following years have been rewarded with a number of gold and double-gold medals, including Best In Class at the 2009 SF Chronicle for a 2007 Pinot Noir.
Stephen Dorcich has been farming around 80 acres near Uvas Creek for many years, selling the fruit to several local wineries. In 2007 he entered a partnership with young winemaker Jason Goelz, who had been producing wines under the Sapid label. The result of this partnership is Jason Stephens, a brand new 3000 case winery on Watsonville Road.
At around 1 million cases annually, the valley's largest winery currently operating is still J. Lohr, although they do not grow or source any fruit within the valley. The company farms around 3000 acres, mainly in Arroyo Seco, Paso Robles and Napa Valley; their products range from inexpensive, mass-produced supermarket bottlings and the 'Ariel' de-alcoholised brand to highly regarded vineyard designate wines.
An increasing number of smaller vineyards have been planted in the AVA in recent years, with labels such as Monte Verde, Creekview, Uvas Creek Cellars and Aver Family being producing under 'custom crush' agreements at larger premises. Others such as Lightheart, Satori, Pinder and Castillo's Hillside Shire have invested in new winemaking facilities, and we have Mann Cellars and Ross Vineyards opening tasting areas to complement their previous production.
In 2013 we have Sunlit Oaks Winery opening in South East Gilroy, with John and Rita Grogan planting estate grapes and bringing their wines to the market, and several other wineries are in the permitting stages.
There are also a number of producers based in the Santa Cruz Mountains who are making quality wines with fruit sourced from the area, including Stefania, Sones Cellars, Muccigrosso and Sensorium Wines. As the AVA celebrates its 20th birthday, the valley's winemakers and grape growers continue to maintain the traditions of Charles Lefranc, Paul Masson, Peter Mirassou and Mario Gemello in producing some of the finest wines in the country.
For more information on the early history of the Santa Clara Valley see the book Like Modern Edens: Winegrowing in Santa Clara Valley and Santa Cruz Mountains 1798-1981 by Charles L. Sullivan (1982)