"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 Mediterranean 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.
There are more than several of our wineries, still in operation, that have celebrated or will soon celebrate their 100th year anniversary of producing and selling wine.
Our oldest winery is Morgan Hill Cellars which celebrated their 100-year anniversary in 2013, after being owned by three consecutive Italian families: the Colombano’s, the Pedrizzetti’s and now, the Sampognaro’s. The winery was founded in 1913 by Camillo Colombano, an Italian immigrant, after he smuggled Barbera rootstock hidden inside his boots with the purpose of starting a vineyard. When Camillo retired in 1945, he sold his winery to John Pedrizzetti, also an Italian immigrant and a local farmer who renamed it Pedrizzetti Winery. And then in 2006, when the Pedrizzetti family was ready to retire, they sold the winery to Mike and Maryclaire Sampognaro, the current owners.
The history of Ross Vineyards and Winery dates back to 1915 when Joseph and Josephine Coffe, French immigrants, purchased a 300-acre ranch in the Paradise Valley region of Morgan Hill, along Llagas Creek, which is now Chesbro Reservoir. On this ranch, Joseph Coffe planted 40 acres of wine grapes for winemaking at his successful business, “The Wine Depot” in downtown San Jose. It was their grandson, Alphonse Jr., Pauchon, who persuaded the new owners of the ranch, Judy and Jerry Ross, to replant grapevines in 1999. All of the original ranch buildings and farming equipment are still there on the ranch. Wine tasting takes place in the old barn held together by square nails and with the original horse tack hanging from the rafters.
Kirigin Cellars was originally founded by an Italian immigrant, named Pietro Bonesio in 1916. Pietro started Uvas Winery on a piece of land called Rancho Solis in Gilroy. In 1932 Pietro turned the winery over to his three sons Louis, Victor and Charlie and the winery was renamed, Bonesio Brothers. When the Bonesios' retired in 1976, they sold the winery to Nikola Kirigin-Chargin, a winemaker from Croatia. Nikola renamed the winery Kirigin Cellars and made high quality wine until he too, retired and sold the winery. The current owner, Dhruv Khanna, purchased the winery in 2000 and restored much of the 48 ½ acres back to its former glory. The Bonesio’s original home built in the early 1900’s and made from timber hauled from Mount Madonna, is a historical landmark, still on the property.
After Alfonso Bertero emigrated here from Turin, Italy, he founded the Bertero Winery in 1917. Alfonso sold wine for religious purposes during Prohibition, but soon turned to bootlegging after realizing how profitable it was. Wanting to show off his new-found wealth, he built a home with crushed abalone shells on the outside walls so that it would sparkle in the sunlight. This home is still standing next to the winery and visible from the roadside. The winery was sold to David and Valerie Vanni in 1989 and was re-named Rancho de Solis (Solis Winery) –in reference to an 1830’s Mexican land grant, west of Gilroy. When the Vanni’s retired, they passed the winery to their two sons, Michael and Vic.
The Guglielmo Winery holds the distinction of being the oldest, continuously operated family winery in Santa Clara Valley. Emilio and Emilia Guglielmo came to America in 1909 and after toiling and saving for 15 years they founded Emilio Guglielmo Winery. During the Prohibition years between 1920 and 1933, it was illegal to make or sell alcohol except in small quantities for home use or for religious purposes. A trap door, located beneath Emilio’s bedroom floor, led to a secret cellar which held several tanks of wine. Emilio supplied his family, the Church and even an elected official or two. The winery was passed down to Emilio’s son, George and then again, to George’s three sons: George E., Gene and Gary who own and operate the winery today.
With the rise of Silicon Valley, 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.
Rapazzini Winery was opened in 1962 by Jon Rapazzini at the intersection of Highways 101 and 25 just south of Gilroy California. Winemaking is under the direction of Chef Alex Larson, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. Alex and his brother, Charlie, run the day to day operations and produce a variety of sparkling, varietal and fruit wines, including Garlic Wine.
The Cassa Brothers winery which had operated from 1948 to 1969 was bought by the Fortino family. Brothers Ernest and Mario came to America from Italy in 1959 and together founded the Fortino Winery in 1970. Two years later, Mario established the Hecker Pass winery a short distance up the road. In 1978, the Fortino Winery was one of the first wineries in California to establish a wine club.
Thomas Kruse, a seller of home winemaking supplies, launched his eponymous winery in 1971 and stayed in business until his retirement in 2014. Tom was a well-respected winemaker, making sparkling wine by the traditional method or méthode champenoise and was well known for helping other small vineyards and wineries get started.
Since 1908 when the original ancestors planted the first orchards in the Pacheco Valley, Casa de Fruta, is a true American success story that blossomed from the roots of an immigrant Italian. In the 1940's three teenaged brothers, George, Joseph and Eugene Zanger, opened a cherry stand on the Pacheco Pass Highway. Zanger Vineyards produces classic Cabernet and fruit wines.
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, and then in 1980 she began planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
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.
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 1893, school-teachers, David and Sophia Garrod, emigrated with three small children from England to the U.S. and purchased their first ten acres of fruit orchards in the Valley of Hearts Delight. In the sixties and seventies, when Santa Clara Valley farming transitioned to the central valley, the Garrod orchards were replaced with riding stables and then vineyards at their Saratoga location. In 1994, the ranch became a blend of trail rides, picnics and wine tasting when the Cooper-Garrod tasting room was opened.
Passed down through six generations of the same family and for over 150 years, Fernwood Cellars is situated on the oldest, continuously owned property among all the existing wineries in the Santa Clara Valley. The Oettinger family opened Fernwood Cellars in 1999 on land his great-great grandfather settled on in 1863, when it was known as Pleasant Valley (now Gilroy). Fernwood Cellars resides on Redwood Retreat Road – the same road his ancestors built and conducted séances at their famous hotel, Redwood Retreat Hotel, in the early 1900’s. Matt and Tiffany Oetinger manage the vineyard as well as the nearby Vanumanutagi Vineyard.
Further down the same road, Dan & Therese Martin began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties on their 17 acres in 1993. 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.
1999 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious new plantings in the area when Bill and Brenda Murphy acquired 150 acres in San Martin around Corde Valle golf course and resort and opened Clos LaChance Winery.
That same year Marilyn Clark, owner of Sarah’s Vineyard, wanted to retire. Before selling her winery, Marilyn spent the night in a tepee to consult the spirits about selling to Tim Slater, a suitor for the property. By morning she had her answer and Tim became the new owner of Sarah's Vineyard. Tim began a program of investment, refurbishing the vineyards and specializing in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone varietals.
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 winemaker Jason Goelz, who had been producing wines under the Sapid label. The result of this partnership is Jason Stephens, with a wide distribution across the U.S.
At around 1 million cases annually, the valley's largest winery currently operating is 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 to highly regarded vineyard designate wines.
The early 2000’s brought Castillo’s Hillside Shire Winery owned by Jess and Roni Jo Castillo. It’s a family-affair with their son, Nate, managing the vineyard and tasting room and their daughter Vivienne, designing their labels and entertaining the crowds that visit their unique, European styled tasting room.
An increasing number of smaller vineyards have been planted in the AVA in recent years, with labels such as Creekview Vineyards, owned by Greg Peterson and Aver Family, owned by John and Caroline Aver, being produced under 'custom crush' agreements at larger premises. Other newer wineries started by engineers from Silicon Valley, include Lightheart Cellars and Satori Cellars. Lightheart Cellars, a small estate winery in San Martin, is owned by Sheldon Haynie and Jane Mika-Haynie. Satori Cellars is owned by Tom and Sandy Moller who planted their first vineyard on about 20 acres of their property in 2000.
The Santa Clara Valley continues to draw new wineries including two in South East Gilroy: Sunlit Oaks Winery opened in 2013 by John and Rita Grogan. Four new wineries opened in 2015: Stefania Wine owned by Stefania and Paul Romero opened in Gilroy and three others opened in San Martin: Miramar Vineyards owned by Ed Castro, Seeker Vineyard- owned by Karen Seeker and Lion Ranch Vineyards and Winery owned by Kim & Todd Engelhardt.
As the AVA celebrates the quarter century mark, 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) and The Wineries of Santa Clara Valley by Bev Stenehjem (2015).