April 11, 2017 – Sure, the road is beat to heck, your GPS will probably be useless, your cell phone might drain its battery trying to find a signal and it will seem like a million miles from nowhere, but this splendid piece of grape-growing paradise on Memory Lane, off China Grade in Boulder Creek, is a destination very much worth the investment in time and potential loss of connectivity. Proprietor and winemaker Bradley Brown has thought so since 1998, when he purchased this parcel, built a magnificent house atop the highest hill and began to plant the vines that have been given birth to some exceedingly popular and highly rated wines.
Although Big Basin Vineyards has a tasting room in downtown Saratoga, until now they have only invited their club members and media folks out to the actual vineyard. Beginning Saturday, April 15, and Easter Sunday, April 16, Big Basin Vineyards will be open to the public with regular tasting hours from 11am to 5pm every weekend. The winery is located at 830 Memory Lane, Boulder Creek, off Highway 236 on the way to both Little Basin and Big Basin Parks. Tasting fees are $20 per person.
April 15 just happens to be April Passport in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of four Passport days put on by the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA). Passport holders are welcome to make this one of your stops on the way to or from Saratoga: or bring a picnic and spend the day.
Never before has Big Basin Vineyards been open to the public at the winery, which means you can now come out to the spectacular spot that has become world famous for Rattlesnake Syrah, so named for the large rock formation where rattlesnakes like to sun themselves. You probably won’t see any rattlers, but sensible footwear is suggested if you want to go on a tour of the vineyards, inspecting the 10 or so acres of vines that include Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne and Pinot Noir. Tours are $40 and should be scheduled in advance, between 10am and noon.
Most likely, the tours will be led by convivial Santa Cruz resident, viticulturist and assistant winemaker Brad Friedman. Brad moved here from Napa two years ago, where he had been working the Stagecoach vineyard. He loves the vibe of Santa Cruz County and the fact that, unlike Napa or Sonoma, you meet all kinds of people that have nothing to do with the wine industry. “Here, being a winemaker is still something cool,” he says. “It’s like the Wild West of wine. People are not afraid to try crazy things.”
With experience at 13 different wineries on five continents, Friedman has learned a lot about translating terroir to the bottle. Transparency of site is the main goal, he says, and the two biggest, and most critical factors in winemaking that you can’t control are weather and dirt.
Friedman makes it a point to learn the geology of every vineyard he works with and has become a quick font of knowledge about the region. “Santa Cruz has reinvigorated my love of wine,” he admits.
Friedman—who has a degree in Biotech from Indiana University—hails from Maryland, where his father has been involved in the wine business for decades, becoming one of the first sommeliers, so his interest in wine has strong roots. But he had his heart set on a career in music, specifically jazz, performing on drums and vibraphone, until he decided pharmacy might be a more lucrative track.
Somewhere along the way, he ended up interning at a local winery in Indiana, and he decided to put all that chemistry to a different use. Stints at Honig, Benziger and Imagery, were followed by a two-year sojourn abroad. Working in Europe, New Zealand and South Africa cemented his fascination with the science and art of wine.
On a recent tour of Big Basin Vineyards, Friedman pointed out the one-acre block of Roussanne that happens to be the only planting of this grape in the entire 1500-acre Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. He noted that little by little, the vineyard, which initially was entirely planted to Alban selection Rhones, has morphed to include Pinot Noir.
Dating back to the Homestead Act of the mid-1800s, this old ranch was settled by French immigrants in the early 1900s who planted vines here in what is essentially a giant bowl surrounded by redwood forest.
Friedman explained that the ocean is only 7 miles away, and it is through the Pescadero Gap that nature’s maritime winds rush through, bringing fog and cooling breezes, keeping this inherently sunny and toasty place, temperate enough to grow Pinot Noir—yet warm enough to ripen Syrah and Grenache.
The soils here are decomposed mudstone, clay loam and sandstone, and are highly acidic, which tend to yield wines that can express an inherent softness. Most impressive from the estate in the current offerings is the 2014 Homestead Block Estate Roussanne, a sophisticated, white-gloved wine that exhibits guava and kiwi with a smack of Asian pear.
The Coastview Vineyard in the Gabilan Mountains, at 2,200 ft., is a far warmer microclimate overlooking the Steinbeck country. With decomposed granitic and limestone soils, it is capable of producing bigger, brawnier, more tannic wines.
With the demise of the Coastview brand (vineyard owner John Allen’s former label), Bradley Brown now takes most of the vineyard fruit.
Far from brooding, the beautifully floral 2014 Coastview Chardonnay delivers bushelfuls of apricot, pluot and baked pear, and is slaked in minerality to provide a perfect balance of acid and creaminess. This could well be Brown’s best Chardonnay to date.
Winemaker Brown has long sourced fruit from three vineyards in Corralitos, including Alfaro, Lester and Woodruff, all of which have significant maritime influence, creating a long growing season and slow maturity. We tasted the 2013 Woodruff Pinot Noir, a hearty, earthy, cinnamon stick and basil scented wine that comes from some of the oldest Pinot vines in the AVA. Native yeast gives it a mysterious surge of mid-palate power that carries to the long finish.
From the nearby Coast Grade vineyard in Bonny Doon, the 2014 Coast Grade Pinot is already phenomenal for such a young wine: it romps like a thoroughbred discovering its speed, filled with racy pomegranate, blueberry and cranberry.
Probably the most impressive wine of the day was the 2015 Bald Mountain Chardonnay from the Ben Lomond AVA, planted by the Beauregard family. Friedman had significant involvement in this wine, working the vineyard and making the picking decisions during his first harvest with Big Basin. It is a paragon of Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, brimming with juicy tangerine and framed by Meyer lemon, decisively crisp, but elegantly fluid on the palate.
Spring is a great time to visit Boulder Creek and the state parks before the summer crowds. Make your first trip down Memory Lane and you are guaranteed to be coming back again and again.