October 9, 2018 – Few vineyard settings take the concept of “Pleasant Valley” to the level of Lester Family Vineyards. The sweeping sea of vines, stretching southwest towards the shimmering glow of the sun, the towering redwoods that seem to guard it like sentinels, the old barn filled with a lifetime of treasures, the grassy lawn and the oak-shaded outdoor seating area, make this a place naturally endowed with Santa Cruz Mountains charm. You could charge any amount of money and people would still want to come here, for the sense of serenity and being in the heart of an outstanding vineyard.
Considered by many winemakers and enthusiasts to be one of the great vineyards in the region, this place started with the dream of the late Dan Lester, a real estate developer born and raised in Watsonville, to have a ranch. In 1988, he found this 200-acre parcel on Pleasant Valley Road in Corralitos and excitedly told his wife Patty, that he wanted to buy it. He named it Deer Park Ranch: hence the beautiful antler gates that guard the property.
In 1998, viticulturist Prudy Foxx helped Dan implement his vision of having a vineyard. Foxx, along with her husband Mark, put in the 14-acre vineyard in two blocks. The lower block was planted in 1998 and the upper in 2001.
Says Foxx, “It was a dying orchard on the lower block and an abandoned Christmas tree farm on the upper block. It is one of the very few vineyards that my husband, Mark, helped me lay out. We set it up with lines like a gemstone.” Which explains why it shimmers from every angle.
Dan Lester insisted the vines be certified free of disease, but other than that, he left it to Foxx to choose the best rootstocks and clones to perform at the site. Over time, the clonal mix has changed, and will continue to evolve as the site matures. Currently, the vineyard produces chardonnay (Robert Young clone), pinot noir (2A, 115, 667, 777, Mt. Eden, Pommard and Swan) and syrah (Hermitage and 877). Plans are to add Calera and DRC clones of pinot going forward.
David Bruce and Pichetti were the first wineries to make wine from Lester fruit, in 2001, but by 2004, both were in disarray. Foxx then reached out to Cinnabar and Soquel Vineyards, both of whom saw the vineyard’s promise. Soquel took syrah and pinot the first year, then subsequently committed to pinot noir, making it a cornerstone of their production.
After a while, other well-known winemakers were drawn to the premium fruit, including Steven Mirassou and Tom Stutz of La Rochelle (2006), Bradley Brown of Big Basin (2008) and Richard Alfaro of Alfaro Vineyards.
In 2012, winemakers like Joe and Sam Miller of Rexford, Scott Sisemore of Waxwing, Therese Martin of Martin Ranch and Ed Kurtzman (ROAR, August West, Mansfield-Dunne) joined the ranks of highly regarded winemakers bringing the fruit to prominence and recognition. John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli began making wine from the Lester vineyard in 2014, and instantly became a fan.
After Dan’s death in 2014, Patty’s daughter, Lori and her husband Steve Johnson, decided to showcase the unique character of the vineyard by having wine specifically made for a Lester Family label. They asked winemakers Craig Handley (Pleasant Valley Vineyards), John Benedetti (Sante Arcangeli) and Joe Miller (Rexford) to make wines for them. They now have a stable of wine made by these winemakers to share with you. New winemakers are being added to the rotation as the program develops, with Ian Brand joining the cadre for 2018.
Private and semi-private tastings will be held on the 2nd Saturdays of October, November and December. Up to eight guests will enjoy a seated five-wine flight featuring the Lester Estate Wines 2018 Fall releases. Tasting will be held at Deer Park Ranch, home of Lester Estate Wines, at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Tastings are $25 per person.
Here’s what it’s like. First of all, expect to be wowed by the stunning vineyard setting as you approach the gate to the property. Tastings are held in a barn filled to the rafters with treasures from a lifetime of fastidious and adventurous collecting, with everything from butterflies to pin ball machines. A prop from a WWWI plane hangs on one wall, while fanciful tribal masks adorn the other. Animals from the plains of Africa fix you with their gazes and artwork from every continent adorns walls, giving the place the distinct feel of hunting-lodge-meets-Smithsonian. A Captain’s wheel, a dugout canoe, swords, muskets, a knight in armor and exotic pottery: there’s something to capture everyone’s fancy.
Similarly, the Fall wine flight offers a lot for everyone to love, beginning with the full-bodied 2017 Rose of Syrah, made by Benedetti, whose code name is Mercurio. Each winemaker has a code name—Kurtzman’s is Domingo—to avoid the confusion of having the winemaker’s name on the Lester Family label. Each winemaker also produces wines under their own labels from Lester fruit.
The silky raspberry peachiness of the rose makes you want to eat peaches wrapped in prosciutto, and it has a wonderful hint of blood orange soda. Next up is the 2016 Chardonnay, with aromas of flowers, along with pear and white peach crème brulee, promising richness and delivering an elevated texture, with relatively low acidity, making it a pleasure in the mouth. Lemon curd comes to mind.
Three pinots round out the flight, beginning with the 2015 made by Kurtzman, aka Domingo, which beautifully sophisticated and elegant, with classic pinot aromas of forest floor, cedar, plum, mushroom, warm apple, raspberry and cinnamon, along with strawberry candy. The nose is a party that goes on and on, and in the mouth you pick up all of the above plus pomegranate. Makes you want a mushroom tart.
Ed Kurtzman also made the 2014, which is absolutely autumnal in its expression, redolent of truffle, forest floor, rose petals, cranberry-orange and wet adobe. A big mouthfeel is wrapped with orange pekoe tea, cream biscuits with orange marmalade and hint of white truffle and ginger on the finish. Fascinating.
The elder statesman of the flight is a 2013 pinot made by former neighbor, Craig Handley, who some may remember from Pleasant Valley Vineyards. A contemplative wine from start to finish, it begins with chrysanthemum, pine forest, cedar forest and underbrush: very Santa Cruz Mountains. With a solid cherry core, it builds to plum, licorice and Asian Five Spice on the long finish.
A word about the labels, which were designed to honor Dan, a life-long treasure hunter. Each one bears the embossed symbol of one of Dan’s favorite coins, a piece of eight, a silver coin also known as the Spanish dollar. (The US dollar was actually based on this coin.) In the background are lines of discovery, meant to evoke an old fashioned map. Perhaps even a treasure map?
Whatever you seek, you’re sure to discover something memorable here, from the wines to the barn to the stunning vineyard, it’s like opening a treasure chest at every turn.
WHAT: Lester Estate Wines Private and Semi-Private Wine tastings for up to 8
WHERE: 2010 Pleasant Valley Rd, Aptos, CA 95003
WHEN: October 13, 2018; November 10, 2018; December 8, 2018
TIMES: 11am, 1pm and 3pm
WINES: May be purchased at the tastings, or by signing up for their allocation list
To sign up for the allocation list or to schedule a tasting, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A sign near one of the doors reads, “Don’t Grow Up! It’s a Trap!” Dan’s irrepressible humor and love of adventure surely lives on.