Behind the Bottle

Crushing on Corralitos

A wine world frontier gets ready for prime time

By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Sandra Ivany 

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When Steve and Pamela Storrs first used grapes grown in Corralitos to make their Chardonnay 20 years ago, they discovered that the valley’s dance of coastal fog and inland sun produced fruit like no other. “From the moment we bottled it, we realized this was the place to be—the grapes were that good,” Pamela recalls. Twenty-one years and three children later, the popular Santa Cruz winemakers are finally realizing their long-held dream of opening their own estate winery out in the sunny Corralitos hills.

This fall, the Storrs plan to crush and ferment at their new winery for the first time, and they’ll open a weekend tasting room as soon as carpenters make the finishing touches. The arrival of Storrs Winery is a big boost for the little Corralitos Wine Trail, which is beginning to generate some buzz in the wine world and—after years of flying under the radar as one of the Monterey Bay’s best kept secrets—is ready to grab the spotlight.

Pamela and Steve searched for a decade for properties in Corralitos, which is perched between Aptos and Watsonville, at the southernmost tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area. Pamela is originally from the Sacramento area and says she missed the heat and got tired of the fog in Santa Cruz. They had their eyes on the perfect bowl-shaped apple orchard called Hidden Springs Ranch, so when the 60-acre parcel finally became available in 2001, they snapped it up. They remodeled the original farmhouse and moved in the following year.

Once ensconced on their property, the Storrs started converting the aging orchard into an eco-friendly, organic vineyard, taking five years just to carefully clear the land and build up the soil. They graded the property to ensure maximum water retention and worked with the Wild Farm Alliance to provide habitats and corridors for wildlife. They only planted their vineyards in 2007, but the four acres of Chardonnay and eight of Pinot Noir are thriving.

A flock of tiny heirloom sheep roams the vineyards and keeps weeds down in the winter. “Sometimes you’ve just got to do things because it makes you happy,” Pamela explains.

The Storrs’ 6,800-square-foot winery sits up on a ridge separating the vineyard from the road. Its walls are 2-feet thick and made of soy-based foam insulation, held in place with steel rebar and covered in a thin coat of concrete. “We can’t agree on what color to paint it, so it will probably just stay gray,” Pamela says. Workers are rushing to finish the project before harvest season starts in October, so the Storrs will be able to make their first estate wines. “If you’d asked me 25 years ago, I’d have thought we’d have this done long before now,” she says.

Fog Kissed

About 85% of the Storrs’ wines are already made with grapes grown in the Corralitos area, including their 2008 Christie Vineyard Pinot Noir, which won “Best of Region” this summer at the California State Fair.

“There are three things that make this area special,” Pamela says, “the climate, which is warm but not scorching, really good soil and Prudy Foxx.” A master viticulturist who cares for many of the vine- yards in the Corralitos area, Foxx says the play of sun and coastal fog is one of the factors that make it so perfect for grape growing.

“Pleasant Valley is at just the right elevation, about 600 feet, so that the fog comes in and just kisses the vineyards. Almost like dew, it moisturizes the skin of the grapes and makes everybody happy, then goes away by 10am practically every day,” she explains. Since the flavonoids in grapes lie close to the skin, this process allows complexities to develop.

Moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights also mean that the region’s 100–150 acres of grapes can enjoy a long, slow growing season, retaining the acidity that’s important for vivid and vibrant wines that pair well with food.

And like the Storrs, Foxx credits Corralitos’ deep, colluvial soils with giving the area’s grapes an edge. “Pleasant Valley is kind of a plateau that has captured soils from higher areas, so it has a good combination of minerals, and roots can grow very deep. Each year we use less water.”

Next door to the Storrs on Pleasant Valley Road, you’ll know you’ve reached the heart of the region when you come upon the oxidized gates of the Lester Family Vineyard, marked with the initials DP, which stand for Deer Park and are also the initials of the owners Don and Pat Lester. Deer Park was planted in 1998, and Foxx has been tending it to bring out the best in the grapes.

About 35 tons of Pinot Noir grapes are produced on Deer Park’s 12 acres each year and they’re in high demand. Soquel Vineyards has been using Lester Pinot for its award-winning wines since 2005, as has Thomas Fogarty. Bradley Brown at Big Basin Vineyards also makes a Lester Family Pinot and neighbor Richard Alfaro creates a smooth, full-bodied Lester Family Pinot with some of the grapes. The Lester Vineyard also grows one acre of Chardonnay for owner Pat and one acre of Syrah, which goes to neighboring Pleasant Valley Vineyards and to Martin Ranch Winery for its gold medal 2009 Lester Family Syrah.

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Richard and Mary Kay Alfaro were among the first winemakers to move to the area. They sold their bakery in Watsonville in 1997 and bought an old 75-acre apple farm on Hames Road. Currently, they have 56 acres of vineyards under cultivation, with the most recently planted eight acres certified organic. It’s one of the largest vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation and they produce a wide variety of wines to please different palates—about 10,000 cases a year, much of it sold in local markets.

This year Richard crafted 12 Pinot Noirs, each slightly different, some with grapes grown in Corralitos and some from grapes purchased from growers in Arroyo Seco or the Cienega Valley.

“I’m not saying they are better, but wines from here taste different,” says Alfaro. “They are more restrained, more balanced and since it’s cooler, there are lighter fruit flavors like raspberry, strawberry and cherry, compared to heavier fruits like blackberry and grape in hotter places.”

In a change of pace, the Alfaros this year bottled their first harvest of crisp, white Grüner Veltliner—made from just over one acre of grapes planted in 2008 and cultivated organically. Although only 70 cases were produced, Richard and Mary Kay liked it so much they grafted another 1.8 acres of Pinot noir over to the Austrian varietal. And they didn’t stop there. More Pinot was grafted over to the white Spanish varietal, Albariño, and to Grenache blanc.

“I’m having my midlife crisis,” jokes Richard. “Growing white grapes makes me feel sexy. It’s better than buying a Porsche.”

That playful approach to wine attracts visitors to the Alfaro hillside tasting room, which is dog friendly, has a comfy patio for picnics and coloring books for the kids.

“We try to make it a fun place and make sure people are having a good time,” says Mary Kay, a certified sommelier. “People get a kick out of coming in and meeting the owner and vintner, and we try to make sure wine is not some terrifying experience.”

Boutique Wineries

Just down the road lie two picturesque boutique wineries: Nicholson Vineyards and Pleasant Valley Vineyards. Marguerite and Brian Nicholson came out to Corralitos 23 years ago to raise their family in a rural setting. “All our kids know what it’s like to work in the fields and get their hands dirty,” says Marguerite, whose Italian grandparents farmed in the Santa Clara Valley.

The Nicholsons have four acres of Pinot and Chardonnay, as well as three acres of Tuscan olive trees. The 2.5 tons of olives they harvested last winter were pressed at Pietra Santa Winery in Hollister and the oil sold out immediately.

Their “tasting room” is actually outdoors under a pair of shady oak trees at the edge of the vineyard. Visitors frequently bring their lunches, and picnics are encouraged in the bucolic setting. Winemaker John Ritchey, formerly of David Bruce, crafted Nicholson Vineyards’ recently released 2010 Estate Chardonnay—a crisp, classic Chard, with green apple flavors and just a hint of oak. Its 2010 Brook’s Block Estate Pinot Noir is also a standout; it’s an elegant, fruit-driven wine with a good balance of acid and spice.

At Pleasant Valley Vineyards, owners Craig and Cathy Handley do it all themselves. Cathy is the “vine lady” and tends their two acres of grapes. She has also landscaped their enormous backyard, which surrounds a fairy ring of redwood trees with an inviting hammock in the center that encourages lingering.

Craig, a retired marketing manager at Monterey Mushrooms, makes wine using some of his own grapes and others from Lester Vine- yard. Each varietal is named for one of the couple’s grandchildren and labels depict an image chosen for that child—which is why you’ll see a Les Paul guitar on the label of their Pinot Noirs. The 2010 Dylan David Reserve Pinot Noir, for example, is Craig’s pride and joy. It was made with minimal handling and gravity-fed processes. He swears he detects notes of truffle or mushroom on the nose.

“Our Pinots in the Corralitos area are more Burgundian than Pinots made in the Summit area,” he says. “They are bigger wines, more complex, and critics have called them pristine.”

In the Details

Follow the signs uphill through a cool redwood forest and you’ll reach the ridge and Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards & Winery, which is well worth the drive. Owner Jim Schultze, a lawyer and management consultant, was bitten by the winemaking bug during expat stints in Australia and England. “We used to take long weekends in Burgundy, and I was impressed by the European approach where they think of grape growing and winemaking as one whole process, not separate activities,” he explains. Jim and his wife Judy inherited a farmhouse from her grandfather and acquired an adjoining abandoned apple orchard. They planted one acre of Chardonnay and 26 acres of heritage Pinot noir clones—including the rare Wädenswil, which seems to work well at their 1,000-foot elevation.

Judy handles sales and works in the sleek tasting room, opened just two years ago. Visitors are invited to traipse up through the vineyards to picnic tables at the top and enjoy sweeping views over the Pajaro Valley out to Monterey Bay.

Jim tends the vineyards and makes wine with all the attention to detail imaginable. He’s out in the vineyard every day, pruning three times after bud break to delay flowering. And when harvest season rolls around, it’s not unusual to see Jim chewing on the stems and seeds to see if it’s time to harvest. “You can tell when Pinot’s ripe when the taste of the stems changes from vegetative to almost smooth—then you can use the whole cluster,” he says.

No effort or expense is spared in making the wine as gently as possible. Gravity is used instead of pumps and a brand new $30,000 vibrating feeder is on order from Germany to make sure the grapes are not bruised as they are funneled from bins onto the sorting table. Aging takes place for 17–27 months in French Oak barrels with extra-dry staves and extra-tight grain. Jim picks them out and personally supervises the toasting on annual trips to France.

“Winemaking is part art and part science,” he says. “It’s an accumulation of lots of details that go into quality, some we know and others we don’t really understand, but it’s all about bringing out the subtle flavors and nuances in the wine.” Lean, food-friendly wines from Windy Oaks are especially popular with local chefs and can be found in many restaurants, like Sierra Mar, Casanova, Passionfish, Au Midi, Gabriella Café and Main Street Garden & Café.

Jim is one of the founders of the Corralitos Wine Trail, which including Storrs now has five members. They plan to create a sub-appellation for Corralitos within the 70-mile long Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

“Our aim is to be known as the quality Pinot Noir appellation in California,” he says. “Because of the climate, Corralitos is a fairly homogeneous and consistent area. We’ve had a lot of notice in recent years and if we become a sub-AVA, it’s only going to get better.”

Other cool-weather Pinot regions like the Sonoma Coast or the Russian River may take issue with that, but no doubt the little Corralitos Wine Trail is about to become a lot more travelled. 

Hit the Trail

Harvest season is the perfect time to spend a day along the Corralitos Wine Trail. Pick a sunny Saturday, pack a picnic or buy sand- wiches at the classic Corralitos Market and Sausage Co. or Freedom Meat Lockers and Sausage Co. in nearby Freedom. Then head for the intersection of Pleasant Valley and Hames Roads—about 10 minutes from the Freedom Boulevard exit off Highway 1. From there, follow the signs. All the wineries are within minutes of each other, have picnic tables and offer tasting flights and wines by the glass. — DL

Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery • 420 Hames Road • Open Saturdays noon-5pm

Nicholson Vineyards • 2800 Pleasant Valley Road • Open Saturdays noon-5pm

Pleasant Valley Vineyards • 600 Pleasant Valley Road • Open Saturdays noon-5pm

Storrs Winery • Old Sash Mill, 303 Potrero St., Santa Cruz • Open noon-5pm daily; Opening in October, 1560 Pleasant Valley Rd. Windy Oaks

Estate Vineyards and Winery • 550 Hazel Dell Road • Open Saturdays noon-5pm 

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