One of the Monterey Bay’s best-kept
secrets is there for the exploring
Highway 156 is a road well traveled by people heading between the coast and the Central Valley, where Interstate 5 provides an artery the length of the state. For years, I’ve driven the road without looking beyond the patchwork of fields along the often-congested, yet picturesque two-lane road.
But venturing off 156 onto Union Road just south of Hollister, I’ve made several recent detours onto the San Benito County Wine Trail, which is less of a straight path than a lattice crisscrossing the valley between the Gavilan and the Quien Sabe Ranges. The vineyards that dot the region include both some of California’s oldest and youngest grapevines, grown by some of its most intrepid vintners, such as Calera Wine’s Josh Jensen and Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, and a number of lesser known yet equally interesting personalities.
What San Benito’s dozens of viticulturists and winemakers have in common is an attraction to the limestone-rich soils and moderating ocean breezes that make the area an extremely favorable one for growing wine grapes. But the similarities end there. Like the fault lines that interlace the area—the San Andreas Fault that flanks it to the west, the Quien Sabe Fault to the east, and the Sargent, Calaveras and Tres Pinos fault lines that it straddles—the group’s members like to shake things up. And because of that, they offer a diverse array of unique wines that make their tasting rooms well worth the trip. (See a complete listing under the ‘LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com)
Turning from Union onto Cienega Road, where most of the tasting rooms are situated, you enter a world of bucolic hills, hardy wildflowers and not much else. Especially—until now—there was not much in the way of food to match the fine local wines.
But that will likely change soon, when exciting, seasonal, farmto- table foods prepared by exceptional chefs are expected to be offered at both DeRose Vineyards and Bonny Doon’s Popelouchum. (See “Wine to Table,” p. 50.)
When I first started exploring San Benito’s wines, I contacted Ian Brand, a vintner known for his Salinas-based Le P’tit Paysan label. One of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s “40 Under 40: American Tastemakers” in 2013, Brand has broad experience with grapes from across our region through making wine for more than a dozen other Central Coast winery owners.
We discussed Napa and Cabernets, Paso Robles and Syrahs, and Sonoma Pinot Noirs. When I observed that there didn’t seem to be a definitive varietal coming out of San Benito, Brand concurred.
“San Benito is a younger region, so folks are planting a wide variety of grapes to see what works. The area is a county full of possibilities.” In essence, he says, the wines coming out of San Benito are a mixture of heritage and discovery.
On the heritage side of things you have DeRose Vineyards, which occupies a site established by French immigrant Theophile Vaché in the 1850s, making its vines some of the oldest in the state.
The winery has changed hands several times and, for a spell, its vineyards—like others in much of the county—were almost the exclusive domain of former wine industry giant, Almaden.
“There’s a lot of great history here,” says vintner Pat DeRose, whose family in 1988 took over the winery after a period of neglect and rescued some 100 acres of abandoned vines from the clutches of weeds and thistles.
The winery now offers a handful of unique wines, and I was instantly enamored by the exotic, century-old Négrette, whose name means “little black one.”
Called Pinot St. George before 1997, legend says Négrette, descended from Mavro rootstock, was transported to France by Knights Templar returning from Cyprus. DeRose’s Négrette is inky and aromatic with stone fruit bursting out of the glass and some spicy nuance.
Just down the road is another vineyard that dates back to the 1850s, the stunning red-brick Pietra Santa Winery.
Pietra Santa means “sacred stone” in Italian, a reference to its limestone-laden soil, which has helped its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese win numerous medals in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
The 450-acre estate also produces organic and infused olive oils from its five varieties of trees, and offers picnic tables next to its vineyards. Further into the valley is Josh Jensen’s Calera Wine. The best known of the region’s established wineries, its pinot noirs, chardonnays and viogniers are perennial award winners. (See story p. 44.)
Randall Grahm and his Bonny Doon Vineyards are most often associated with Santa Cruz County, where Grahm lives and established his first vineyard. His current tasting room is also in Davenport.
But early in his career, Grahm borrowed winemaking space at Calera, and in 2011 he returned to San Benito County to embark on what is arguably the most daring move of his career.
He purchased a 280-acre ranch in San Juan Bautista, which he calls Popelouchum, the native Mutsun word for “paradise,” and launched an effort to hybridize from seed 10,000 entirely new vinifera grape varietals. The ultimate aim: to make a true vin de terroir, a unique American wine that offers the fullest expression of place possible.
Thus far, just three-quarters of an acre of the estate is planted with well-established vines, and Grahm admits it may take many years to see the project through. “There’s a possibility I may not be around to know if it’s a success or failure,” Grahm says.
But the continuing drought and quickening climate change have made the need for new grape varieties better suited to the region— and to changed weather patterns in general—all the more urgent.
So as this issue of EMB was going to press, Grahm was preparing to launch a multi-platform crowdfunding campaign to raise $750,000 or more to finish the research needed to create the rest of the vines. He was expecting to offer to the campaign’s donors wine, naming rights and even early access to the plants.
Grahm is encouraged by the barrel of wine he made from Grenache harvested from the estate last year.
“I’m extremely happy with it,” says Grahm, noting that he “lives” for minerality in wines, and the deep-colored Grenache’s qualities include “really intense perfume, wonderful acidity, great body, this wonderful, earthy mineral aspect.”
Popelouchum is only open to the public during special events, of which Grahm plans a few for this fall. (See p. 50.)
Also engaged in notable new discoveries in San Benito’s wine country are two young winemakers—Ryan Kobza, founder of Kobza Wines, and Nicole Walsh, who has made wine for Bonny Doon for 14 years, and just last year bottled wine for the first time under her own Ser Wine Co. label.
Both are using an old-vine grape from the Wirz Vineyard in Cienega Valley called Cabernet Pfeffer.
Kobza and Walsh admit they were intrigued by the grape because it’s different.
“I love this wine. It’s distinctive and unique, layered with floral, fruit and spice. It’s delicate, but has structured tannin,” Walsh says. Walsh knows of less 10 acres of this extremely rare grape in the entire state of California—all of them in San Benito County.
Adding to the intrigue, the grape’s origin had been a matter of controversy until last year. A DNA study of the Wirz grapes conducted by UC Davis solved the mystery, finding that they are the French Mourtaou, which in France is sometimes called Pfeffer. The term “Cabernet Pfeffer” is used only in California, for both Mourtaou and Gros Verdot.
If there is a commonality I found in my travels to San Benito County’s tasting rooms and my encounters with its winemakers, it’s that the area’s vintners tend to be mavericks.
They’re a highly varied group, but together they create a body of wines that honor the area’s heritage with distinct and delicious expressions of the region’s terroir.
In short, it’s just what you’d want from a new wine discovery. Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com and lives in Seaside.
EXPLORE: Most of the San Benito County vineyards and tasting rooms that are open to the public offer regular tasting room hours, and many stage special events. For example, Guerra Family Cellars hosts a summer concert series called Hollister Concerts in an outdoor amphitheater backed by spectacular views. This summer’s series kicks off on July 11 with L.A.vation, a U2 tribute band. For a complete listing of San Benito County vineyards and tasting rooms that are open to the public, go to the “LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com.
WINE TO TABLE:
FRESH SEASONAL CUISINE COMING TO SBC’S WINE TRAIL
San Benito is an agricultural county, with 80% of its land producing grapes, heirloom Blenheim apricots, fine olive oils, nuts, pastured meats and a diversity of organic vegetables. But what Cienega Road—the heart of SBC’s wine country—hasn’t had is what Hollister native and Paris-trained chef Michael Fisher calls “a community table”—a place where people can gather at or close to the wineries and vineyards to enjoy all of this local goodness.
That is all expected to change over the next couple of years, however, when Fisher and Randall Grahm, the visionary vintner behind the Bonny Doon Vineyards and creator of Santa Cruz’s former Cellar Door restaurant, are both expected to establish new destinations for fine, seasonal meals made from local ingredients.
Picnics with a pedigree at DeRose Michael Fisher is the great-great grandson of Paicines homesteaders and grew up among the region’s contemporary growers and winemakers, including Katherine Foster, wife of Pinnacle Organics’ founder Phil Foster and one of his school teachers, and Al DeRose, of DeRose Vineyards, who he worked with in his youth at the Inn at Tres Pinos.
So it’s no wonder that after learning the finer points of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients in the kitchens of Daniel in New York, Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley and Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, he knew where he wanted to go next —somewhere where the produce is diverse and bountiful, all year long.
“My main reasons for coming back are the local resources, the location and that it’s home,” Fisher says of his return last year to Hollister.
He also hopes to help San Benito County’s effort to develop its economy by promoting tourism based on its food, wine and agricultural offerings.
“I want to give back. I want to do what people did for me when I was younger. I want to inspire the next generation who are eager to learn. I want to create a place where people come to be a part of something.”
So the chef now runs Fisher’s Catering, an elite catering company serving Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. And as of press time, he was preparing to open a new commercial kitchen in a carriage house at DeRose Vineyards, with the intent of offering fresh, seasonal, Mediterranean-style prepared foods to be enjoyed on the winery’s patio or taken out for picnics along the wine trail.
Among the foods that he’s planning to serve are olive tapenades, his signature hummus, vegetable dips made with seasonal produce like eggplant and zucchini, and panini sandwiches made with the artisanal breads of Hollister’s Suncoast Organic Farm and Heavenly Bakery. There are two natural springs on the winery’s hillside, and Fisher hopes to prepare his food with produce grown from an on-site, fully sustainable vegetable and herb garden, as well as from SBC’s numerous local organic growers.
“My ultimate goal is to buy only salt outside of San Benito County,” Fisher says.
POP-UPS AT POPELOUCHUM
Never short on ambitious, exciting projects, Randall Grahm’s plan for dining at his San Juan Bautista ranch and vineyard, Popelouchum, is a farm-to-table program on steroids—a weekend pop-up restaurant inspired by both the long, farm-side table of Outstanding in the Field and the educational component of Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York—and operate it Friday through Sunday during the summer months.
This isn’t exactly virgin territory for Grahm, as Bonny Doon has held special farm dinners, such as its annual Day of the Doon events, at Popelouchum.
“The times when we’ve done dinners out there have been incredibly special—people have just gone crazy in the extreme. They just don’t want to leave,” Grahm says. “I think it just connects people in a visceral, deep way.”
But creating an outdoor summer weekend pop-up restaurant is a first. And for that, Grahm is working with the vineyard’s landscape architects to create an entirely new hospitality and education area next to the biodynamic row crops that will feed the diners.
Grahm’s overall intention for the ranch is a polyculture model of sustainability, and the centerpiece of the site will be a pond that will catch rainwater to irrigate the vegetables. Also in the works is the planting of a natural windbreak and construction of a large permanent table, a wood-burning oven and restrooms.
Grahm deeply enjoyed running the Cellar Door (later renamed Le Cigare Volant), which served produce grown at Popelouchum to rave reviews, and says he’s excited to introduce his chef friends to the estate. It’s not clear yet if the series will have one chef or a rotating roster.
The full-fledged, weekend-long series will not begin until next year, but pending progress on the new hospitality area, Grahm is aiming to hold multiple fundraising events at Popelouchum this fall.
The pop-up restaurant will most certainly appeal to adventurous, discerning diners who want to learn more about the region and have a greater connection to where their food and wine come from. So, like Fisher, Grahm sees his dining project as something with a great potential to serve the community.
“These are the kinds of visitors that San Benito would like to attract,” he says.
—CM and SW