Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers explain how the harvest works, and what kind of wine to expect from this year’s crop
Winemaking Santa Cruz Mountains-style is all about grown men wearing shorts and T-shirts, hauling fruit around vertiginous mountain roads, loading forklifts and bounding through the vineyard hillsides in Kawasaki Mules. It looks like a child’s profession any way you slice it. Yet behind the scenes, many of the top vineyards in our growing region are monitored and fine-tuned by a woman whose expertise puts her at the top of every winemaker’s next text message—Prudy Foxx. It’s a scientific fact that the vibrant results of wine programs run by Bonny Doon’s Ryan Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards, at one end of the region, and by Steve and Pam Storrs of Storrs Winery at the other end in Corralitos, are enhanced by consulting with Foxx.
Foxx, who works with 35 wineries in the Santa Cruz area, says 2014 was dry enough to yield one of the earliest harvests on record. What that means to you and me is that the grapes were ready to pick before the first day of September. And the harvest was finished six weeks later.
“I am absolutely excited about this harvest. And I really mean that,” says Foxx, with exclamation marks in her voice. “This year is a standout.”
It’s also at least 10 percent smaller than last year’s huge crop.
“We just can’t expect that size of harvest every year,” she explains. California is blessed with steady temperatures and climate, nothing like the extremes of Burgundy, where hail storms and cold can quickly wipe out an entire crop. “In terms of weather patterns, it was a very steady year. The smattering of recent rain happened at just the right moment.”
Bonny Doon and Corralitos are the opposite ends of our winegrowing area, or AVA. “The soil up in Bonny Doon is granite-based,” Foxx explains. “In Corralitos, it’s colluvial soil, which means that it’s a mass of all the rock formations, sediments, all the heavier minerals—and that greater diversity of minerality, in my opinion, contributes to a complex terroir.”
Given the soil differences, she says, vintners extract “a radically different-tasting wine out of the same grape; for example, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both of which are made in both those regions.”
Different conditions make for different flavors. “Flavor is related to the quality of skin on the grape. A moderate temperature tends to develop supple skins that can have immense flavor that goes on and on. To me, the Corralitos wines have complex flavors and depth,” she says. “The higher elevations of Bonny Doon can result in crisp wines with highly desirable acidity and great clarity of flavor.”
Four Stages of the Vine
At his Pine Flat Road facility in Bonny Doon, Ryan Beauregard has been working his forklift from morning till night since mid-August. With his quick grin and baseball cap, the winemaker of Beauregard Vineyards looks like he’s having way too much fun to be an accomplished winemaker. But he is. In late August, Beauregard had just finished harvesting the estate Pinot Gris that fuels his best-selling “orange wine.” The oozing grapes from the fermenting box are kept on their stems for exactly 21 days, he explains. Hence the orange tinge.
“My daughters helped crush these—baby feet,” he says with a grin. “From picking to bottling, it’s 10 months for the orange wine.”
He walks past an outdoor table loaded with the remains of the morning’s tastings, a bottle of Tapatio, a cell phone and a Nikon camera. Two guys are stuffing grapes down through a funnel into the fermenters below, trying to stay one step ahead of the yellow jackets. Beauregard pours a sample of last year’s orange vintage. The spritzy blush wine reveals tart minerality and a highly refreshing palate, and at 11 percent alcohol, this is flat-out breakfast wine. Next, in rapid succession, he will pick Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, various Cabernets, and finally Syrah and Merlot.
“We’ll be processing 100 tons at any one time,” he says. That sounds like a whole lot of grapes. Throughout the harvest, Beauregard stays joined at the hip with his right-hand cellar man Carlos Arce—a winemaking compatriot for six years—and his vineyard manager (and father) Jim Beauregard. “He’s the farmer,” says Ryan. Along with six full-time vineyard workers, this is the team that runs the 15-year-old winery.
The whole process moves in steady, often speedy increments, from bud break to flowering to fruit set to picking.
“Those are the four stages of the vine,” he says, wearing a logo T-shirt that will be stained with grape juice by the end of the day. Bringing in the fruit, bottling and blending is “a lot of work, and I’m on all of it.”
His favorite part always involves heavy equipment. “I’m kind of a motor head,” says the proud father of two. “I love the big hauls on these crazy mountain roads.” Ryan Beauregard also drives a mean forklift—all day, every day during peak harvest season. “I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” he brags. He pats an enormous stainless steel cooling tank. “You have to have your hands on every bit of it.”
High acids can make for a crisp, refreshing wine. “I’m going for lower alcohol and more acidity these days.”
Beauregard keeps checking the chemistry of the grapes fermenting in the box in the cool tank room. When he likes the numbers, “I crush and tank, clean out the solids and then it goes into barrels.”
He never adds yeast because “there’s already plenty in the vineyards.” Barrels are stacked to the ceiling in the two main cellars, which are kept at exactly 59 degrees. In the back of the cellar, a muscular woman in a one-piece bathing suit is expertly bottling splits of Syrah and filling pallets with boxes for delivery.
“Have to keep everything moving in order to make room for the new harvest,” Ryan says. “Most of the year, what happens is storage. Then for two months during harvest it’s rock ’n’ roll.”
Timing Is Everything
Inside the soaring Storrs Winery cellar-in-progress, it is cool enough to mock the 100 degree October afternoon. Picking on the Corralitos estate stopped early in the day. In the unfinished facility, a huge estate tasting room and winery is portioned into a tank cellar, a cavernous barrel storage chamber, and a two-story tasting room topped by an office space whose windows overlook the entire facility. Designed to match the environmental sensitivity of the all-organic estate vineyard itself, the building is constructed of poured concrete filled with insulation and soy foam—“it’s twice as efficient as hay,” Pam Storrs says.
“We’re still probably a year away from moving in,” Steve Storrs says, with obvious frustration. Storrs and his team are within days of wrapping up the very short harvest.
“It was a mild winter,” Steve notes. “A dry winter, and bud set was early.” Despite this year’s smaller crop, Storrs likes the looks of his grapes. “The Chardonnays have ended up with beautiful chemistry,” he says, eyes gleaming. “We’re seeing nice acidities right now. The Pinots have all come in with really good numbers. Usually we have the high heat at the end of August, but not this year.”
So what about consistency of style from one year to another?
“We can’t expect that,” Pam chuckles. “Otherwise we’d be brewers.”
The year-to-year consistency the Storrs do look for is one of quality.
“I love the challenge,” says Steve, who’s wearing shorts, T-shirt and dusty boots. “Every year is its own challenge. You can tweak things a bit in the end, but ultimately there’s always a bit more of one thing or another. The real thing we’re after is a reliable consistency of quality.”
With longtime experience, first with Felton Empire Winery, and then with his own label, Storrs believes that “making high quality wine year after year is directly tied to finding—and developing—the right vineyards.”
But this is still a hands-on artform that finds the winemaker tweaking and consulting with a key expert on the Santa Cruz Mountains soils, vines, and climates—viticulturist Foxx.
“I’m a big advocate of Prudy,” Storrs says with a broad smile. “She’s one of the biggest assets to this area. She’s got an inquiring mind, she’s open to thinking about change.” With 30 years of vineyard trouble-shooting under her belt, Foxx has deep experience. “The wisdom as well as methodology,” Storrs says.
After picking, Storrs trucks his grapes to get weighed—“that’s how we know how much to pay the grower,” he says—then the grapes are pressed, the juice chilled in refrigerator tanks (where it gets clarified), and then racked into barrels, at which point yeast is added.
“Different yeasts bring out different characters in the wines,” Pam explains. “And when blended, that can add intriguing character.” Trained as an oenologist, Pam Storrs also holds an MBA degree, which she exercises regularly in managing the winery’s many employees, wine club, and tasting protocols. She’s also key in moving the entire winery toward a biodynamic rating.
“We tend to be very gentle on the wines,” Steve says. “We use barrels that are 2- and 3-, maybe more, years-old, so there’s less oak influence. The neutral style.”
The lighter whites are usually kept in 100 percent stainless steel, which produces a livelier, fruitier character. “Santa Cruz Mountains fruit is elegant,” Steve says. “We don’t want to cover up the fruit.”
The whole goal of the vine is to make a seed— the next generation, Foxx says. What determines exactly when grapes are picked is a chemical trifecta of sugar, pH—the higher, the brighter the flavor—and total acidity, explains Foxx.
When the numbers look good, the harvest ramps up.
“So with the March rain—timing is everything—we had really steady growth. Uniform bud break, uniform bloom, uniform set. The whole process happened in one week.”
The steady upward growth curve, in Foxx’s words, created the early harvest.
“No stragglers this year,” she says.