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by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne Master Level
Today’s Exclusive Interview:
About Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
Approved in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA claims fame as one of the nation’s first wine growing appellations defined by mountain topography. The region stretches as far north as Woodside and as far south as Watsonville, with elevations rising to 2700º. Coastal fog rolls inland and upslope, breaking across the Santa Cruz mountain ranges in stealthy, opalescent waves that coddle the vines, while diurnal shifts ensure vivid acidity.
Soils in Santa Cruz Mountains AVA range from coastal sands to inland clay, loam, limestone, decomposed rock, and exotic mineral deposits like graphite, gypsum, talc, melanterite (a greenish-blue crystal), and cinnabar.
These various components, combined with a multitude of microclimates, allow for varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive.
“Serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.”- New Oxford American Dictionary
Serendipity. It’s a word used a lot when talking with Jeff Emery, proprietor of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (SCMV). Recently, I met up with the rangy, bearded wine maker at his tasting room and winery in the Swift Street Complex on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
Multi-tasking adroitly between delivery folks, his assistant winemaker, and thirteen-year old daughter, Emery engaged in the interview with thoughtful authority. His low-key demeanor belies a multi-faceted career, equal parts wine maker, mentor, Santa Cruz Fungus Federation founder, long-time folk music radio host and brandy blender. In short, Jeff Emery embodies the spirit of Santa Cruz – authentic, diverse, and firmly rooted in community.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and continuity.)
r/T™: The original owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Ken Burnap, proved instrumental in mentoring you in your wine making career. In turn, you’ve mentored many local rising winemaking stars like Denis Hoey of Odonata Wines and your own assistant Cole Thomas. How has the Santa Cruz winery scene changed since you started working with Ken in the 1970’s? What part does mentoring play?
Jeff Emery: Mentoring young people has always been intentional for me, in large part because I came to this brand [Santa Cruz Mountain Winery] as a nineteen year old in the late 1970’s.
At the time, Ken did his own vine management, built a cement block storage house, and slept on a cot. The only other help he got was from a buddy named Bill Craig, also from Southern California. Then I came along as a third ‘part time’ position in 1979 [while a geology student at UC Santa Cruz.]
I started [learning about wine] by going to all the Santa Cruz Mountain Vintner (now Santa Cruz Mountain Winemakers) Association. It was when they were talking about starting a Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.
Two of the association members, David Bennion of Ridge [One of Ridge’s four owners at the time] and Ken Burnap [owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Winery] felt strongly that the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA [American Viticultural Area] needed to be based on unique, climactic geological issues, rather than broad, arbitrary boundaries. The appellation, approved in 1981, follows their recommendations in 1981.
Fast forward to today, where I’ve gone from being the young guy in the 1970’s to ‘the elder statesman’ in 2017.
So my mentoring comes from Ken’s approach with me to demystify wine. Ken was very generous with his cellar, and I feel it’s my karmic duty to pass this along – wine should be fun, part of the table – it is a food, and a social ingredient.
As for mentoring Denis of Odonata – that was serendipity. I came to Santa Cruz Mountain Winery [initially] because a friend’s wife went into labor; he was suppose to help bottle [at SCMV], but he couldn’t, so he gave me a me a scrap of paper with an address and told me to go bottle for him.
Same thing happened to Denis with me. Denis came to help me to help me move from the old Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard site to this new site in Santa Cruz, and ended up staying. Since then he’s moved on to found his own winery. Cole has done stages all over the world, including his most recent with Prophet’s Rock in New Zealand, and is starting his own brand. I also help mentor through the UCSC Agro-Ecology farming program.
r/T™: When Ken Burnap sold Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard in 2004, what did it feel like taking the ‘leap of faith’ to ownership of the business and label? How you were able to face your fears and get through the doubts and keep going?
Jeff Emery: I [just] knew I wanted to stick with wine. Ken had other sources of income, and I do not. [Over the years], Ken kept checking in with me, asking “are you still loving what you’re doing?”
Finally, when he decided to retire [in 2002], the questions became “Will someone buy the winery?” and “Will I stay on to help out?” In 2004, he sold the vineyard, and by then I figured out how to buy the business; I was [already] running the books.
How did I take that and make it work? More serendipity. In 2004, I met the regional buyer for Trader Joe’s Santa Cruz, who need a floor-to-ceiling wine display for his store opening. He ended up writing me a check for something like $40,000 worth of SCMV inventory.
But I also needed a place to make wine in 2004, and so through a friend of a friend learned about Bradley Brown at Big Basin Winery, [who at the time] had space to grow into. He and I worked out a deal – Jeff made wines in 2004, 2005, and 2006. By then he’d grown into the space. 2007 was the hell year. But in 2008, this space [Swift Street Complex] came up when Boony Doon downsized. Since then, I have been taking a known winery into a viable business. Part of our success is due to this site.
rT:™ You also attribute your success to your second label featuring Iberian blends, Quinta Cruz. Is it true part of the popularity of Quinta Cruz stems from its wide embrace by Millennials?
Jeff Emery: Yeah, Millennials are a large part of success of our Quinta Cruz wines, although Americans in general are now getting past all the “shoulds” about drinking wines.
For Millennials, it’s more important to bring something new, rather than known, to the table. It’s the opposite for Baby Boomers, who want the known. Millennials are also willing not to just pay for cheapest – they are willing to pay for the story behind it.
That said, we still need to capitalize on social media. Cole, my assistant winemaker has been instrumental in that, but there’s still a lot more storytelling to be told. There are so many wineries now – to be present in the market today, you really have to stick out. Story is what sells the wine.
As for the Quinta Cruz label – I made those wines for my own amusement.
[Author’s Note: Emery’s business manager Bill Vieira Vroman is of Portuguese heritage, and spends part of every year in Portugal. Emery first learned of Iberian varietals during a trip to Spain and Portugal.]
When I got home [from the trip], I found some winegrowers here in California, like Markus Bokisch in Lodi, that grew them [Iberian varietals], so I bought some, thinking it would be a ‘wine club only’ thing.
As time went on, I felt it was important to create a separate wine label from SCMV. Luckily, the timing was perfect – Rhone Rangers had already laid the groundwork for non-traditional varietals. Plus a second label expands a winery’s appearance on restaurant tables.
rT:™ What’s the history behind Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s link to Pinot Noir?
Jeff Emery: Ken [Belnap] is a big food and wine guy, former restaurateur, and a Burgundy lover. He couldn’t figure out why California Pinot Noir was so horrible. Ken spent a lot of time talking about this with wine maker friends David Bruce of Santa Cruz and Joe Swan of Russian River Valley.
Eventually, from those conversations, Ken came up with a list of about thirteen criteria needed to grow good pinot in California, and felt that Santa Cruz Mountains offered all of them.
Meanwhile, David Bruce had purchased property in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the1960’s that had old-vine zinfandel on it. David Bruce made his last California Zinfandel in 1968, and in 1969-1970 he tore out the Zinfandel and planted Pinot Noir.
Ken bought that site from David, and for two years Ken commuted from Orange County to the vineyard, until he sold his restaurant. Ken made his first vintage in 1975, and never looked back.
[Author’s note: Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard on Jarvis Road sits on of California’s oldest continuously operated vineyards, Jarvis Brothers Vineyard, originally established in 1863.]
Talk about serendipity – in 1974, Ken was drinking champagne with David when Ken decided to buy the Jarvis Road vineyard. Over the years, Ken would occasionally make bubbles from the second crop on the vines.
In 2004, when Ken sold the Jarvis Road vineyard, and I bought the business, we drank a bottle of those bubbles – and later realized that our celebration was almost exactly three weeks from the same date when he had celebrated with David Bruce twenty-five years earlier!
rT: Since you don’t currently own your own vineyards at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, how much control do you have over the vineyards where you purchase your grapes?
Jeff Emery: Since I purchase all my grapes, I do have control. I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially picking, because most vineyards in California pick too late. Again and again, I’m the first to pick. I’m usually out there tasting the fruit.
Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi is the furthest away [where] I source, but I trust him. And at Pierce Vineyards and Hahn are nearby, so I get many samples. So much about picking is to understand the gestalt of a vineyard – how they taste, feel, dimple – versus just analyzing numbers.
I like ‘light on land’ practices. For example, Bokisch Vineyard is CCFF [Author’s Note: Bokisch Vineyards practices Lodi Rules, one of California’s earliest, and most stringent. sustainable farming program.] Pierce is sustainable, Hahn is Sip-Certified.
r/T™: Let’s talk terroir. How do the various vineyards’ microclimates and soil types inform the varietals you choose, and the wines you produce? Any particular area/vineyard/block that surprises and delights you each harvest?
Jeff Emery: The Branciforte Creek Vineyard is planted to Pommard, while the Bailey’s Branciforte Ridge Vineyard is planted to the Dijon clone. These vineyards are less than two miles apart, yet they have different soils, different clones, and different expressions of Pinot Noir.
Branciforte Creek Vineyard makes consistently amazing wine. It’s a true climat, with huge diurnal swings that maintain natural acidity.
The [Luchessi Vineyard] Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard above Cupertino is also special.
r/T™: In 2003, you partnered with local distiller Dan Farber at Osocalis Distillery in Soquel (‘Osocalis’ is the original Native American name for Soquel] making award-winning artisanal brandies. What made you want to get into the distillery business?
Jeff Emery: Working at Osocalis Distillery allows me to push my craft. It’s important to rip the tablecloth off the table every once and awhile. We do all the blending through nosing. It’s all new flavors and blends for me, and it also makes red wine look like a fast cash business. We’re still sticking to the same traditional values and approach, which means we’re sticking to long-term goals.
r/T™: Anything else you’d care to share with readers about Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard or any of your other projects?
Jeff Emery: I like to educate guests about history, food and wine, instead of just saying “Here’s the wine.” Stylistically, we try to set ourselves apart in this way – it’s what we’ve been doing for forty years – have fun, demystify wine, and hopefully introduce guests to new ‘flavors.’ And you might even run into a wine maker!
r/T™: Finally, if your experience as a winemaker has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
Jeff Emery: Collaboration. In Santa Cruz, [at Swift Street Complex] we all have our own styles, our own wines, we share the same labor pool and equipment, have the keys to each other’s places, and collaborate on tastings and events.
It’s also taught me to be semi-proficient at running a 5,000 case winery. You have to be a pretty darn good mechanic, a good business person, know how to fix the forklift, fix the press, be a good logistics manager, and keep things flowing. I’ve learned to be a jack-of-all-trades. I hold one title while actually having many.
I’ve been through thirty-nine harvests, and each one is different – you never get the same weather, or same set of grapes, which keeps it fresh, so I can do it over and over. I am constantly learning something new in my craft.
Learn more about Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards Association’s upcoming Pinot Paradise here.
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