Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes



Local Food Topics


South Bay Wineries

by Robert Rich, January 2003, for MV Voice

When we think of great California wines, we tend to look toward Napa and Sonoma. Many people don't realize that the South Bay hosts some of the best wineries in California (over 50 in all), with histories that intertwine with the history of Silicon Valley.

Mountain View once had its own winery, founded by John Gemello in 1934, just south of Rengstorff on El Camino. Gemello came from Italy in 1912, working in California vineyards before starting his own business after Prohibition. His grandchildren now run Obester Winery in Half Moon Bay.

The Gemello Winery purchased Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from a vineyard at the top of Montebello Road, in nearby Cupertino. Established in 1885, replanted in 1944 by theologian William Short, these vineyards now produce the world-famous Ridge Montebello Cabernet.

Ridge: Bordeaux in Montebello

Three engineers from SRI in Menlo Park bought Short's Montebello property in 1959, to provide a getaway for their families. One of those engineers, Dave Bennion, made his first wine that year from grapes in the vineyard. Surprised by the fine quality, they started Ridge Vineyards in 1962.

Ridge hired Paul Draper as their winemaker in 1969. Draper had studied philosophy at Stanford, unlike most other California vintners who studied enology at U.C. Davis or Fresno. He approaches winemaking with traditional values, even fermenting on wild yeasts, eschewing what he terms the "industrial method" taught in modern agricultural schools.

Ridge grew into one of the most respected makers of Bordeaux-style red wines, with dry farmed grapes giving rich ripe fruit, bright acids, big tannin and strong minerals from limestone soil. Ridge made burly dark zinfandels long before sweet "white zinfandel" popularized that grape, perhaps saving many 100-year old Calfornia vines from extinction.

Ridge wines age notoriously well, often commanding high prices. While many of their bottlings sell for a reasonable $20-$40, their premium Montebello sells for over $100.

These immense wines sometimes challenge beginners. Often difficult when young, Ridge's best wines soften after 5-20 years of cellaring. I recently tasted a beautiful 1964 Montebello Cabernet, noting perfumes of bay leaves and wild sage, reminding me of summer walks through the hills.

Testarossa: Burgundy in Los Gatos

That lovely bottle of Ridge Montebello belonged to Ed Kurtzman, the winemaker for Testarossa in Los Gatos. While Ridge looks to Bordeaux for its winemaking ideal, Testarossa targets Burgundy.

Like Ridge, Testarossa links our valley's history to its high-tech present. Rob and Diana Jensen began making wine in their Sunnyvale garage in 1993, and started selling it in 1996. A vibrant entrepreneur, Rob Jensen worked for National Semiconductor in high school, then founded Veritas in 1991.

The Jensens traded their Veritas stock for winemaking equipment, and rented space behind Mirassou Champaign Cellars at the old Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos. Built in 1888 by the Catholic seminary, Novitiate made alter wine for the church, so it continued to operate legally during Prohibition.

Sitting with Ed Kurtzman in the century-old concrete cellar, Rob Jensen told me, "Burgundy has made the best pinot noir, and we think pinot noir is the best varietal. But the French have historical laws that tie their hands. California has innovation and a competitive style, a more experimental philosphy. We're looking to knock Burgundy off its pedestal."

Indeed, Testarossa makes some of the best California pinot noir I have ever tasted, with notes of spicy dark cherries, earth, chocolate, tropical fruit and brambles. Their chardonnays also show great complexity and finesse.

Thomas Fogarty: Mountain Clarity

Thomas Fogarty embodies this same entrepreneurial spirit, but with different flavors. A cardiovascular surgeon at Stanford, Dr. Fogarty holds over 40 patents for innovations ranging from balloon angioplasty to a better motorcycle clutch.

In the early 1970s, Fogarty purchased 350 acres on Skyline Blvd., above Palo Alto. From the top, overlooking a luxurious event center (available for weddings), beyond steep wooded mountain terrain, you can see the entire South Bay sprawling below.

Fogarty planted grapes on 24 acres, and hired vintner Michael Martella in 1980. Martella has a refreshingly unpretentious attitude about winemaking: "We should strive to offer more affordable higher quality wines. The intrinsic value of the wine comes from the pleasure it gives people when they taste it."

Martella strives to allow each vintage to express its individual personality. Cool climate and high altitude make this an excellent location for chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot, classic mountain wines bright with acidity and tannin, well structured and robust.

Lingering tones of limestone, tart blackberries and herbaceous peppery spice lend Fogarty's red wines a freshness that pairs well with food. Fogarty chardonnays taste crisp yet buttery, and the aromatic gewurztraminer exudes perfumes of caramilized pineapple and winter spices. (Try it with goat cheese.)

Page Mill: Family and Community

Downhill from Fogarty, 35 year old Dane Stark operates the Page Mill Winery from his family's house, with barrels aging in the enlarged basement. While marketing lasers at Spectra Physics, Dane's father started the winery as a hobby and went commercial in 1976.

Page Mill makes only 3,000 cases annually, selling 85% directly to locals. With such low quantities, the variety is astonishing. Dane Stark and one employee create 14 different wines, setting very reasonable prices ($15-$34) considering their rarity and high quality.

I chatted with Stark about growing up in the area, how the Palo Alto foothills changed during the transition from rural to high-tech. Stark credited the recent affluence for a resurgence in vineyard planting, as homeowners seek creative landscaping for their hillside properties.

Many of Page Mill's boutique wines come from these small local vineyards, and Stark helps monitor them to ensure that the grapes meet his needs.

Dane Stark places his wine squarely in the context of food and friendship. He told me, "Winemaking is everything that's wrapped up in the table and the community around the table. Wine is food that can help deepen the quality of life."

In keeping with this philosophy, Page Mill's wines are emminently food-friendly, delicate and beautifully complex. The chardonnays impressed me with sumptuous ripeness, tropical fragrances, crisp apple and citrus tones.

J. Lohr: Quality and Scale

In contrast to Dane Stark's tiny family business, San Jose's J. Lohr produces over 700,000 cases of wine a year, with five different labels; yet they manage to make some very high quality wines considering the large volume.

Jerry Lohr grew up on a farm in South Dakota, came to California in 1958 to attend Stanford, worked at NASA Ames, started a land development company in 1965, and began acquiring vineyard properties in 1972.

Lohr now owns over 2,500 acres of vineyard on the central coast, and his wines have helped this region gain respect. He champions the cool climate of Monterey County for grapes like chardonnay and riesling. His approachable reds come from Paso Robles, with ripe fruit-forward character and soft velvety tannins.

He constructed the J. Lohr winery near downtown San Jose in 1974, and hired Jeff Meier as head winemaker in 1984. Meier strives "to put a lot of wine in the bottle for the price," emphasizing good vineyard management to maintain low yields for full ripeness.

I chatted with Meier about Paul Draper's critique of industrial winemaking. Meier defended the U.C. Davis scientific method, "It helps to speed the decision process, to make a better product." Yet he emphasized that the artistic component to winemaking is still highly subjective.

Winemaking balances art, science, agriculture, commerce and history, serving a community of passionate food lovers. Each winemaker I meet shares this passion.

Meier elaborates, "California winemakers don't see each other as competitors. We're very open to sharing ideas and information, which helps keep our quality high." Excellent weather and soil certainly help, but the vintner's skill glues it all together.



Ridge Vineyards
17100 Montebello Rd., Cupertino, CA 95014
Tasting Sat & Sun 11AM-4PM
Favorites: Montebello, Lytton Springs, York Creek Petite Syrah, York Creek Zinfandel Late Picked.

300-A College Ave. Los Gatos, CA 95030
Favorites: Michaud Chardonnay, Palazzio & Pisoni Pinot Noir.

Thomas Fogarty Winery
19501 Skyline Blvd., Woodside, CA 94062
Tasting Thu-Sun 11AM - 5PM
Favorites: Santa Cruz Merlot, Fiddletown Barbera, Gewurztraminer.

Page Mill Winery
13686 Page Mill Rd., Palo Alto, CA
Tasting by appointment only, typically restricted to special events.
Favorites: Stuhlmuller Chardonnay, Napa Valley Merlot.

1000 Lenzen Ave., San Jose, CA 95126
Tasting 10AM-5PM daily
Favorites: Arroyo Vista Chardonnay, Los Osos Merlot, Hilltop Cabernet.