Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fellom Ranch

Montebello ridge has long been known as an ideal place to grow Cabernet. From the earliest plantings at the end of the 19th Century to the present day the area has hosted dozens of small wineries. And while the mountain top is now dominated by one of the finest wineries in the world, there is still room for lots of smaller vineyards and wineries such as Vidovich, Naumann, Relyea-Wood - and Fellom Ranch.

Looking south from the vineyards
In 1929 Senator Roy Fellom purchased a 250 acre ranch on Monte Bello Road. A few acres of land had been planted with vines by the previous owner, Paul Cena and the family traded the grapes with a neighbour, Andrew Mikulaco, who paid them back in wine.  

In the early 1980s Senator Fellom's son and grandson decided to replant the vineyards and open a winery. Around 10 acres were terraced and planted, almost entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small block of Petite Verdot. The winery was bonded in 1987.

I recall first encountering Fellom Ranch Vineyards at a Santa Cruz Mountains vintners festival in the mid 1990s. At the time they had a barrel sample of their Saratoga Zinfandel which so impressed me that I ordered a case. I was invited to the release party at the winery - up near Ridge, a half mile from Monte Bello Road down a winding single-track lane called Flintlock Road, and thankfully was able to persuade a friend to act as a designated driver.

Bud and Brookes Fellom
The wines could occasionally be found at local retailers and restaurants, but they gradually became harder to find and I haven't seen any since the 1999 vintage. When I first started writing the blog and wiki I contacted the winery and saws told that they were temporarily closed to visitors, but planned to re-open. Due to family legal issues the winery remained closed until last fall. I heard about the opening in time to visit on the spring Passport day.

Roy 'Bud' Fellom III is the current owner and winemaker. Assisted by his family he has been making wines continually since 1987, though in recent years he got disillusioned in dealing with wholesalers and distributors and decided to concentrate on sales direct from the winery.

The temporary closure has certainly impacted production - at present they are down to 400-500 cases annually, but plan to get back to their earlier peak of 1500-2000 cases. The winery no longer has the lease on the Saratoga vineyard that produced the Zinfandel that I enjoyed so much; instead they source fruit from a number of vineyards both locally and as far afield as Shennadoah valley and Paso Robles.

The winery should be open at weekends during the summer months for tasting and sales - the web site is

2012 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains.
Sourced from an unnamed vineyard over by Cooper Garrod this is fairly typical of the more restrained Santa Cruz Mountains style - plenty of lemon, pear and chalk with some tropical fruit notes. $20

2011 Pinot Noir, Central Coast
From vineyards in the Paso Robles area the nose is floral, with strawberry and preserved cherry. Smooth flavours of chocolate and cherry - an easy drinker, similar in style to those from Carneros. $22

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Douglas Crest Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
From a nearby vineyard opposite Vidovich this has a perfumed, floral nose and nice berry flavours. There's some good acid and soft tannins. Doesn't seem like a candidate for cellaring, but tasting very nice right now with a little air. $25

A magnum from the first vintage
of Fellom Ranch estate cabernet
The winery were also pouring two barrel samples from the 2013 vintage:

2013 Zinfandel, Shenandoah Valley
A bright raspberry nose with a hint of VA. Lots of sweet raspberry fruit; quite a bit of residual sugar - more than I care for, but the other tasters seemed to enjoy it.

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains
Similar in style to the Zinfandel; nose and palate showed blueberries with some apparent residual sugar.

And finally there was a magnum of the estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the maiden vintage:

1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains, from a magnum
Lovely old nose, with lots of leather, cedar and herb. Nice acidity. Still has plenty of good blackcurrant fruit supported by lots of secondary notes. 1987 was a very good, ripe year and this wine has held up beautifully. showing the true potential of the site. A real treat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oral History of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winemakers

In the early 1990s the writer and historian Charles L. Sullivan was comissioned by the Bennion Trust to create an oral history of winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over a period of two years he interviewed many of the prominent winemaking families in the region, and compiled a 700 page document which provides a fascinating insight into the state of the appellation at the time as well, as the history over the previous century.

The book was self published by the Bennion Trust and was only available to those in the know who purchased a copy directly from Fran Bennion herself. $40 got you over 350 sheets of velobound copier paper.

Some years ago I contacted first Mr Sullivan and then the Bennion Trust, offering to host a copy of the manuscript on the internet, to bring it to a wider audience. The original source material was still in existence on early Apple Macintosh disks, and could have been converted to a modern format without too much difficulty. The offer was politely declined at the time, but I recently learned that the trust has since gone ahead with publishing a version of the project online.

At the present time it's still incomplete. All of the interviews are viewable as PDF scans; they are readable, but are not currently indexed or searchable. The quality is perfectly readable and I've successfully processed some of the pages with OCR software. The appendix - which consisted of various photographs and commercial documents from Ridge - are not yet present, nor is the original map of the appellation drawn by Jan Sherrill.

You can view the project at

Thursday, January 24, 2013


I got an email today from a wine retailer thanking me for the blog - he'd used some of the information from a post on Montallegro on his web site. It turns out that he has an allocation of the 2006 Montallegro Cabernet for sale at $30 a bottle, which I think is a very good price. You can check it out at

By coincidence I opened a bottle of the 1999 Montallegro just this last weekend. It's a lovely Cabernet with a nose of campfire and brambles. The palate is what I expect from Saratoga Cabernet (think Mount Eden, Kathryn Kennedy, Cooper Garrod etc.) - lots of blueberry, blackcurrant and earth. There's still plenty of slightly bitter tannin; it's drinking well now but I'm sure it'll continue to improve over the next few years. 90 points.

Now where's my credit card...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rebooting the blog

While I don't make New Year Resolutions, I have decided to try and make more of an effort in updating the blog, and the winery wiki. There have been several new wineries that have opened in the past couple of years, both in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Clara Valley, which I have yet to cover or even sample.

The Santa Clara Valley AVA has some top class vineyards, particularly in the western foothills, and several under-rated, high quality producers. So my goal is to try and visit every Santa Clara Valley winery this year, or at the very least the ones I haven't been to before.

I'm also looking forward to a presentation by local historian Charles Sullivan on The History of Winegrowing in the Foothills of the Santa Clara Valley next Tuesday at the Immanuel Lutheran Fellowship Hall -14103 Saratoga Avenue in Saratoga. The presentation is free; there is also a wine tasting featuring four local producers. For details see the Saratoga Historical Foundation's website.

You can find out more about the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley at their website or on their Facebook page, as well as on my local wineries Wiki.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Blind tasting at Ridge

There's nothing like a blind tasting to make you think about how difficult tasting and describing wine is. When you look at a label there's a certain expectation, which may be met or may not. Even when the professional critics have their blind tastings for publications they know up front at least something about the wines in front of them - they are all new releases and they know the region and grape varieties.

When Christopher Watkins hosts blind tastings for bloggers at Ridge he loves to test his audience. Just before Christmas a group of us were invited to a tasting that he titled 'Three Blind Mice'. The rules were simple: three flights, of three wines each. Identify what the wines had in common as well as what differentiated them. Then finally identify the common thread between the 9 wines. Sounds simple enough.

In a corner of the room stood 9 bottles, covered in paper bags, and 9 decanters. I noticed something different about the fill level of one of the decanters but thought nothing of it at the time. That was unfortunate, as it turned out to have been a vital clue.
So, on to the wines. The first flight seemed easy enough. The first wine had a bright purple colour, indicative of a very young wine, possibly a barrel sample. The nose was smoky and dusty, the palate had some lean berry fruit, but it was almost painfully young. I guessed the Estate Cabernet - probably 2010 or maybe even 2011.
The second seemed more polished. It had a similar smoky, dusty nose but with more black fruit and the tannin was very evident on the finish. The colour was less purple, so clearly it was older. I guessed 2009 Estate Cabernet.
The third wine was darker still and the nose seemed riper and more mature. It was rich and smooth, with more tart black fruit and a smoother finish. So I guessed 2007 Estate Cabernet.

We didn't find out until the end, but the wines were in fact all 2009 Estate Cabernet served in three different formats! The first was from magnum and the last from a half bottle (the clue I'd missed earlier). I've never had such a clear demonstration of the difference that bottle size makes to the maturation of a wine - if you get the chance to try this at home I highly recommend it.

Having (incorrectly, and unknowingly) concluded that the first flight was a vertical, we moved on to the second. Here the differences were even starker. The first wine was clearly older; the colour had gone to that lovely brick red and there was significant sediment. The nose had leather and dried cherry and the fruit and tannins were mature. I guessed an Estate Cabernet at around 10 years of age.
The second was also mature, but seemed younger than the first. The nose had a hint of balsamico but the palate was long and sweet blackcurrant fruit - absolutely delicious.
The third seemed younger still; higher in acidity but with loads of complexity.
So my first thought was another vertical of the Estate Cabernets, but knowing Christopher it wouldn't be anything so simple. I was so sure that the first flight had been a vertical that I had to come up with an alternate explanation. Maybe a horizontal? Ridge doesn't usually make more than 2 Cabernets in a vintage, but it does happen occasionally, such as 2002. It didn't seem quite right; none of the wines had the depth of Monte Bello, but it was worth a try.

Should have stayed with my first guess. The wines were 2004, 2005 and 2006 Estate Cabernets respectively. The 2004 (I DID say it was about 10 years old) is as good as it's likely to get; a nice example of a Cabernet from what was my least-favourite vintage of the decade. The 2005 is a lovely wine that could be drunk now or held  for a few years longer. The 2006 is a wine that needs time - it'll be stunning in a few years, but it's not ready yet.

For the final flight all three wines seemed very similar. The first had a raspberry component that I hadn't detected in any of the previous wines, leading me to suspect that this might be a Zinfandel. It shared some of the brambly mountain fruit  hallmarks as the estate cabernet. Now Ridge makes many Zinfandels but only one - the Jimsomare - comes from estate fruit. It's pretty low production and although I have a few bottles in my cellar I haven't tasted it very often. The second had the same raspberry and bramble flavours, with the nose showing lots of coffee and a savoury Bovril note, and not as lean as the first. The third didn't seem to have much of a nose, but the flavour profile was nearly identical to the second; perhaps a little richer. I could tell that Christopher was playing a trick, but I wasn't sure what it was, so I guessed a vertical of Jimsomare Zinfandel.

Wrong. All three wines were exactly the same - the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from three different 750ml bottles. The only differences were in our heads. The first glass tasted slightly different perhaps because I'd eaten some cheese just prior to tasting it (I try to avoid eating anything but bread while I'm tasting, but I'd not had lunch). The nose on the third seemed shy because our olfactory senses are designed to detect changes; if you smell the same thing within about 30 seconds the brain doesn't properly register the second time. A mean trick which caught out most of the tasters, but a very effective lesson.

So what did I learn? The biggest lesson for me was that bottle format makes much more of a difference to a wine than I'd realised, even in the short term. I just wish that half bottles were more readily available; even the best wine stores usually have a rather small selection.

Another key takeaway is just how good Ridge's second label cabernet is. The 2005 and 2006 vintages in particular were excellent wines that really punch above their $40 price point. 

And finally - blind tasting is tough!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Alesia Sonoma Coast vertical

They say the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. Kevin Harvey certainly began that way; after successful careers first as a software entrepreneur and then as a venture capitalist he founded Rhys Vineyards to explore his love of Pinot Noir. However his amazing, vibrant wines quickly gained a near-cult following and the winery has steadily grown in both size and reputation.

The Rhys label is reserved solely for the wines from the estate vineyards, mostly located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A sister label, Alesia, is used for wines made from purchased fruit, which mostly comes from vineyards in Sonoma.

Last November I attended a blind tasting of Alesia and Rhys wines. The event, organised by local wine aficionado Ross Bott, featured a vertical of Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinots alongside an assortment of other Alesia and Rhys wines. Each taster ranked the wines in order of preference and an overall ranking was calculated.

2004 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
This had a lovely savoury nose, with smoke and cherry notes. On the palate it was deliciously complex; lots of fruit, earth and herbal notes, continuing to develop in the glass. The finish was long, with just a hint of bitterness. 93
This was the group's overall #1 wine, and my #2

2006 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
The nose on this was odd, with ash, campfire and earth. The acidity showed on the palate, with earthines and some dried cherry/cranberry notes, and bitter tannins on the finish. Although some of the tasters clearly enjoyed it there was some debate as to whether it was corked; I took the remains of my pour home and found that after an hour or so it had become undrinkable. I rated it 7th, which tallied with the rest of the group. No rating, since it was corked.

2007 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
This had a dusty green pepper/jalapeƱo note to the nose which I didn't care for. The green note showed up on the palate, along with some cherry and Dr Pepper flavours. The finish also had a bitter, green note to it. 85. My 8th place, as well as the group's.

2008 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
There was an odd, slightly artificial note to the nose which reminded me of some kind of air freshener. On the palate there was some rustic brambly fruit, earthy cherry and herbal  notes, with a nice finish. 90.
This was the group's overall #3, but I had it 6th, mainly due to the odd note on the nose.

2006 Alesia Falstaff Road Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Bright nose of maraschino, oregano and orange. More fruit than most of the others, with cherry, cranberry and cola notes. Lots of vanilla oak on the finish. 91 
Both the group's and my 4th place

2004 Alesia Kanzler Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
A savoury, plummy nose led to a much sweeter and richer wine than the others, with lots of fruit and an oaky, almost saccharine finish. I really liked it at first and initially had it ranked #1 but after retasting it slipped to third place. The group's overall #5; I suspect this was because some of the tasters in this particular group really don't care for the fruitier style of Pinot. 92

2008 Rhys Alpine Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Noticeably darker in colour than the others. The nose had black fruit and smoke, flavours of black cherry, dry leaves and, forest floor; lots of complexity and a nice, long finish.
Initially I ranked it 3rd, but as it got more air it continued to develop and evolve; in the end I scored it 95 and rated it #1 - the group had it as their second place.

2006 Rhys Family Farm Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains

Nose showed dried cranberry and herbal notes. Lots of earthy, rustic fruit; more developing with time. Chewy, oaky tannins on the finish. I gave it 90 points and rated it 5th; overall the group ranked it 6th.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My response to an anonymous comment

I don't get many comments on the blog, but recently this one was posted on my report from Pinot Paradise. Someone posting anonymously said...
    Really? you are using a 100 pt. system? I bet you can't replicate those scores twice in a blind tasting within 3 points. And all those smokey note you were picking up on the 2009 wines from the Corrilotos area: smoke taint dude! but you must be too sophisiticated as a wine expert to pick up on that.
Now I could just ignore it or delete it, but I think maybe it's worth responding to.

As regards the 100 point scale, I hate it for a number of reasons which I've probably posted here before. For one thing it's not a 100 point scale at all. At best it's a 50 point scale; however the range from 50 - 80 is meaningless. Anything from 50-70 is flawed, so what's the difference in the scale? Anything from 70-80 is un-flawed, but 'average' - bottom shelf, sub-$5 supermarket plonk. So we are left with a 20 point scale. In my view a score of 80-85 means a wine is drinkable but not worth buying, 85-90 means I'll buy it if the price is right and 90+ are the ones to look out for. I so rarely find wines that I'd rate above 95 so now I'm down to a 15 point scale.

For a while I resisted using it. In the early days of the blog I'd just list wines as recommended, highly recommended, good value etc. But eventually I gave in to the pressure of a scoring system and adopted the 100 point scale simply because it's the most recognised one. Maybe I should go back to the old system; it's certainly worth considering.

Could I replicate those scores twice in a blind tasting within 3 points? Probably not. I probably couldn't replicate them non-blind. I've found that wines show differently on different days. Bottle variation, palate variation, context - to me wines show differently on different days; that's part of their charm.

As for the issue of smoke taint from the Lockheed Fire in the 2009 vintage - I haven't seen that much of it to be honest. Sure, I picked up smoke in the 2009 Alfaro Estate and 2009 Pleasant Valley Estate. But I didn't pick it up in the 2009 Alfaro Lindsay Paige or the 2009 Pleasant Valley gold label, nor the 2009 Big Basin Woodruffe or Alfaro. In fact of the 5 tasting notes mentioning smoke only 2 were from the 2009 vintage. I find that interesting in itself.

As for my being a sophisticated wine expert- not really, just an enthusiastic amateur trying to cover the local wine region. I don't claim to be anything more. If you don't like my blog then fair enough; there are plenty more; you can even start your own.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Antonio Galloni praises the Santa Cruz Mountains

"There is no doubt in my mind the Santa Cruz Mountains is the greatest and most overlooked terroir in the United States. Period. Actually, it is probably more accurate to distinguish between the eastern and western part of a mountain range divided by the San Andreas Fault. While quite different in terms of the characteristics, both parts of the mountains are capable of world-class wines. From the famed Bordeaux influenced reds produced at Ridge and other nearby estates to the extraordinary, age worthy Chardonnays and Pinots of Mount Eden, to the younger wineries like Rhys, Varner and Big Basin, there is no doubt in my mind the Santa Cruz Mountains is the single most exciting place to visit in California. No other region offers the same mix of history, innovation and what appears to be virtually unlimited potential. To be sure, these hillside sites are capricious and hard to work with. But they are also capable of producing riveting, emotional, world-class wines." -- Antonio Galloni in Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

Thursday, May 24, 2012

All That Jazz

Ridge has been hosting quarterly tastings for wine bloggers for 3 years now. Tasting room manger Christopher Watkins always tries something new each time and for the most recent event he wanted to combine his love of music with his love of wine. So he came up with the novel idea of pairing wine with Jazz classics.

Now I'm no real Jazz aficionado; my dad was into big band stuff and he'd listen to the likes of Satchmo and Bird, but my tastes were more Santana and Budgie. Nevertheless I gave it a try while - more importantly - attempting to identify the four wines poured blind. If you're interested in the jazz aspect of the tasting then check out the Ridge wine blog.

Wine 1 showed lots of ripe red fruit; redcurrant, raspberry and liquorice. Incredibly rich and complex with herbal, minty notes and bags of smooth tannins. From the ripeness, complexity and the abundance of red fruits I assumed that it had to be a Zinfandel blend, but whatever it was I loved it. Eventually I guessed Geyserville; perhaps 2005.

Not even close; 2001 Monte Bello. Possibly the ripest vintage of Monte Bello ever made and recently upgraded to 99 points by Robert Parker. The clues were there in the herbal, minty and liquorice notes however I missed them because of the ripeness. Easily 96+ and insanely drinkable even at this early stage.

Wine 2 was smoky and earthy, with a hint of brett. Much lighter than the first (though not in colour), and dry with brambly black fruit and lots of tannin. Surely a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet; doesn't seem rich enough to be Monte Bello, so probably the Estate.

Pretty near the mark; the 2000 Monte Bello. A particularly cool vintage, hence the leaner fruit. Overshadowed somewhat by the riper wines on this tasting, but still a 92 point wine that'll give many old-world wines a run for their Euro.

Wine 3 had lots of dark fruit and earth; redcurrant and wild strawberry. I thought possibly Zinfandel but for some reason I convinced myself that it was the Lytton West Syrah.

Right vineyard, wrong grape. 1999 Lytton Springs - 70% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane, 3% Mataro and absolutely 0% Syrah. Very, very tasty; 95 points.

Wine 4 had a bright raspberry nose with a floral note; lots of sweet fruit and a distinctly port-like note to it. At first I was sure it was a Zinfandel, but the port note started to nag at me and I wondered if it was Grenache; it has a tendency to oxidise and is often used for port style wines such as Banyuls or Australian 'stickies'.

Should have gone with my first instinct - 1997 Geyserville, and again not a drop of Grenache. That port note is down to a particularly hot year. 74% Zinfandel, 15% Carignan, 10% Petite Sirah, 1% Mourvedre. My least favourite of the four because of that port note, but still a 92.
While Christopher digested our song pairings we moved on to three wines from Ridge's new "classic vineyards" series. These were previewed at the previous bloggers' tasting, which I missed due to being in Europe. However I tried the Cabernet at the Monte Bello components tasting (and purchased all three).

The wines fit into a pretty large market gap between Monte Bello and the rest of the Ridge range. They were created to tie in with Monte Bello's recognition by the Historic Vineyard Society, and are named after some of the early viticultural pioneers who settled the mountain prior to prohibition. They deserve a detailed article of their own, so for now here are some brief notes.

2009 Perrone Cabernet Franc
Herbal, floral nose. Young, sweet red fruit - redcurrant in particular. The most structured of the three; this needs plenty of time. Could be superb in 10+ years. 93+
2009 Klein Cabernet Sauvignon
Sweet bramble, straw nose. Beautiful rich layered black fruit Less tannic than the Perrone, and the most drinkable of the three at present. 94
2009 Torre Ranch Merlot Floral nose, with plum and bramble. Dry cocoa, black fruit, liquorice, anise. Needs time to come together. 92+

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Skov to close


In 2003 David and Annette Hunt purchased the Roudon Smith winery in Scotts Valley. They were joined in 2006 by Al and Diane Drewke; the partnership continued until 2011when the Hunts launched their own label, Skov. The launch appeared reasonably successful; the wines were well received and the wine club quickly grew to over 100 members

However barely a year later the family announced their intention to cease commercial wine production so as to spend more time with their teenage children. It appears that the label will be mothballed and the equipment sold.

Here's wishing the family all the best for the future.