Friday, May 30, 2008

After the fire

Now that the fire is all but out I decided to take a drive down to see how bad things are. It looks pretty simple on the map - just take 17 south, come off at the Summit Road exit and head south.

Unfortunately what Google Maps doesn't show you is that once you go past Highland Way and on to Loma Prieta Avenue the road turns into a Rally Cross off-road stage. Where there is a proper road surface it's pitted with potholes the size of gallon saucepans, but mostly it's just compacted dirt criss-crossed by dried up rivulets and covered with pointy looking stones. For the first time in my life I wished that I owned a 4WD SUV.

For a long time the only signs that there has even been a fire are the hand written signs saying "THANK YOU, FIRE FIGHTERS" (of which there are many) or the more professional banners promoting upcoming fundraising events. Then suddenly you round a bend and you see the unreal hellscape of a mountain side dotted with the burned stumps of Madrone trees. The road ahead was blocked by a temporary barrier and I could hear the sounds of heavy machinery, presumably clearing the burned remains of trees from the roadway. I took some photos and turned the car around. To the right was an area that had been bulldozed, presumably as a firebreak and staging area. There were small heaps of charred logs and a CDF official taking a break. He told me that he had been there all week, since the start. Everything is now under control; the only major concerns are for underground hot spots that could suddenly flare up again.

On the way back I passed several large houses, at least three of which had small vineyards installed. I called in at Burrell School and asked how they had got on. They were maybe 5 miles from the fire, but fortunately the wind was blowing in the opposite direction so they weren't in any real danger. Mark, the Vineyard Manager pointed at the hillside across the road, bare of trees - it had burned in the big fire of 1985. I asked if he'd heard of any other vineyards affected by the fire, but he wasn't aware of any.

I'd been wondering about the longer term effect of the fire on the grapes that were in flower, but everyone I've spoken to says there shouldn't be any lasting impact. There has been some soot and ash in the vineyards, particularly downwind in Corralitos at places like Windy Oaks and Woodruff, but nothing serious; no more than the amount of dust that would get kicked up by a tractor. Any significant pH changes in the soil can be corrected.

So hopefully everything is back to normal, just in time for the Vintners Festival the next two weekends. And I'd like to echo the sentiments of the people on Summit Road - a heartfelt THANK YOU FIRE FIGHTERS.

Burrell School

Now that the fire is out I took a drive down to Summit Road to check on the damage. More of that in a later post. On the way back I called in at Burrell School to see how they were doing and inquire whather the fire had affected them at all.

First, some background. In 1854 Lyman Burrell (pronounced BUR-el) acquired a thousand acre ranch in what was then the Rancho Soquel Augmentation. He later donated one acre to establish the school that bears his name. The Burrell School District was formed in 1877 and the school operated until 1951. The property was subsequently bought back at auction by descendants of the Burrell family and it was used as a meeting hall. In 1973 Anne and Dave Moulton purchased the building together with ten acres of land and established the Burrell School Vineyard and Winery.

The winery is easy to reach; it's just a few miles south-east of Highway 17 on Summit Road. The distinctive read and white school house and bell tower is hard to miss, and serves as the winery's insignia.

The estate vineyard is planted with several varietals including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and some recently grafted to Petite Verdot. There is also a separate vineyard known as the Estate Pichon Vineyard, located on the slopes of Mount Umunhum above Lexington Reservoir. Some grapes are also purchased, notably Pinot Noir from Veranda Vineyard and Zinfandel from Amador County.

2005 Estate Chardonnay Sightly atypical Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. Light on oak and with some tropical flavours, but still with plenty of acidity.

2006 Rose of Pinot Noir An unusual wine. Slightly sweet but with a lot of acidity, including a whiff of acetic acid/ethyl acetate. Not unpleasant, but not my style.

2004 Estate Pinot Noir Again, very unusual for a Pinot Noir. Very gamey and smoky; more Black Forest ham than black cherry.

2004 "Honor Roll" Estate Merlot I'd had this at home a couple of nights ago and am definitely a fan. Ripe brambles and tart cranberries, together with some good chocolatey oak. My favourite of the line-up. On sale at $24

2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Young and tannic, not showing its fruit easily. All these wines had been opened the day before and gassed, and was still tight. Definitely needs some cellar time.

2004 Amador County Zinfandel Light in weight for an Amador Zinfandel, and I mean that in a good way as I find many Zinfandels outside of the Santa Cruz Mountains or Dry Creek areas to be too heavy, overextracted and overripe. This was my second favourite.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summit Fire: 100% containment.

CDF is reporting 100% containment and estimates that it will be Friday evening before the blaze is fully controlled. All road closures and evacuations have been lifted, although there are still hazards such as hot spots and burned trees.

Following a damage inspection the total number of damaged buildings is now reported as 31 residences and 63 non-residential buildings. 12 people are reported as injured and the costs have risen to over $12M

View Larger Map

Summit Fire: Day 6. Under control?

Things are looking good - CDF is now reporting 85% containment with 100% expected later today. The revised total for the area destroyed now stands at 4270 acres, but the increase over yesterday's figure has been attributed to more accurate measurement of areas already affected rather than actual spreading. The fire did not spread overnight and is not expected to spread today. The number of houses threatened is down to just 15, with 7 reported injuries. Loma Prieta/Summit Road is expected to reopen today, but Mount Madonna remains closed. The cost of the operation is estimated at $11.2M

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fire Update: All clear from Windy Oaks

According to the CDF almost 4000 acres have been destroyed, but the fire is now 70% contained. Just 50 more acres were lost last night and minimal growth is expected today. The estimated number of residences threatened has been reduced from 500 to 100. Some roads have now been reopened (to residents, with proof of residency for security):

• Eureka Canyon Road and Rider Road to Ormsby Road
• Hazel Dell Road
• Buzzard Lagoon Road
• Browns Valley Road
• Croy Road

Mount Madonna Park and Loma Prieta Road/Summit Road remain closed.

I just received an email from Jim and Judy Schultze at Windy Oaks that said everything there is OK.

Update: as of 6PM the fire is now 80% contained - 4,270 acres destroyed. However that increased figure is mainly due to more accurate mapping information on acreage already burned.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Martin Ranch tasting at Vino Locale

Vino Locale is a small wine bar and wine shop in Palo Alto. It's at 431 Kipling, just opposite Zibibbo restaurant. As the name suggests, they emphasise local ingredients and focus on local wineries. They also organise regular tastings; last week Therese Martin of Martin Ranch was pouring. It was a blazing hot Thursday afternoon and we were outside in the shade. I met up with some of the usual suspects and we tasted five of the Martin Ranch wines. Since I've misplaced my notes, this is from memory. As usual Therese was charming and we had some interesting discussions on the recent crazy weather conditions while sipping the wines.

The first was a pleasant Rose of Cabernet Franc. This was the first time the Martins had made a rose; apparently the fruit wasn't looking ripe enough for a full red so they decided to give it a go. It works; the wine is bone dry and very refreshing for a hot summer afternoon. It's also reasonably priced at under $13.

The second wine was a very nice Merlot. Very easy drinking, good fruit. I liked it.

Next was a Syrah. I've commented before that I do like Martin Ranch Syrah but I think it needs a couple of years in the cellar and since I have no room for the larger bottle I'll just have to try to pick up older vintages at retail.

The fourth wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon. A good example of the softer, smoother wines that valley fruit tends to produce. Like the Merlot this was easy drinking now but would certainly benefit from 3-5 years in the cellar.

The last wine was a Petite Sirah. I'm still on the fence regarding Petite Sirah as a varietal; when young I find it hard and tannic, not particularly distinctive beyond that, and thus difficult to pair with food. I've yet to taste any good examples of older vintages by any producers. I think its best use is a blending grape, particularly with Zinfandel. Anyway, this was a typical example; some good black fruits and pepper but a lot of tannin.

Cronin Dinner

I've been very busy recently and haven't kept the blog up-to-date. I'm trying to catch up with some short posts on recent events.

My friend Wes Barton recently organised another Cronin dinner. As regular readers will know, K&L recently sold off much of the late Duane Cronin's wine library, which was snapped up by several local collectors. This was the third Cronin dinner that Wes has organised and it focussed on Cronin's Pinot Noirs. The guest of honour was Duane's widow, Nancy Cronin. It was a pleasure to meet her, but unfortunately she got called away early since her younger son Sam had a minor cycling accident.

Due to our babysitter cancelling at the last minute I wasn't able to take proper notes, so here are a few impressions.

Among the line-up was a pair of very early wines - a magnum of 1980 and bottle of 1981 Ventana Vineyard Pinot Noir. The 1980 was excellent; it had aged superbly and had plenty of vibrant fruit. The 81 had not fared so well; it had a strong flavour of shiitake mushrooms.

There was a vertical of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinots from 1993 to 1996. Of those the 1996 had fared the worst; it tasted older than he rest. The 93 and 95 got praise from the burgundy fans with the 95 (from a magnum) being pronounced very young. I enjoyed the 1994 with its slightly funky nose, though some tasters considered that it lacked complexity in comparison.

There was also a vertical of Peter Martin Ray Vineyard Pinots from the 1990s. The earlier vintages showed well, with good fruit, but the later vintages seemed overly acidic and unbalanced. Maybe they are in a "dumb phase" and just need more time.

There were also other Santa Cruz Pinots from McHenry and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, but for my tastes none of them were anything like as good as the Cronins.

SCMWA Vintners Festival

The annual SCMWA Vintners festival is coming up in June. The event takes place over two weekends from 11-5; the West side is on May 31st and June 1st, with the East side event on the following weekend. It's a big event, with around 38 wineries participating at a variety of locations. If you don't feel like driving around the mountains you can just head down to Santa Cruz, Saratoga or Los Gatos, where several wineries will be pouring at local restaurants. Tickets cost $30 in advance or $35 on the day, and are valid for both weekends, which means it's excellent value. As well as the wine tasting there are various other attractions such as complimentary nibbles, music, art shows, barrel tastings etc.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vineyards affected by the fire

Day three of the fire, and it's now claimed more land than the 2002 Croy fire. Latest CDF reports indicate 3,400 acres consumed, with only 25% containment. There is fog and light showers forecast for today, which certainly won't hurt, but I doubt that it'll make that much difference. My heart goes out to the almost 3,000 (and counting) brave fire fighters who will spend this Memorial Day weekend saving lives, livelihoods and memories, and also to those who have lost everything. The CDF report that at last count 17 residences and 11 "commercial buildings" have been destroyed.

The fire took hold in a sparsely populated area - as you can see, with over 3,400 acres destroyed less than 30 buildings were affected, but I have heard of a few small vineyards that are in the fire area. As I get more information I will update this post. There are many small vineyards scattered all over the mountains - a partial list is here.

Click on the links for the Google map locations of the vineyards.

Believed Destroyed

Kenneth Kim Vineyard
This is a small winery that I hadn't heard of until I read reports on A 20 acre property planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, producing a wine called "Cult". I can't find any records at all of this winery (though there is a similarly named property in Korea) so it may be that the winery hadn't officially released yet.


Reed's Vineyard
This 10 acre vineyard was planted with Tempranillo and Syrah and is managed by Paul Romero of Stefania Wine. The vineyard is very close to the fire - about 200-300 yards away, but in their blog Paul says that there's a good firebreak cleared around the property. The owner, Reed Wilburn was quoted in an interview in the San Jose Mercury News today. He is safe and well, and is working as a volunteer firefighter along Pole Line Road.

Windy Oaks
The fire has been heading south east towards Windy Oaks since it started and is less than a mile away. The winery is on the other side of Hazel Dell Road, which will hopefully act as a fire break; furthermore most of the winery and warehouse is metal and in a cleared area. Jim and Judy have been mailing out status updates to their friends and customers, and are prepared to evacuate if necessary.

Woodruff Vineyard
This is a 9 acre vineyard, mostly Pinot but with some Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. I helped prune that vineyard earlier this year. It's located to the south of Windy Oaks and is surrounded by farmland, so is probably more defensible than Windy Oaks. The grapes have been used by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards in the past, but are now managed by Paul Romero.

Muns Vineyard
Ed Muns' Pinot vineyard is located about 3 miles down Loma Prieta Road, due west of the point where the fire is believed to have started. With the fire mainly travelling to the south east it's looking safe, for now at least.

Erwin's Vineyard
A four acre Pinot Noir vineyard that has been used by Clos LaChance since 1997

Split Rail Vineyard
Another Pinot Noir vineyard, located at an elevation of 1,700 feet. The fruit has been used by David Bruce and Clos LaChance.

Legan Vineyard
The Legan vineyard is located in the south west part of the mountains, near Watsonville. It is another Pinot Noir vineyard, used by Clos LaChance.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fire: Links

Reports, live updates and photosPhoto from local CBS Website
CDF status
Fire Map
Mercury News
Photos from Mercury News
LA Times
Santa Cruz Sentinel
KTVU Fox 2
NBC 11
SF Chronicle #1
SF Chronicle #2
Associated Press


Photo from San Jose Mercury News website Twitter is going crazy this morning with reports of a large wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are reports in the Mercury News and LA Times, KPIX and all the other local news channels.

I believe this is the affected area although that's a cloud on the photo not smoke from the fire. (spooky!) EDIT: I was close. Here's a Google map, including photos, from the Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel. It's being updated with more photos as they come in.

The CDF Incident page is here. Most recent reports are that 2,500 acres are affected and the fire is out of control with 0% containment. Over 500 firefighters from all over the state are fighting the blaze and evacuating residents. There are 25 Fire Engines, 7 Air tankers and 3 Helicopters. Fire chiefs are estimating that it could affect up to 10,000 acres in all. The area is dotted with homes; at least 10 have been destroyed and hundreds of people are understood to have been evacuated. Helicopters are being used to drop water on the blaze and fire retardants onto nearby homes, but the fire is being blown south by strong (40MPH+) winds.

The nearest winery is Windy Oaks, a couple of miles to the south east in Corralitos. Reports from the area indicate that ash is falling but as yet the risk is low.

KTVU is quoting a resident in the area as saying one of their neighbours had been given a "burn permit" and that there had been smoldering fires on the property for three weeks - they were allegedly removing trees and brush off their property to make room for a vineyard. Other nearby residents have confirmed that the owner had been warned by local fire officials about the dangers of the smoldering embers more than once.

There was another major fire in the area a few years ago. In that fire over 3,000 acres were destroyed and over 30 houses. The area is lightly populated, but access is very difficult.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

1978 Sycamore Creek Cabernet Sauvignon


As any fule kno, the vast majority of wines aren't made to be aged. After 10 years many are past their prime, and after 30 years all but the best are utterly shot. So when you're buying a wine that's 30 years old you look for names that have proven track records of ageing - wines like Monte Bello, Grange or top Bordeaux.

You probably wouldn't automatically put Sycamore Creek in that category. In fact you probably haven't even heard of Sycamore Creek. The winery is located in Morgan Hill, in the Santa Clara Valley AVA. It's an area long known for wine growing; there's been a vineyard on the site for about 100 years. As far as I can work out it didn't operate as a winery after Prohibition until two former school teachers, Terry and Mary Kay Parks purchased it in 1975. They restored the old Zinfandel and Carignane vines and reopened the winery with the 1977 vintage, aiming to produce high quality wines. They won several medals at competitions and with only their second vintage produced a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon.

After a decade running the winery the Parks decided to retire a second time and sold the business to Morita Kazuaki, part of the Morita family that owns Sony. He exported most of the wines to Japan where they were poured at Sony corporate events. Then in 2005 the winery was purchased by Bill and Carolyn Holt, who also own the highly regarded Uvas Creek Vineyard. I've heard great things about the wines currently in barrel, but until those are ready to be released the winery is selling off the vintages made by the previous owners, which are frankly best avoided.

According to the winery web site, the vineyards were originally planted with Zinfandel and Carignane. The Parks replanted Chardonnay and Cabernet in 1977, which means the fruit for the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon must have been purchased.

I picked this up for just $30 at K&L, following a tip off by my friend Wes. He'd tried the same wine at a recent retrospective of 1978 California cabernets, and it had shown very well. The cork showed slight signs of seepage but the fill level was reasonable - at the base of the neck. Removing the cork proved difficult; it was very crumbly and the seepage had effectively glued it to the glass, but with a little effort it was removed practically intact. I decanted it to get rid of the fine cloud of sediment and was pleased to note that it smelled great. It tasted great too; layers of sweet fruit - brambles and blackcurrants - and fine, soft tannins. Tremendous value at $30; I was tempted to scoop the remaining bottles but showed commendable restraint, so last time I checked there were still some left.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

2005 Beauregard "Trout Gulch Vineyard" Chardonnay

If you've been following this blog recently you'll know that I'm impressed with the wine selection at Whole Foods. You'll also have noted that I enjoyed the Trout Gulch Chardonnay and was disappointed that it is no more.

I heard that Beauregard had taken over management (possibly ownership) of the vineyard, but was told that it had been renamed Pinto Valley. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a 2005 Beauregard Chardonnay from the Trout Gulch Vineyard for $25 at the Los Altos branch of Whole Foods recently. I'd gone in looking for the latest Varner releases (and found most of them - the 2006 Bee block Chardonnay is $34, the 2006 Ampitheatre is $31. No 2006 Home block, but they do have the 2005 Hidden Block Pinot at $38).

I opened it tonight, and have to say that it's a delicious wine. It's similar in both style and flavout to - and better than - the Trout Gulch version. It certainly tastes more concentrated; maybe some of that is down to vintage variation.

The initial nose shows oak and green apples which follow on to the palate; at times over the evening I also got butterscotch and apricot among other flavours. There's a subtle chalky/wet stone component to the finish, and of course there's plenty of acidity to balance it out - this is by no means a flabby butterball Chardonnay. Tremendous value, particularly given the 10% off for a mixed half case. For some reason it's not listed on the Beauregard website and I can't find it in wine-searcher, but it certainly exists.