Santa Clara Valley has a rich history of grape growing and wine making. When the first Spanish settlers came they found grapes growing wild; the area became known as Cañada de las Uvas, now Uvas Canyon. Soon after, Etienne Thee and Charles Le Franc established the Almaden winery, which was later owned by Paul Masson. At one time the names Paul Masson and Almaden were synonymous with quality; a far cry from the wines that bear their names today.
By 1980, the Santa Cruz Mountains had taken over the quality mantle; the valley languished and became known for a cluster of small family wineries clustered around the Hecker Pass area. Despite the presence of some quality producers such as Sycamore Creek (the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon is sublime) and Sarah's Vineyard, when the boundaries of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA were drawn the valley was carefully excluded, while including other low elevation producers such as Kathryn Kennedy.
But in recent years a change has been brewing. Driven by the high cost and low availability of suitable vineyard land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, growers have started to take another look at the valley. The most obvious sign is the 150 acre Clos LaChance estate vineyard in San Martin, but others are more subtle.
Bill Holt and Ted Medeiros began growing grapes at the Uvas Creek vineyard, located along the creek that marks the border between the AVAs, in 1998. Since then they have quietly built up a reputation for growing some of the finest Cabernet in the state. Stefania's 2005 Uvas Creek Cabernet was recently featured in the DC Examiner as one of California's undiscovered "Wine Nuggets", though perhaps undiscovered isn't the right term to use for a wine that has a waiting list to purchase. In 2007 Bill purchased Sycamore Creek. Since the 1980s the property had been owned by a member of the Morita family, who own Sony, and the wine had been almost exclusively exported and poured at corporate functions. The 2007 Sycamore Creek Zinfandel recently won double Gold at the SF Chronicle wine festival.
Sarah's Vineyard was purchased by Tim Slater in 2001. Since then there has been significant investment in the property, both in terms of winemaking facilities and in the vineyards. New vineyards have been planted, while the old ones have been renovated, including replacing the old trellising and in some cases changing the orientation of the vines. The efforts have paid off, with two Best Of Class awards, as well as Gold for the estate Pinot and Silver for the estate Chardonnay.
Buying an established winery is one thing; building a new one is a different matter. Santa Clara Valley now has two new wineries; Jason-Stephens is a joint venture between winemaker Jason Goelz and grower Stephen Dorcich, based in a brand new facility in Dorcich's 79 acre Uvas Canyon vineyard. The first releases, a brace of 2006 Cabernets, each scored Bronze in the Chronicle competition. The vineyard certainly has potential; the 2006 Creekview Vineyard Syrah was sourced from here and it scored double Gold. It will take time to replace the old sprawling trellising, but this is one to watch.
The other new winery that I mentioned is Castillo's Hillside Shire. Located in Morgan Hill they just released their 2007 vintage. As yet I haven't had the opportunity to taste the wines, but they will be open for the Santa Clara Valley passport event later in the month.
Most of the above mentioned wines, and many more, will be poured at the Santa Clara Valley tasting event at Bella Mia on Wednesday.