To the west of the Santa Clara Valley lies the Diablo Range. In contrast to the verdant farmland and urban sprawl of Silicon Valley the mountain range is sparsely inhabited, and covered with dry brown grass and a few trees for most of the year. It doesn't look much like farmland, let alone vineyards. Yet just 3 miles west of Milpitas, hidden away at the top of a hill is Big Dog Vineyards.
Mark and Sandy Capalongan own a 40 acre ranch and home with lovely views of the bay. Long time friends of Woodside Vineyards' Brian Caselden, he was convinced the area was suitable for Cabernet grapes and encouraged them to plant a vineyard. "He said that it could all be done for the cost of a car. I didn't realize he was talking about a Maserati" jokes Mark. In 1997 they planted two blocks, totalling 6 acres, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
While most wineries worry about birds and frost, Big Dog's pests include deer, wild boars, gophers, wild turkeys and ground squirrels. A deer fence protects against the larger predators and an electric fence at the base of the vines deters the rodents.
The winery was built later as a multi-purpose building that also includes a 3 car garage and a combined barrel and tasting room. The first commercial vintage was made in 2005 and the winery opened its doors for tasting earlier this year.
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
A rather deep purple colour. Nose shows blueberry syrup and vanilla. Initially dry and tannic, the fruit emerges on the mid-palate. Nice finish. 90 $28
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, San Francisco Bay AVA
A much more red-brick colour. The nose is very different too; animal notes (big dog perhaps?) On the palate it's got lots of tannin and oak, but not showing much in the way of fruit. Maybe it just needs time, but for now it's an 85. $28.50
2005 Syrah, Napa
The nose is floral, with violet and lavender. It's got brambly fruit and green pepper, with a slightly spicy, peppery finish. 87 $28
2006 Cabernet Franc, Estate, San Francisco Bay AVA
A gamey, blackberry nose. Very good brambly fruit, meaty and oaky, with a medium finish. 89 $29.50
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinq Chevaux Vineyard, San Francisco Bay AVA
Cinq Chevaux is the name given to the block further from the house; it's still classified as estate fruit.
Smoky oak nose. Nice blackcurrant fruit with a hint of mint. Tannins show on the finish. 88 $26
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, San Francisco Bay AVA
There's a little more fruit on the nose than the Cinq Chevaux, and the oak is less evident. On the palate it seems a touch richer and more concentrated. 89 $28
Big Dog also makes a range of dessert wines, in the ruby port style with limited oak aging. The winery is open weekends in December until Christmas. Tasting is free, and for this month only there's an $8 per bottle discount if you buy 3 or more.