Sunday, November 20, 2011

Heart O' The Mountain

The Heart O' The Mountain estate sits on a southwest facing slope on Mount Roberta near Scotts Valley, 1000 feet above Monterey Bay. It was originally established in 1881 when Pierre and Sada Cornwall purchased an 85 acre parcel for $500. Cornwall was a lawyer and a partner in the Coldwell, Cornwall and Banker real estate firm. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and established the Santa Sada winery, which apparently continued producing until Prohibition forced its closure. Cornwall also purchased additional neighbouring land, bringing the total to 154 acres.

In 1940 the property was purchased by the director Alfred Hitchcock, who had recently moved from England. The vineyards were replanted with Riesling and the fruit sold to the re-opened Cresta Blanca winery in Livermore. Hitchcock lived there on and off for the next 30 years and was noted for hosting lavish parties attended by many Hollywood celebrities. When the Hitchcocks sold the property in the 1970s the vineyard was neglected and became overgrown. It was subsequently purchased in 1978 by the Brassfield family, founders of GNLD - a successful network marketing company that sold nutrition supplements.

The property is only reachable via a long, winding single track road. As you climb up the mountain there are some great views towards the coast, but it's only when you reach the top that you'll realise what Cornwall and Hitchcock saw in it. The Brassfield family have tried to preserve the property the way that Hitchcock kept it; they have a self-guided walking tour around the buildings and gardens.

When Bob Brassfield retired in 2000 he and his son Brandon decided to restore the property's viticultural heritage. Together with vineyard manager Jim Bauer they planted Pinot Noir, selecting five Dijon and Pommard clones. The first harvest was in 2004; just two barrels were made and were not released commercially. Of the 150+ acres in the estate a scant 6.5 acres are under vines. There are a couple of additional blocks that would be suitable, but the family don't have plans to extend beyond around 1,000 cases.

Each of the clones is harvested, destemmed and vinted separately in small bins, with manual punch-downs. Yeast is added to most lots, though the winery occasionally experiments with wild yeast fermentations on small batches. Ageing is for around 18 months in French oak, with the Estate being blended just prior to bottling.

Initially the winery released a single Estate Pinot Noir; it's available at a few local restaurants and specialist retailers, such as Vinocruz and Unwined. As the vines matured and produced more fruit they began bottling some of the individual clones separately, beginning in 2006 with the Pommard clone - these are available to wine club members only.

The winery has no tasting facility due to its remote location, but holds occasional events for club members only. I was recently invited to the autumn release party.

2007 High Valley Winery Fume Blanc
From a winery in Lake County owned by Bob's brother, Dustin Brassfield.
Nose of citrus - particularly grapefruit - and some smoke.
On the palate it's very fruity and soft with notes of 'Starburst' candy. 84

2008 Estate Pinot Noir
Big, perfumed nose - spicy, smoky and ripe. Notes of cherry, strawberry and spice. Tannin and Oak shows on the finish 90

2008 Clone 828 Pinot Noir
Gamey, meaty nose with floral notes. Black cherry, herbs, cloves and dried orange peel. Dry, tannic finish. 90

2009 Wild Yeast Pinot Noir
Very fruity; cherry, cranberry, pear drops - this follows on the palate, adding white pepper. Ripe tannins. 90

2009 Clone 115 Pinot Noir
Earthy, cherry and smoke. Rustic flavours of cherry, herb, black pepper, clove and orange peel. 90

2009 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir
Bright nose of cherry and clove. Strawberry, cherry, orange and some spice. 91

2008 Roberts' Reserve Pinot Noir
Just half a barrel was made of this private blend.
Nose is smoky with cherry, pear drops, allspice and earth. The spicy palate shows raspberry, cherry, cinnamon and clove. 93

Saturday, November 19, 2011

2011 Vintage Report - First Look

Ascona Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Wine Spectator magazine recently published a series of reports on the 2011 vintage. Their report on California covers Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, but omits the area in between. So here is a provisional report on the 2011 vintage for the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley.

Let's start by getting some boring science stuff out of the way.
Last winter saw one of the strongest La NiƱa events ever recorded. When this occurs the surface temperature of equatorial waters cools by several degrees, which in turn alters the path of the jet stream that crosses the USA. The effect usually fades in spring, but in 2011 it remained strong much later than usual. The jet stream remained farther south and blew more strongly. The effects were felt across the country, with many states experiencing near record highs or lows of temperature and rainfall.

In California the effect resulted in a spring that was colder, wetter and later than usual. The cold weather delayed budbreak, while rains during bloom affected 'set' - the formation of the grape cluster as flowers turn into berries. Yields were affected across the state, with many regions reporting 20% to 30% below normal, but the Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards were impacted more severely, particularly at higher elevations. Growers are typically reporting yields 40% to 60% below normal, with some vineyards being written off entirely.

Summer was long and cool without unexpected heat spikes; this increased risk of mildew - growers had to be diligent about spraying. Mary Lindsay of Muns Vineyard reported adding potassium to sprays to help boost vine health and encourage better and more even ripening throughout the vineyard. The cool weather did little to help the already late running harvest, and some light October rains brought an additional threat of botrytis. Paul Romero of Stefania Wine called it "a tough, unhappy year - 2010's work with 2008's yields ... larger berries than 2008 but close in quality [and] without the tannin issues".

On the positive side, the long, cool season and low yields rewarded those who had looked after their vines with crops of high quality fruit. Many growers report good balance of acids, fruit intensity and tannic structure, with full ripeness at lower sugar levels. Marty Mathis of Kathryn Kennedy Vineyards described their Estate Cabernet harvest numbers as "perfect as I have ever seen in my 30 vintages".
The expectation is for some elegant, balanced wines at lower alcohol levels. Bradley Brown of Big Basin vineyards said "Quality appears to be remarkable and for those who picked at the right time and maintained healthy vineyards, this could be one of the best vintages in a long time."