Can America's best coffee grower also be a top winemaker? Marin Artukovich thinks so. He established the Koa Plantation on Hawai'i over 20 years ago and soon established a reputation for quality; so much so that Forbes selected them as the coffee grower in an article on 50 of America's Best.
Around 2007 he sold a majority stake in the plantation and relocated to California, buying an 18 acre parcel just north of Lake Hennessy and established the label Serene Cellars. Early releases were from purchased Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc; the first estate release was from 2008.
However having lived in Hawai'i for so long, he found that Napa's ambiance didn't quite suit him, so he purchased a new property high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from Burrell School. The tasting room in Napa was closed, and two new ones were opened; the one on Highland Road is part of the Summit Wineries group while the other in Santa Cruz is part of the Surf City Vintners on Ingalls Street.
The winery still uses the Serene Cellars brand for its Napa wines; all others are sold under the name DaVine cellars. There is an extensive range of varieties from all over, including several sourced from the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley.
The tasting room in Santa Cruz is open daily and is a light-hearted affair. Most of the wines have nicknames such as Classy, Macho and Happy Ending. The staff offer you chocolate-covered coffee beans to taste alongside the wines, and the tasting room even has it's regular visitor, with her name affixed to her place at the bar. There are several flights available; each comprises 6 wines and costs $10 except for the reserve tasting which costs $20, and the fee is comped with purchase.
Since I was driving I concentrated on the local wines, which are all in the DaVine Cellars range.
2012 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
A first sample seemed somewhat oxidized, so a fresh bottle was opened. The nose showed lots of butterscotch and vanilla, and flavors of sweet apple pie with not much acidity. It seemed rather too sweet for my taste, and quite mature for a 2012. $32
2013Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Again quite sweet. Showed less of the butterscotch than the 2012; instead had some crisp stone fruit on the nose and peach flavors. $32
2012 'Sweet Thang' Merlot, Regan Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
The nose is ripe and hot - almost port-like (it was a little warm, and the ABV is almost 15%).
On the palate there's lots of sweet, jammy fruit and a tannic finish. $54
2013 Pinot Noir, Fog's Edge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Possessing the funky barnyard nose that you often get from Pinot. On the palate it's rich with flavors of soy and cooked cherry and lots of tannin.
2013 Sangiovese, Solis Vineyard, Santa Clara County
Interesting nose, reminiscent of a highland malt whisky; notes of heather among the oak.
Ripe and fruity, with flavors of preserved cherry and again plenty of tannin. $36
My companions tried some of the Serene Cellars wines, including a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc called "Hot Flash" that was sweet and citrus, and slightly effervescent due to the injection of a small amount of CO2 gas ($24), and a silky soft, sweet 2009 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon called "Dos Hombres" that was in barrel for over 4 years. ($85)
Overall MJA Vineyards' style emphasizes sweet fruit over structure; approachability over ageability. And while there's nothing wrong with that - I can think of plenty of successful wineries that have taken that approach - I found the prices to be significantly higher than I would be prepared to pay.