Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On a Ridge at 2,000+ feet

One of the best perks of working at Stanford is that I get to take continuing studies classes for free. This quarter I've been taking Terroir: The Geology and Wines of California, taught by David Howell, which has been a real treat, with the first hour of the weekly class covering the geology of various California wine regions then another hour of tasting with a guest winemaker. We've tasted our way through Anderson Valley in Mendocino, Placer and Amador counties in the Sierra Foothills, Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, and various parts of Napa and Sonoma counties.

This past weekend the class went on a field trip to the Santa Cruz mountains and stopped off at the home plot of Woodside Vineyards (a collection of 26 small vineyards scattered around Woodside and managed by the same team), then headed up the hill to Thomas Fogarty and Ridge. The wine makers at each were extremely gracious with their time and patient with our many questions.

We tasted many Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, naturally, since the region falls into Zone 1, the coolest of them all -- alas, no Zins or tasty Rhone varietals here. While I'm not a Chard girl in any way, shape or form, most of the ones my class tasted were blissfully made in the Chablis style, with plenty of acidity, minerality -- these were not the oaky, buttery bombs found all too often in California. I wasn't wowed by any of the Pinots; instead of the earthy cherry aromas and smooth flavors usually associated with the varietal, I found them to be tarter, darker, and less complex than what I'm used to. Entirely quaffable, but lacking that special Pinot quality. The Cabs we sampled at Woodside and Ridge were better, with definite notes of tobacco, pepper and black currant.

Despite some serious winds and chilly temperatures, we were awed by the views from atop the mountain ridge, feeling the love from our hosts and charmed by the crew of pets -- from the tag-team Australian shepherd and German shepherd greeters at Woodside, to Mortimer the cat at Fogarty (who proudly dragged a bird he pounced on into the tasting room and batted it about for the crowd) and several roaming felines at Ridge.

Some interesting tidbits from the day... In the office/ tasting room/ fermentation room adorned with old wine labels and old wine bottles, Brian Caseldon, Woodside's winemaker, debunked the common myth that people are allergic to sulfites in wine. He noted that most canned or jarred foods (let alone dried fruits) contain more sulfur than what results from any use of sulfuric oxide added in the winemaking process to tame wild yeasts and unwanted bacteria. He suggests people who think they have this "allergy" take an antihistamine before tasting instead, just like many wine judges do.

With winemaker Michael Martella of Fogarty, we stood on the high ground overlooking the south and east bays. Here, the vines that face east ripen fastest because as the sun rises, the radiant heat warms the leaves that sit on the ridges above the fog or cloud level. Michael treated us to an alfresco tasting of estate and non-estate Chards & Pinots outside his own garage, a scene which soon turned into a sidewalk social, with classmates mingling and sipping.

At Ridge we met up with legendary septuagenarian Paul Draper, a true scholar of the winemaking process, who was eager to get his own facts about the geology of the area straight. After Professor Howell answered some of his questions, he tackled ours with extremely thorough (and quite technical although accessible) responses, which spanned 5 or 10 minutes and often finished with him graciously apologizing for their length. But who can find fault with such genuine enthusiasm?

What struck me was the rigorous tasting and technical processes that goes into the wines at Ridge, which has a very sophisticated lab. We tasted the '06 Monte Bello Cab from the barrel and it was already showing wonderful hints of rich berries, spice and pepper. In the tasting room we got a sneak preview of the '05 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay and Cab, which will be out in April and oogled a bottle of the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cab that won the Judgment of Paris rematch in 2006.

Now that's what I call a field trip!