Wine Buzz

The Good Struggle:

Making Stellar Wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains

During winter time storms whip savagely through the pass where Burrell School Vineyards is located high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, creating a spectral and awesome atmosphere that would leave most people more than a little shaken. Tucked cozily away in the hundred-plus year-old red schoolhouse they call home and that is the namesake of their winery, Dave and Anne Moulton don’t mind the inclement weather one bit. Quite the opposite: “I find it exciting,” explains Anne.

The Santa Cruz Mountains, situated just inland from California’s Pacific coastline south of San Francisco, have long challenged the mettle of adventurers who aim to carve out a life and a living in their midst. The upside? The region’s varied microclimates, strong marine influence, myriad exposures and complex soils create some of the world’s most interesting wines. Plus, it’s absolutely gorgeous there. For folks like the Moultons, this combination is pretty near perfection and more than enough reason to put up with the windy backcountry roads and freaky winter storms that characterize the region.

Hard-learned lessons
That’s not to say that there haven’t been set-backs for the Moultons since staking their claim at the historic property. When they moved over 30 years ago into the schoolhouse built around 1890 by Santa Cruz mountains pioneer Lyman Burrell, the Moultons, by their own account, “did everything wrong.” With no formal education in viticulture, the couple botched everything from rootstock selection to the irrigation system design. The land was not forgiving; it soon became clear that the aspiring vintners would need to tear everything out and begin again.

Wiser and more determined than ever, the Moultons did their homework the second time around. A self-imposed crash course in running an estate winery saw Dave attend viticulture and oenology classes at Davis while Anne hit the books at home. Four years and 3,200 hand-planted vines later, they were back in business. Anne, who spent more than 600 hours planting vines in crisp late winter weather, says that what kept her going was anticipating her first glass of Chardonnay produced from the vines. “I still get goose bumps,” she says of walking amongst Burrell School Vineyards’ estate vines at their 1,600-ft elevation property overlooking the stunning Pine Flats plateau.

High marks for the Moultons
Today the Moultons’ hard work and passion is evident in their wines, many of which have netted impressive awards including a Best of State honor at the California State Fair for their Cabernet Franc, the winery’s signature varietal. Modeled after wines made in France’s renowned Chinon appellation, the Burrell School Vineyards 2003 Estate Pichon Vineyard Cabernet Franc enchants with black cherry and blackberry aromas and flavors underpinned by appealing notes of pepper, cocoa, bell pepper and well-integrated American oak. The Chinon style is evident in the wine’s assertive pepper notes, which are considered a key characteristic of the Cabernet Franc grape variety.

Burrell School Vineyards also produces a host of other varietal wines made mostly from estate grown fruit. The broad selection includes Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Why so many varietals? The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area), which spans more than 35,000 acres between Silicon Valley to the east and Monterey Bay to the west, is a veritable chameleon in terms of grape variety suitability. Its diverse soil types, microclimates and exposures, coupled with its fortuitous proximity to the cooling Pacific, can be thanked for making it one of the most diverse winegrowing regions on the planet. One might say the region makes up in varietal flexibility what it lacks in physical accessibility and hospitable weather during the winter months.

Struggle is a good thing
This is great news for creative winemakers like Dave Moulton who enjoy experimenting with different grape varieties. Besides Dave’s outstanding Cabernet Franc, the Burrell School Vineyards 2002 Reserve Bottling Pinot Noir is also one to seek out, with suave tannins and lush red fruit flavors deftly backed by earth and spice. The wine is a great example of the appealing balance between earth- and fruit-driven flavors that wines made from mountainous soils often strike. This balance is a result of the vines’ need to struggle through thin mountain topsoil to reach critical nutrients beneath. The general rule of thumb in the wine world, after all, is the poorer the soil, the better the wine.

And so when it comes to grapevines, struggle is a good thing. Fortunately for consumers of Santa Cruz Mountains wines, there’s lots of struggling to be found in the region, amongst both the vines themselves and the brave folks like the Moultons with enough mettle to tend them. Their efforts are consistently rewarded with dynamite mountain wines teeming with ripe fruit and layered complexity. Clearly, Dave and Anne deserve an A+ for this lesson.

Visiting Burrell School Vineyards
Burrell School Vineyards is open for visitors Thursday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm and by appointment. Weekends are the most popular time to visit, and guests are encouraged to relax on the expansive deck behind the tasting room to enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, Pine Flats plateau and Big Basin.

Directions and further details can be found at the BSV website.

Burrell School Vineyards
24060 Summit Rd
Los Gatos, CA 95033
Tasting: open Thurs-Sun and by appointment
Tel: (408) 353-6290