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Vine Hill Winery

 
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VINE HILL WINERY CLOSED AS OF 11/1/12

The property known today as Vine Hill Winery has a long history, dating to 1863, when George and John Jarvis began land buys and started clearing the land for vineyards. By the 1880s, the Jarvis Brothers had planted all 300 acres to vineyards in what was then known as the Vine Hill District. The winery began to fall on hard times around the time of the general depression in 1876 and some of John’s holdings (his brother George had sold his shares and moved his “Jarvis Wine & Brandy Co.” to Santa Clara) were repossessed by the bank. In 1877, John managed to buy back some land from a business associate, Alfred Lay, and he named the land Union Vineyard, which is today’s Vine Hill Winery. Union Vineyard consisted of 63 acres of various varieties including Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Mourvedre, Petite Pinot, Zinfandel, Malvoisie and Balaret with a small amount of table grapes. By 1890, the wines from Vine Hill had gained recognition as the wines were shipped to the East Coast. Energies were turning to producing premium wines but phylloxera and a disastrous fire in 1899 destroyed much of the vineyard. When John Jarvis died in 1892 at the age of 60, he left the Union Vineyard to his son Henry who planted Zinfandel vines on the property. The vineyard was continuously farmed before and after Prohibition with the vines surviving until David Bruce replanted the vineyard in 1968.

The Pesenti-Locatelli family acquired the mountain vineyard in 1935. David Bruce began buying Zinfandel from Joe Locatelli in the early 1960s. Bruce bought the vineyard (today’s Vine Hill) in 1968, removed the Zinfandel vines and replanted the vineyard to the Wente clone of Pinot Noir (on its own roots). At the same time, Ken Burnap, a restaurateur from Orange County (The Hobbit) with a passion for Pinot Noir was searching for the perfect site to source Pinot Noir in Northern California. He had studied Burgundy for years, traveled to Burgundy with Joseph Swan and Kermit Lynch, and had established a number of criteria for Pinot Noir vineyard success. He was taken by Bruce’s 1968 Zinfandel produced from Bruce’s vineyard. Sipping Pinot Noir one day together, Bruce told Burnap he was selling the mountain vineyard. After performing soil samples and climate research, Ken acquired the 26-acre Vine Hill property in 1974 and named it Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. The first vintage of Pinot Noir from the property in 1975 was a success and wine writer Jerry Mead told Burnap that his first Pinot Noir was his best ever.

Burnap’s Pinot Noirs were rustic, acidic and tannic and took many years to mature. They were stylistically like no other California Pinot Noirs then or since. Never considered a vin de garde, his Pinot Noirs still remain an important legacy in the history of Pinot Noir in California. Jeff Emery joined Burnap in 1979 and remained until the property was sold. Emery has continued the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard label and has maintained the tradition of producing wines that reflect the terroir of the region, but he has improved the acid, tannin and fruit balance and crafts Pinot Noirs that are more approachable early on. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard is now located in Santa Cruz in the Surf City Vintners complex.

Burnap sold his Vine Hill property to a group of twelve investors in 2004. The new owners are Nick and Celeste Guerrero, Nat and Laura Simons and nine other couples. Nick Guerrero has a degree in Fermentation Science from University California Davis and worked at Anheuser-Busch on the East Coast following graduation. He later obtained an MBA and MPH degree from University California Berkeley and pursued a second career in the health care field. His employer was in Ohio and he commuted from the West Coast each week from the West Coast. He had been making wine in his garage since 1991 and five couples eventually joined in. Disenchanted with the weekly travel and inspired by his winemaking efforts, he decided to take on the wine business full time.

In 2005 the owners hired Sal Godinez, an experienced winemaker trained at Saintsbury in the Napa Valley and a close friend of Guerrero. Godinez’s story is an inspiring one. He was born in the small town of Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico and first came to California in 1980 as a teenager. He settled in Lompoc and picked field crops. After returning to Mexico and finishing high school, he returned to California at his sister’s urgings. Her husband worked in the vineyard at Freemark Abbey. Godinez was hired as a gardener at the winery and 18 months later landed a position as a cellar worker. He took courses in enology at Napa Valley Junior College. In 1996 Saintsbury’s winemaker, Byron Kosuge, after viewing Godinez’s resume, hired him as a cellar master was hired as a gardener at Freemark Abbey Winery. Godinez helped craft the first Dijon clone based wine in California from the Brown Ranch Vineyard in 1996. While in Napa, Godinez had lived next door to Guerrero’s mother in St. Helena and Guerrero was impressed with his talents and valued his friendship. Remarkably, Godinez, who as a youngster picked lettuce in the fields of California, had become the winemaker for a prestigious winery.

The original Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard has been replanted (the last vintage from the original plantings was 2004) with more than twice the density (from 3,000 vines to 7,000 vines) using two rootstocks and Dijon clones 26 115, 667, 777 and 828. Because the original vines were diseased, only one vine was saved. Rachel Ormes is the vineyard manager. The new owner’s intent is to carry on the long and storied legacy of grape growing and winemaking at this historic property.

Two labels are under the Wines of Vine Hill umbrella: Gatos Locos of Vine Hill, value priced wines for fun drinking ( 2005 and 2006 vintages available, $29 to $41) and Cumbre of Vine Hill, which are serious Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noirs (2006 vintage in release, $49 to $59). Current production is less than 1,000 cases. The wines are available on the website. 831-427-0436.

Reviewed Wines

2008 Vine Hill Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $30. · Shy, but pleasant aromas of dark berries and exotic woods. Soft and smooth in the mouth, with a charming array of black cherry and boysenberry fruit, accented with flavors of cola and grilled mushrooms. Nicely crafted with admirable harmony, this wine goes down easy. Very good. Reviewed March 12, 2011 ARTICLE »