A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
WINES AND VINES
Text of the Speech Delivered by Dexter Ahlgren at the Santa Cruz Mountain Vintners' Wine Tasting for the Benefit of the David R. Bennion Trust Fund and Held
at the Paul Masson Champagne Cellars, Saratoga, California, July 24, 1988.
Before the Mission Fathers, the Santa Cruz Mountains was an inaccessible wild place of virgin Redwood forests, trees of awe inspiring size and beauty. After
the gold rush, loggers and lumbermen came to California, and the Santa Cruz Mountains were opened, first by trails, then wagon roads. Flumes and railroads
were developed to move logs to the mills, and to move the lumber on to the rest of the world. As the mountains were clear cut, stripped, the ancient pristine
groves of redwoods and mixed hardwood forests were destroyed.
With the clearing of the mountains, came sellers of the land. Some tracts were subdivided into small lots and sold as sites for summer homes. Others were
divided into parcels suitable for small farms which were planted to a variety of crops, and it was discovered that fruits of both tree and vine from these
mountain slopes, were consistently of superior quality.
The first wine grapes grown in the area were planted behind the Santa Cruz Mission in what is now Harvey West Park by the Mission fathers. In the too cool
river bottom land, the old Mission variety gave no hint of the quality of grapes yet to be grown in the mountains. The Jarvis brothers, while selling small farms
in the Vine Hill area 1869, entered into the grape growing and winemaking business. At about the same time, John Burns named Ben Lomond Mountain and
began agricultural development in the Bonny Doon area. In the 1870's the Santa Cruz County area of the Mountains faced its first threat of prohibition with a
so-called "Local Option Bill" which, happily, was soon declared unconstitutional. Most of the Santa Cruz Mountain wines in those days were sold off in bulk to
the San Francisco merchants, who sold the best of the wines as "European" and the worst of it as Californian. Most of the wine grapes were still the Mission
variety. Quality of those wines reflected the limits of the grape.
In 1878 John Jarvis bought some additional acreage including grapes which he grafted over to Malvoisei and Zinfandel. The next year George Mel bought a
parcel of land in the Vine Hill District which he planted to cuttings of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert and Muscadelle de Bourdelaise. The Mel
family, of French derivation, had connections with the family which owned Chateau Yquem, the source of their superior vine cuttings.
Just as the wines from these fine, young plantings were being proclaimed "Superior Quality," at the Third Annual Viticultural Convention in San Jose, the
destructive phylloxera was becoming recognized as a threat to the mountain growers, and by the last half of the 1890's phylloxera was in their vineyards.
But, winemaking continued to improve. Dr. John A. Stewart, a connoisseur and wine maker brought to the Santa Cruz Mountains dedication to improving
vineyards, intelligence in blending in the tradition of Bordeaux, and unbiased blind tasting for evaluation of the wines produced. Ben Lomond Wine Company's
J.F. Coope was buying wine from small producers and insisting on quality. By 1889 his wines at the Paris Exposition received honorable mention, and Santa
Cruz Mountain wines were receiving acclaim at the California State fairs as well.
Financial realities of increasingly small crops due to the replanting with high quality, low production vines yielding two tons or less on the unirrigated hillsides
made it increasingly clear to the Santa Cruz Mt. winegrowers that their only hope for financial success was to make very high quality wines.
Reports by Charles Bundschu and E.C. Priber of the California Viticultural Commission note, with surprise, the increase in quality of the wines tasted during a
visit to the area in 1890 over those tasted ten years prior, and proclaimed the Santa Cruz Mountain district to be superior in many respects. Bundschu reported
vine yield to be generally light, cultivation more difficult and expensive than in the level valleys, but accomplishments of the vineyardists toward the end of the
19th century showed the immense possibilities of the Santa Cruz Mountains as a grape growing and winemaking region.
The wines of the Ben Lomond Wine Company, reviewed by the Royal German Viticultural Commission, were "declared to be comparable to any made in
Europe," and in 1893 the wines of the Ben Lomond Wine Company and Dr. J.A. Stewart were awarded medals at the World's Exposition in Chicago. The next
year, The International Exposition held in San Francisco awarded Santa Cruz Mountain wines two gold medals.
On the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and to the north, Colonel Haraszthy tried, in the middle 1850's, to grow wine grapes in the area which is
now at the northern end of San Francisco's Crystal Springs reservoir. Too much fog and cold wind soon drove him to Sonoma. In the 1870's, grapes were
planted in the Woodside area, and Dr. Robert Tripp began to make some of the best wines of the region which he sold at his Woodside Store that still stands. E.
H. Rixford established "surely the most secure link to today's premium wine growing history ... above the town of Woodside... ."
LATE HARVEST, WINE HISTORY OF THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS, by
Michael Holland, 1983).
Rixford's 40 acres and La Questa label, which took a gold medal at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, demonstrated that the Santa Cruz
Mountains could produce the finest of long lived premium wines.
By 1890, there were 800 acres of grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains just in the area of Woodside, 2100 acres in Santa Cruz County, and by 1910, 9000 acres in
Santa Clara County. In the 1880's the Novitiate Winery was established in the hills behind Los
Gatos. From a small winery intended to produce sacramental wines, the Novitiate's land holdings and production grew over the years. The vineyards, some still
in production, were planted to a number of fine wine varieties and Santa Cruz Mountain wineries continue to make wine from these grapes.
The Pechetti winery was built in 1896 on Montebello Ridge. Pierre Klein also planted there about the same time and became a highly acclaimed maker of
Claret. Farther up the ridge, Dr. Osea Perrone established Montebello Vineyards.
Also in 1896 Paul Masson, a Burgundian who had come to California, become associated with Charles Le Franc, founder of New Almaden, married one of the
La Franc daughters, and purchased this land where we are today. There were already 12 acres of vines. He upgraded the plantings, and began making
champagne from Santa Cruz Mountain grapes. He selected this Santa Cruz Mountain property because of its climate, cooler than the valley floor where he had
been obtaining his grapes for champagne production. Later, he would be the first in the area to successfully grow vines grafted onto phylloxera resistant
Pierre Pourry planted 40 acres along Congress Springs Road and made fine wines for the San Francisco restaurant market. But growing acclaim could not
overcome the arrival of phylloxera, and the continuing chaos in the wine market as managed and manipulated by the San Francisco wine dealers. Thus ended
a period of great promise for the wine industry in the state at large.
There was depression in the 1880's; there were great surpluses of grapes, the economic wine wars of the 1890's; there was phylloxera, the Great Earthquake,
World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and then there was World War II. None of the above spelled great opportunity for mountain vintners.
With Prohibition, cooperage was abandoned, skills and values of winemaking were lost as people left the business to find other ways to make a living, or grew
old and died. Vineyards were uprooted and planted to fruit trees. We owe the sacramental nature of the Novitiate wines and the care of die-hard owners of
small scattered vineyards for the existence of what few old vines today survive in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And, Paul Masson, genius that he was, obtained
the only license in the United States during Prohibition for production of "Medicinal Champagne," and so kept going through the dry years.
In 1936, Martin Ray came to these mountains soon followed by Chaffee Hall who established Hallcrest just above Felton. These two focused on varietal grapes
of Burgundy and Bordeaux, labeling their estate bottled wines by variety of grape. Recognition of their fine wines joined the post Prohibition re-establishment
of the reputation for quality wine grapes of this region.
Frank Schoonmaker's post World War II writings following his travels through the Santa Cruz Mountains, firmly place this area in the highest class of wine
growing regions of the world. Following Martin Ray and Chaffee Hall, establishment of Ridge Vineyards in the 1960's by David and Fran Bennion and their
partners on Montebello Ridge, the Santa Cruz Mountains were brought to the world's attention again as the great Ridge Cabernets and Zinfandels became
known. The Bennions and Ridge have in fact been an underlying force in the resurgence of the wine industry in these mountains. Dave brought and shared
freely his knowledge, respect and experience in every aspect of the business and the mountains to every winemaker among us, available only for the asking.
We have all come to these Santa Cruz Mountains with the conviction that here is a place to grow the best of grapes, no matter the difficulties. And difficulties
there have been historically, and difficulties there remain. Steep and often remote vineyard sites, irrigation water non-existent or very dear, shortages of
adequate labor for vineyard work, antagonistic bureaucrats and politicians, high costs, small vineyard sites, production levels in the range of 1/2 to 2 tons per
acre, and as always, everywhere in this industry, but perhaps especially in these mountains, the ever-present limits of capital for investment in vineyards of
limited and difficult production.
About quality of grape, there is no question. Recent work on rootstocks provides us with specific choices to best suit our droughty sites, and with emerging
understanding of pruning and canopy control, these vineyards will produce increasingly fine wines, from, we do hope, an increasing number of vineyards,
slow, difficult and expensive though it may be to establish new vineyard sites here.
In the meantime, we continue to augment our supply of grapes by importing them into the mountains from other appellations, building our reputations as
winemakers and showing the world that the Santa Cruz Mountains continues to be a place attractive and tempting to those who have a fascination with the
work and the dreams of small production, deep dedication, and ambition for quality winemaking that are a part of the past and the present for mountain wine
people like ourselves who love our lives, our work, and our Santa Cruz Mountain wines.
Note: The historical background referenced above is drawn from LATE HARVEST, by Michael Holland, pub. 1983 and available from Wine Appreciation Guild,
San Francisco; and from LIKE MODERN EDENS, by Charles Sullivan, pub. 1982 by the California History Center, Cupertino, California.