Wonderful wine, on time

Justice II, a three-year-old German shepherd, rests amongst the grape vines for Sycamore Creek Vineyards.

After several challenging years that included drought, mold, unseasonably cool temperatures and even hungry nematodes, 2012 is shaping up to be “pure perfection” and “just wonderful” for many of Santa Clara Valley’s 22 wineries.

“2009 was a difficult year, 2010 was terrible and 2011 was worse,” recapped Solis Winery co-owner Mike Vanni, who expects to harvest 85 tons of grapes this fall. “This year was actually a normal year. We had great ripening weather, and it wasn’t too hot. It was just a perfect, consistent, warm season.”

When 2012 Solis vintages hit the shelves several years out (save for the 2012 Fiano this spring), Vanni expects wines from this year will boast “exceptional” flavor complexities thanks to a gradual ripening process. In the meantime, he recommends swinging by the tasting room at 3920 Hecker Pass Highway and picking up a bottle of the 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), which was just released.

“We’re very excited about that,” he noted of the wine, described as having a “silky mouth feel that lingers to a medium-long creamy finish reminiscent of roasted coffee, maple and caramel.”

Nestled further west in the green foothills of Mt. Madonna on Redwood Retreat Road, Martin Ranch was almost three-fourths of the way through picking its 13 acres of estate-farmed fruit as of Tuesday. Vintner Dan Martin, who along with his wife Therese runs the winery, expanded his white wines this year to include Muscat, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.

Like Vanni, Martin describes 2012 with glowing satisfaction.

“The last four years in this area have not been stellar,” he said. “But this one is just wonderful.”

Winemaker Tom Moller of the colorful boutique winery Satori Cellars on Buena Vista Avenue in San Martin agrees: It’s been nice to have more typical weather.

“I’m very happy to be done harvesting,” he said earlier this week. “It’s a huge relief.”

In addition to Satori’s repertoire of reds that include Syrah, petite sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab franc and Merlot, Moller plans on releasing this Christmas a brand-new late harvest Zinfandel, a sweet wine called Adorah’s December Harvest Zinfandel.”

“It’s named after my wife Sandy’s alter ego,” Moller chuckles.

The good reports are consistent across the board. Winemaker Jason Robideaux of Clos La Chance Winery on Hummingbird Lane called the 2012 growing season “pure perfection” that “gave us our best-looking crop to date” and some of the “highest-quality grapes that we have ever seen off the estate.”

A relative newcomer to Santa Clara County’s winery scene is blossoming nicely. The petite but bustling Lightheart Cellars, run by husband/wife team Sheldon and Jane Haynie, is crushing around 22 tons of grapes this year. They’re bringing in new varietals and expanded their farming to 15 acres. Lightheart just released its 2011 Carneros Chardonnay ($24) and is set to release a Merlot Rose in 2013. Lightheart is also probably the only winery around these parts selling mead.

Brewed by Sheldon’s son-in-law, Alderin’s Mead Ostara ($23) is a wine made with honey instead of grapes or other fruit. It possesses a cider-like blend of sweetness and tang.

Alas, Mother Nature did manage to hurl one curveball this year. Not all wineries dodged the icy bullet that took South County by surprise Oct. 10.

“I was like, ‘Oh, (crap),’” recalled winemaker Jason Goelz of Jason-Stephens Winery, on his reaction to standing inside the tasting room at 11775 Watsonville Road and watching hail as large as marbles come careening out of the sky.

Jason-Stephens lost about 20 to 25 percent of its crops because of the unusual precipitation. Overall, Goelz expects to harvest about 270 tons of grapes, equating to about 18,000 cases, or 225,000 bottles.

Last week, pickers combed steadily through the shaded rows of grapevines, dropping purple clusters of Merlot into big blue buckets. Goelz and his team ran around like worker bees, loading Zinfandel grapes into a $12,000 berry washer, which cleanses the grapes of bacteria and earthy debris for a “brighter, fresher taste.”

One of Goelz’s favorite sippers right now is the 2010 estate Mourvèdre, ($28) a delicate wine on the fruitier side and “one of the lightest red wines that I’ve made,” he notes.

Just north of Jason-Stephens on Watsonville Road, Sycamore Creek Vineyards and Winery took its share of the chilly pelting during the Oct. 10 hailstorm, losing about 15 percent of its crops on 20 planted acres.

“It was a crapshoot after the rain and the hail,” says owner Bill Holt. “But we’re in pretty good shape.”

Overall, Holt expects to harvest 25 tons of estate fruit, yielding 50 cases per ton.

Like Goelz, Holt was busily darting from one project to another on Friday. He made a point to open up shop early Friday for a pair of tasters on vacation from Greensburg, Ind.

“This was the first winery I ever went to,” said Malcolm Meer, 59, who stopped in at Sycamore 30 years ago while visiting family in Morgan Hill.

Sycamore’s 2009 Flagship Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($42.95) comes highly recommended. This summer, the winery will also be releasing a new “Cab blanc” created by winemaker Stephan Kidder; a rose-like creation Holt describes as a great “pool party wine” that tastes “just like candy.”

Just before he zipped away on a tractor, Holt – a spry personality and veteran vintner for decades, now – noted “you can grow some awesome fruit in the Santa Clara Valley if you take care of business. But you better not be faint of heart.”

2011: There were 4,915 tons harvested, valued at $6.6 million
2010: 5,493.6 tons harvested, valued at $7 million
2009: 5,609 tons harvested, valued at $6.9 million
2008: 4,530 tons harvested, valued at $6.5 million
2007: 4,650 tons harvested, valued at $6.1 million
2006: 6,650 tons harvested, valued at $7.4 million
2005: 6,880 tons harvested, valued at $7.3 million
2004: 6,171 tons harvested, valued at $6.1 million
2003: 5,376 tons harvested, valued at $6.5 million
2002: 6,608 tons harvested, valued $7.9 million
2001: 6,650 tons harvested, valued at $9.4 million
2000: 6,821 tons harvested, valued at $10.4 million
Source: Santa Clara County Division of Agriculture

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