Ripe Dream

The 2002 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon.

Fernwood Cellars is off the beaten path when it comes to
wineries. But it’s not off the beaten path when it comes to
Gilroy – Fernwood Cellars is off the beaten path when it comes to wineries. But it’s not off the beaten path when it comes to awards.

The small family-owned operation is nestled against the east side of the Santa Cruz mountains at the end of a winding, one-lane road in Gilroy surrounded by redwood trees and ferns on one side, with oak and manzanita trees on the other.

The winery is owned and managed by Matt Oetinger, whose family has owned the land known as Redwood Retreat Ranch for more than a century, though the first vines were planted in just 1999. Oetinger comes up against two prejudices when he pitches the wines from his young vineyards to wine drinkers and sellers.

“First is the age prejudice,” Oetinger said. “People say, ‘Oh, daddy owns the winery.’ They think anyone under 45 doesn’t know what they are doing. The other prejudice is having a Gilroy address.”

Oetinger explained people who aren’t familiar with the area think of Gilroy as a hot place to grow garlic, not the optimal place for growing good grapes. Located out in the country on the west side of the city, his vineyards benefit from warm summer days and cool evenings when the fog creeps over the ridge near his ranch home, pushing cooler air down around the grapes.

“It can get 30 degrees cooler in the evenings,” he said. “That helps us maintain our acids which contributes to the wines.”

He is focused on the quality of the wine and puts his money into the equipment that will change the taste and feel of the wine, such as the French oak barrels which can go for $850 a piece and the wine press, while using a second-hand forklift to move boxes around.

“There are not a lot of granite counter tops or marble floors,” Oetinger said, tongue-in-cheek.

A small metal building that has just one flourish – a stained-glass window of grape vines – doubles as the wine cellar, the bottling factory and the tasting room. Without an official tasting room, and few staff members, wine enthusiasts need to schedule ahead to arrange for tastings. But Oetinger promises that his wines, especially his 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon which received the 2005 California State Fair Gold Medal and Best of Class Greater Bay Area Appellations, are worth the time.

“People who try my wine, buy my wine,” Oetinger said. “Other people build a multi-million dollar winery and make 10,000 bottles of wine that no one’s heard of and they wonder why no one is buying it.”

Oetinger started out small and plans to keep his operation relatively small when it is done growing. This year, he plans to make just 2,600 bottles of wine, including his Cabernet Sauvignon, two Zinfandels and a Syrah. He has 12 more acres of space for planting and hopes to eventually top out at 3,500 bottles a year.

“Over that, you need a big payroll,” he said. “This is essentially a one-man band. I really want to be the winemaker.”

With that in mind, Oetinger is careful not to drink much of his own wine except when he is judging it before bottling.

“The danger is, if you end up drinking your own so much, you lose your subjectivity,” Oetinger said, explaining what is referred to as a “house palate” in the business.

Though Oetinger has the wine jargon down pat and considers himself a second-generation winemaker, he only came to the industry as a career choice while he was in college. During his years at the University of California, Davis, he studied veterinary science but found himself spending his free time working with his father, Lew Oetinger, on a small vineyard near Shingle Springs. He found himself drawn into the craft, using his time off from classes to help with the grape growing and winemaking.

Though he completed his degree in biology from U.C. Davis in 1995, he turned immediately to winemaking after graduation, learning the craft while working with Jim Wolpert, the chair of the university’s viticulture and enology department. In 1996, he became the vineyard manager at Clos La Chance Winery where he worked until 2000.

In 1999, he planted his first grapes on Redwood Retreat Ranch and started focusing on his own business. Six years later, he is still enjoys running his small operation with his wife, Tiffany.

“It will be a few more years before the monster can feed itself,” Oetinger said, of his need to roll all his profits back into the business each year. “But to be in the black in under 10 years for a winery is unheard of so we are ahead of the game.”

For more on the winery, visit or to schedule a wine tasting call 848-0611.

Join in

Fernwood Cellars “Flights of Passion” fundraiser will be held at Eagle Ridge Golf Club, Nov. 11 from 6 to 10pm. The evening will benefit hurricane relief efforts. Reserved tickets are $100 or $125 at the door. Call Steve or Tracy for information at 846-4531, ext 117.

Award winners

Fernwood Cellars

• 2002 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, Gold and Best of Class Greater Bay Appellations

• 2002 El Dorado Zinfandel, Silver

• 2002 Santa Cruz Mountain Zinfandel, Bronze

Fortino Winery, Inc.

• 2001 Santa Clara Valley Carigane, Bronze

Solis Winery

• 2000 Santa Clara Valley Merlot, Gold and Best of Class Greater Bay Appellations

• 2001 Santa Clara Valley Sangiovese, Silver and tied for Best of Class Greater Bay Appellations

• 2001 Santa Clara Valley Zinfandel, Silver

• 2002 Santa Clara Valley “Cara Mia” Meritage, Silver

• 2001 Santa Clara Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Bronze

• 2004 Santa Clara Valley Johannisberg Rieslingl, Bronze and Best of Class Greater Bay Appellations