Napa. Sonoma. Every California wine country traveler knows about these. But what about Santa Clara? Even the winery owners there agree that they’re not a destination wine region.
South of Silicon Valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range, Santa Clara Valley has a Mediterranean climate perfectly suited to viticulture. Grapes love the temperature difference, warm days and cold evenings, and thrive.
Native Americans called Santa Clara the valley of the heart’s delight. Casa de Fruta in Hollister, CA, planted its first vineyard in 1908 to make fruit wines, like plum and pomegranate.
In Gilroy, the scene of most current Valley wine production, locals planted apricot trees in the 1930s and sold prunes. Now 18 of Santa Clara’s 23 wineries are here. The 2nd one we visited, Fortino, was the 1st winery here in 1970. The family had been producing wines in Calabria, Italy, since the early 19th century and is now in its 4th generation of passionate Gilroy wine-makers.
As Ruth & I talked to Lee Rodrigues behind the crowded bar as we sampled Fortino’s uniformly excellent wines, I asked Lee which one we should make sure we tasted and he said Charbono. That I had never heard of this grape was understandable since less than 100 acres in the entire state of California are planted with it. The standard practice in the SCV is that wine tasting is free if you buy a bottle. We bought a Charbono.
Ruth & I were lucky that we got lost and accidentally visited Thomas Kruse Winery before finding Fortino. While Fortino has a restaurant, hosts weddings, etc., Kruse is a far more modest operation founded in 1971. Its tasting room was full of wine barrels instead of couples from
Cupertino down for a Sunday afternoon outing. Using sustainable farming practices, Kruse quietly produces dependable wines of limited production where we learned that some of the Santa Clara winemakers came from Croatia.
We asked volunteer server Lee at Fortino the name of the “other” great winery in Gilroy and went straight to Satori where after a 5 minute conversation I really admired Tom Moller, the TO in Satori. A self-described Silicon Valley brat, Tom told his wife that he was thinking of buying 20 acres in the Gilroy area and completely upending life-as-they-knew-it. “Only if it’s fun,” was SAndy’s only stipulation. Now bearded, long haired, and happy, Tom told me that 2004 was his first good year and that now he’s earning gold medals. I asked him which wine he was most proud of and he said, “my 2009 Jubilee Cabernet Sauvignon.” CS, he explained, is the trickiest wine to get right. We bought a bottle.
Three days later we stopped at Solis and talked to owner/grower Vic Vanni who told us that his very traditional looking 46 acres had been part of an old Mexican land grant, Rancho de Solis. He taught us how to pronounce Solis correctly (So-lease), told us that his family has been involved since 1980, and mentioned that his Zin won Double Gold at a recent wine competition. We bought a bottle.
Closer to San Jose but still in the Valley, the towns of Saratoga, Morgan Hill, and San Martin also have wineries. You might find Santa Clara wines in Santa Clara Safeways, but not in your local supermarket. You still have to go there to experience them. For now.