Wrap-Up: Gilroy Rambling

Gilroy was a great trip. Tom and Anne were great company and excellent guides. We really enjoyed being able to spend some time with them and to experience the scenic splendor that surrounds their stomping grounds. Thanks Tom and Anne!

Vines at Martin Ranch Winery
Vines at Martin Ranch Winery

Each winery we tasted at had its own distinct character and approach, but common among them was skill in balancing flavors in a way that allows each one to cooperate and share the spotlight rather than competing for it.

We enjoyed the social aspects at each winery, and we were happy to have had a range of experiences, from smaller, intimate spaces to bigger, more festive events. The various tasting room personnel and winemakers we spoke with were quite knowledgeable and eloquent, and we learned a great deal about wine, winemaking and some of the history of the Uvas Valley.

A view of hills across a pond
The moon rising over the pond at Martin Ranch Winery

The restrictions on hours of operation for some of the wineries makes it marginally more challenging to make Gilroy a wine-tasting destination, but it’s definitely worthwhile. If Gilroy isn’t on your list of places to go wine tasting, you should add it right now.

The one negative aspect was palate fatigue. That’s a problem we’ll need to solve. If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave us a comment. Apart from that though, Gilroy was a wonderful trip.

Kirigin Cellars: Gilroy Rambling Part 5

Kirigin Cellars
11550 Watsonville Rd., Gilroy, CA, 95020 (link to map)
Phone: 408-847-8827

Kirigin Cellars, founded in 1916 as Bonesio Winery, is one of the oldest wineries in California. It survived Prohibition and World War II, and continues to make enjoyable wines today. In fact, the winery just won a gold, four silvers and two bronzes at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The Ambience

As you can see from the entryway, the winery itself has a fun, retro vibe.

Kirigin Cellars entrance
Mike and I pose in front of Kirigin Cellars' tasting room. Yes, we're standing in front of a giant wine barrel.

This laid-back feel carried into the tasting room. The friendly staff, as well as the adorable and playful winery dog, made everybody feel welcome. It’s a tasting room that feels like going into your best friend’s den when you were a kid.

The winery also scores points for the great breadsticks they leave out to clear the palate. I thought my tastebuds were dead from fatigue, but a wheat-filled nibble gave them a second wind and allowed me to enjoy a few more wines.

While we were there, the staff were celebrating both the San Francisco Chronicle wins and their dog’s 11th birthday, so there was a cake on hand made from their award-winning Malvasia Blanca. Unfortunately, we were all too full to eat any!

The Wines

It was clear that we were at our last tasting room of the day; I failed to write down the year or appellation of the wines we tasted, and Mike forgot his notebook entirely and took his notes in mine. Still, better than our last outing, in which we forgot notebooks entirely and were forced to jot our thoughts down with our mobile phones.

Sauvignon Blanc: This was fruity and tasty, and sweeter than the sauvignon blancs I normally drink. I’ve said it before in describing one of Burrell School’s wines, so you all know that to me this is not a negative, but there was just the faintest aroma of skunk in the scent. Again, I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who will smell that.

Chardonnay: An easy-drinking wine, neither too buttery nor too oaky. There was a slight ashy flavor to the wine, the sort you get in a Humboldt Fog cheese.

2008 Malvasia Blanca: This was a truly fascinating wine, with a really complex flavor. There was a scent and a flavor of pineapple, with a very dry finish. It was like hearing two distinct and very different notes played one after the other.

Estate Red: At this point I had to hand the tasting over to Mike, because my palate was once again getting fatigue. Mike’s notes indicate that he found it nice and rich, with a hint of lacquer, but “not too tannic, accessible.”

Pinot Noir: My tastebuds had revived enough to sample this. It was fruity and lively, but had a strong alcohol finish (or the palate fatigue hadn’t quite been banished).

Vino de Mocca: Tom had brought us to Kirigin specifically to sample the Vino de Mocca, and he was right when he thought we’d love this unusual wine. This unique dessert wine is infused with coffee and chocolate and just a hint of orange. If you can imagine the best possible result of ordering a mocha spiked with port at your favorite cafe, it would be this. They’ve christened it “the kissing wine” and I understand why. If Mike gifted me with a bottle of this he’d certainly get a big kiss!

Nikki and Mike with Dave "The Wine Guy" at Kirigin Cellars
Nikki and Mike with Dave "The Wine Guy" at Kirigin Cellars

Many thanks to Dave “The Wine Guy” for showing us a great time and being willing to pose with us for a photo!

Jason-Stephens Winery: Gilroy Rambling Part 4

Jason-Stephens Winery is located on the floor of the Uvas Valley, and because it is on a more major road than some of the other tasting rooms we visited on this trip it is not subject to the same restrictions with regard to hours of operation. Jason-Stephens is open Thursday through Monday  from 12-5pm (get there by 4:45 at the latest if you want to taste).

Jason-Stephens is the brainchild (vine-child?) of winemaker Jason Goelz and grower Stephen Dorcich. The two men are committed to creating premium wines that are complex, with the goal of pleasing a broad range of palates.

The winery has a large outdoor area for events and is undergoing improvements to make it even more amenable to outdoor gatherings.

A pyramid of 10 oak wine barrels on the bed of an antique truck
I think you only have to age the wine, not the truck

The tasting room is a work-in-progress. The natural fabrics draping over partially exposed framing felt like a pretty decent design choice rather than an attempt to hide anything, and the stained-concrete bar with lights embedded under frosted glass was very nice. Nikki wanted to make sure I mentioned that they had hooks for purses under the overhang of the bar top, an amenity she would like to see all tasting rooms adopt immediately!

Nikki adds: If you’re male this may not be something you think about, but as a woman I appreciate any bar or tasting room that has a handbag hook. It saves me from putting my purse in a puddle of wine on the tasting room counter, from leaving it on the floor to get stepped on, or from keeping it on my shoulder the whole time, and generally makes for a more pleasant experience. It also shows me that the tasting room has given thought to the clientele that might visit. Tasting room counters that have a section that’s lower for those who use wheelchairs also always get a little extra notch of respect in my book.

Bill poured for us and was an excellent host. He was most enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Jason-Stephens wines and was an engaging conversationalist.

Us with Jason-Stephens tasting room staffer Bill
Bill's the one in the stylin' fedora

In the interest of full disclosure, Nikki and I had both started getting palate fatigue by the time we got to Jason Stephens. If you don’t know what that is, there’s a point you hit after tasting a fair number of wines where the tannins and acidity of the wines makes it quite difficult to clear your palate. Your tongue becomes much more sensitive to tannins which makes them seem much more prominent and also makes it difficult (if not impossible) to discern the presence of multiple subtle flavors in the wines you taste.

It’s early days yet for The Appellation Trail, but clearly we’re going to have to figure out how to time our tastings so we can give the wines the sensitivity they deserve. We’re thinking of tasting at a maximum of two or three wineries in a row before taking a substantial break – probably involving lunch or some other meal – in order to let our palates recover before continuing.

We both agreed we’d like to taste at Jason-Stephens again when our palates are fresher. We tasted their offerings, paid attention and took notes, but we know we didn’t get everything the wines here had to offer. We looked for crackers at Jason-Stephens but didn’t spot any. We would have welcomed some – we think we might have been able to get more out of the wines if we could have had some non-wine flavors calming our taste buds a little.

Tip #2 to Winemakers: Have crackers or some other palate-cleansing edible on hand so weary wine tasters can refresh their tastebuds!

The Wines

2009 Estate Chardonnay (Santa Clara Valley): This wine was fermented in stainless steel and then bottled. Tom’s quote: “This is spanky!” Nikki remarked that it was delicious, like a Chardonnay candy. I liked the clean taste and feeling of warmth I got from it.

2009 Estate Select Chardonnay (Santa Clara Valley): This is the same wine as above, except this batch was fermented in oak. It was interesting to taste the two Chardonnays back-to-back. Many of the flavor attributes were consistent with the un-oaked version, but then the oak flavor gradually came in and provided a nice finish. Nikki noted less citrus in the oaked version and found it to be softer.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley): Bill called this their “entry-level” Cabernet, made from fruit grown on newer vines than their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I detected welcome notes of cherry. Nikki found it fruity. We both found the finish to be a bit astringent, but I think we’re really seeing the results of palate fatigue here. Everything starts tasting astringent after a while – I don’t think this would have hit us this way if we were tasting on fresher palates.

2007 Merlot (Santa Clara Valley): There were cherry notes in ths one too, but more subtle than in the ’06 Cab. The flavor had some complexity to it, but again my tongue was oversensitized to astringency and i couldn’t really taste my way through it. I’d really like to give this one another try.

2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley): I liked the ashy/mineral front end on this Cab which was followed by a swell of fruit.

2007 Estate Meritage (Santa Clara Valley): Plum and caramel welcomed me into this wine, but the astringency thing again made me wish I were tasting this earlier in the day when I could appreciate it more.

2007 Blend – 60% Cabernet Sauvignon/40% Syrah (Santa Clara Valley): Bill said this was his favorite. Nikki liked the hints of chocolate she was detecting in the nose. I liked the presence of warm fruit.

We feel like Jason-Stephens got the short end of the stick due to our overworked tastebuds, but the good news is that we’ll gladly go back to Gilroy and taste there again. There’s a whole handful of wineries we didn’t get to this time. We’ll make sure to get to Jason-Stephens earlier in the trip.

Martin Ranch Winery: Gilroy Rambling part 3

Martin Ranch Winery
6675 Redwood Retreat Rd., Gilroy, CA (link to map)
Phone: 408-842-9197

Like many Gilroy-area wineries, Martin Ranch Winery is only open one weekend each month. Area residents had understandable concerns about potential congestion on Redwood Retreat Road. The downside is that it requires planning to visit for a tasting; the upside, if Saturday’s visit is any indication, is that every tasting weekend is like a big fiesta.

The festive crush pad at Martin Ranch Winery
The crush pad becomes a festive patio for the tasting days at Martin Ranch Winery.

Winemakers Dan and Thérèse Martin craft truly exceptional wines from both the Santa Clara Valley and Santa Cruz Mountains appellations. They’re also warm and friendly, each very happy to talk to anyone that’s interested about their craft. We learned more about wine and winemaking from Dan in a half-hour of conversation than we have from several wine books. It’s no wonder they have such avid fans flocking to their winery.

With Dan and Thérèse Martin of Martin Ranch Winery
Us with Dan and Thérèse Martin (they're the good-looking ones).

Dan and Thérèse, who are married, each make their own wines for Martin Ranch Winery; tasting room staffer Matt joked that the couple have found that the key to a successful marriage is to each make wines that represent their individual styles. As a result, even the pickiest oenophile can find something to like. We’re wine fans rather than wine snobs, so we found a lot to love.

Unique Winery Offerings

In addition to their repertoire of delicious wines that Martin Ranch Winery normally sells, the winery also offers a Bottle-Your-Own day several times per year. The video below tells the story:

This event is entirely hands-on; wine fans go to the winery, put the wine into bottles, cork it, seal it and label it. Guests can even apply their own custom labels. The cost is $100/case, which breaks down to a little over $8 per bottle. We’ve tasted the wine, and it’s a great daily drinker, something I’d pay twice the price for. Alas, we’ll be out of town on February 13 and 14, when the next event is, but we’ve gotten a tip that there may be another over Memorial Day weekend.

The Wines

As part of the Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries Passport Day celebration, Martin Ranch had nine wines available for tasting, as well as cask tastings of the above-mentioned bottle-your-own. Mike and I consulted our livers and decided we’d split the tasting.

2008 Thérèse Vineyards Grenache (Santa Clara Valley): Huzzah! With this tasting, we chalked up our third appellation. And what a way to do it! Winery staffer Kristina described the taste as “strawberry cream vanilla.” It’s an apt description, if the strawberries you have in mind are tart, new strawberries rather than super-ripe, sweet ones. This wine is very drinkable on its own, and would also go well with food.

’07 J.D. Hurley 2007 Merlot (Santa Clara Valley): Drinking this was like eating a steak in a deep wine marinade. Since I’m a vegetarian, this is the closest I’m likely to get to tasting an actual steak for the foreseeable future; with a few bottles of this I certainly won’t feel deprived!

2006 JD Hurley Cabernet (Santa Cruz Mountains/Santa Clara Valley blend): This wine smelled of chocolate and caramel. On the palate, it had dark chocolate notes with a hint of blackberry and a delicate oak finish. If this description makes me sound like a wine snob, let me sum it up for you in a less snobby way: yum!

2007 Thérèse Vineyards Lester Family Syrah: This is a cold-weather syrah that was described by winery staffer Matt as having “more pepper, less fruit.” I could have smelled it all day; it had an aroma of spiced caramel. When I commented on the scent, Matt said, “Thérèse has a very fine sense of smell,” and added that she focuses on the aromatic elements of the wine as much of the flavor. She clearly doesn’t lack focus on flavor, however; the taste lived up to the scent.

2007 Thérèse Vineyards Zinfandel (Amador County): This wine smelled of chocolate and prune juice. It had a rich zinfandel flavor, but with a surprising citrus hit that I don’t normally associate with zinfandel.

2007 Thérèse Vineyards Estate Cabernet Franc (Santa Cruz Mountains): Tom described this one as having a “perfumey kind of taste.” It was delicate, but without seeming thin, graceful like a ballet dancer pirouetting across the tongue rather than a football linebacker of a Cabernet Franc barrelling across the palate. Mike commented on tasting that “good balance seems to be the theme of the day.”

2007 J.D. Hurley Cabernet Sauvignon: Have you ever had one of those chocolates that’s covered by those little white balls of sugary candy? This smelled like that, and there was a hint of it in the flavor as well. It was sweeter and lighter than I’d expect in a cab, but very drinkable.

Petite Syrah: Alas, I got neither the vintage nor the winemaker on this one. I can say, however, that if there were ever a wine that would remind one of a really good cup of hot chocolate, this is it. It might go well with dark chocolate, in fact.

Behind the Curtain: Sangiovese Barrel Tasting

The barrels at Martin Ranch Winery

The barrel room at Martin Ranch Winery.

Tom grabbed our elbow and tugged us into the barrel room. Dan was going to give us a barrel taste of his new Sangiovese! While it may need a little more time in the barrel, it was raisin-y and delicious. We also learned a great deal from Dan about winemaking, which will hopefully be in a future post.

Gilroy Rambling

My friend Tom Hepner, whom I met during The Foreigner at The Western Stage, had spoken glowingly about the great wineries in his neighborhood in Gilroy. If Gilroy sounds familiar, perhaps you know it as Garlic City.  

Gilroy is the nation’s top grower of garlic; for much of the year you can tell when you’re nearing Gilroy on the 101 by the smell. It also hosts one of the nation’s largest food festivals, the Gilroy Garlic Festival. It’s known by those driving up and down the 101 as either the home to the Gilroy Premium Outlet Mall or the location of the only In ‘n Out between Salinas and San Jose.  

The town is named after early settler John Gilroy. He was a scurvy-ridden Scottish sailor who converted to Catholicism, journeyed from Monterey to the area and was the first non-Spanish settler legally recognized by the Spanish crown.  

Before Tom mentioned it, it had never occurred to me that there might be grapes in them thar hills. I know, I should expect winemaking to be happening everywhere. Haven’t I learned anything while living in California?!?  

With our hosts, Anne and Tom Hepner
With our hosts, Anne and Tom Hepner. For once, Mike's the one who shut his eyes when the shutter clicked.

We made a date to visit Tom and his wife Anne and visit some of Tom’s favorite vintners in the gorgeous, verdant rolling hills where they live.  

The wineries in Tom and Anne’s neighborhood (seriously, there’s a vineyard right across the street from their property!) sit right on the border between the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation and the Santa Clara appellation. Winemaker Dan Martin of Martin Ranch Winery told us that the placement of the boundary between the appellations on and adjacent to his vineyards is due to the change in elevation.  

A vineyard in afternoon sun
Everywhere you look it's gorgeous views!

All Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards must be at a minimum altitude of 800 feet on the east side of the mountains and 400 feet on the west side of the mountains, according to documents on the Viticultural Association of Santa Cruz Mountains website. The VASCM says these borders were established to follow the fog line and that the appellation was one of the first to be defined by its topography.  

First to cover some non-wine issues: The countryside surrounding Gilroy is really beautiful! The vistas are stunning, and the drive up the gently winding, narrow road to the places we went is filled with beautiful scenery. We drove through a stretch that looked like a cathedral of oak trees, their trunks arcing gracefully over the road (by the time I thought to take a picture the light wasn’t good, but check out the background image at Fernwood Cellars’ website). The area is lush and green, with the occasional stand of palm trees reminding one that this is in fact California.  

A row of palm trees at Jason-Stephens Winery in Gilroy
A row of palm trees at Jason-Stephens Winery in Gilroy

It was great to spend the afternoon with Tom and Anne, and we were reminded again that while tasting wonderful, small-lot artisan wines is a pleasure all of its own, the real treasure of this activity — and of our Appellation Trail project — is social. Spending time relaxing with friends in beautiful settings and making new friends is really the point of the whole endeavor. We couldn’t be happier with how that’s working out.  

There are a lot of wineries we didn’t get to on this trip, but we’ll gladly visit Gilroy again.