Monday, January 5, 2009

Fleming-Jenkins Winery and Testarossa Vineyards in Los Gatos California

It been rather cold but sunny all week leading up to New Year’s Day, though “warm” in comparison to the midwest states. However, I was too busy doing house hold chores, studying, reading and writing to get out and visit the wine country. I had been on vacation since Christmas day but was using most of my time to catch up on things left undone during the hectic schedule of the Fall semester leading up to the holidays. So when I finally had some free time to get out of the house and go wine tasting it began to rain.

So I decided NOT to any visit wineries, right? No way!

It was the day after New Year’s Day and rain was pouring down. A friend and fellow wine country traveler, who has also been spending the week diligently studying, and I were eager to take a break and get out visit a couple wineries. So we headed down Highway 17 to visit a couple wineries in the South Bay.

Fleming-Jenkins Vineyard and Winery

Our first stop was at the Fleming-Jenkins Vineyards and Winery tasting room in the cozy little town of Los Gatos, which has the look and feel of a ritzy European village. In 1999, Gold Medal Olympian Peggy Fleming and her husband planted a small Chardonnay vineyard on their ridge top property in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above the town of Los Gatos. They also source grapes from various other areas and make a number of wines in the historic Novitiate Winery in the Los Gatos hills, alongside Testarossa Vineyards.

The wines we tasted included a Chardonnay their estate vineyard, a Napa Valley Cabernet blend, and two Syrahs, one sourced John Madden's vineyard in the Livermore Valley.

For a nominal fee of $5, the day’s line up included the 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($38) the 2006 Madden Ranch Syrah from John Madden's vineyard in the Livermore Valley, ($40), The Santa Cruz Mountains Black Ridge Vineyard Syrah ($40) the 2004 Napa Valley “Choreography” a Bordeaux style blend ($50) and finally the 2004 Petite Sirah Port ($34). All of these wines were exceptional and it was a tough to decide which syrah was better. But the wine which distinguished itself from many others available in the wine world was the Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. It had very dense and concentrated mountain fruit qualities with a lot of complex apple and tropical fruit character.

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Testarossa Vineyards

Our next stop for the day was at Testarossa Vineyards, owned and operated by Rob and Dianna Jenson. The winery is located at the fourth oldest continuously operating winery in California, the historic Novitiate Winery in the hills above downtown Los Gatos. They offer a number of fantastic wines crafted by their winemakers Bill Brosseau and Adam Comartin.

The winery itself has an interesting history and as you enter the tasting room through a wine-cave like entrance you can view a number of pictures of the local wine making padres and read about the winery’s origins.

The winery was originally built in 1888 by Northern Italian Jesuit Fathers and Brothers from the college at Mission Santa Clara (now Santa Clara University) as a means to fund their new seminary college built on the grounds the same year. The term Novitiate means “house of the novices,” the name used for seminary students. For nearly 100 years, the Jesuits made altar wines, as well as sweet, fortified wines at the Novitiate Winery. The Novitiate Winery was best known for its famous fortified Black Muscat dessert wine (similar to a tawny port), which was a perennial gold medal winner at the annual California State Fair.

The original 19th Century, three-floor, gravity-flow winery is still in use today to make Testarosa wines. However, the original structure is now mostly hidden from view by the many expansions the winery went through during the first half of the 20th Century. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the demand for Church altar wine production skyrocketed during Prohibition (1919-1933), and the winery and adjoining vineyards more than doubled in size during this period. With the repeal of Prohibition, the winery continued to grow through the 1950s, as did the number of students, who were also recruited to be volunteers in the vineyards and winery. By the late 1950s, over 100,000 cases of Novitiate wine was produced at the winery.

With the advent of the 1960s, things started to decline at the old winery. The nearly century old vines were past their prime production years, and costly replanting was needed. The seminary population was also beginning to decline thus, it was decided to shut down the seminary college in Los Gatos and move the students to Santa Barbara in 1968. At this same time California’s wine industry began to boom and the interest in fortified and sweet dessert wines gave way to a strong interest in varietal labeled, dry table wines. Sadly, in 1986 the Jesuits shut down their Novitiate Winery brand, ending an amazing 98 year run. During the better part of the next decade, the old winery was leased to two different wineries, which both quietly went out of business.

But in 1997, a new renaissance was born at the old winery. That year, Rob and Diana Jensen, moved their then four year old fledgling, barely known wine brand, Testarosa, to the old Novitiate, where they made just under 4,000 cases of small lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Every year since, Testarossa has invested in repairing and improving the once old and neglected facility and every year, Testarossa wines have gotten more and more consistently outstanding. In 2003, in conjunction with Testarosa’s 10th anniversary, the old Tasting Room underwent a major restoration, and is now open to the public seven days per week. Demand for Testarossa wines has never been higher, but the temptation to dramatically ramp up production, at the expense of quality, has never been a consideration. By 2005, Testarossa wine production has crept up to approximately 14,000 cases with more than half of the annual production being sold directly from the winery.

Our first tasting was the 2007 Castello Chardonnay ($24) made from Central Coast vineyards followed by the 2006 La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay from Sonoma. ($31.20) Both have loads of citrus and tropical fruit notes, the second has a more round creamy mouth feel.

Although Testarossa produces a number of fine wines undoubtedly their specialty is Pinot Noir. Our first was the 2007 Novitiate Pinot Noir ($16.80) which seemed to me to be too light and watery, lacking any real back bone to be paired well with food. The next two were a significant improvement - the 2007 Palazzio Pinot Noir ($29.60) and the 2006 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir ($43.20). The second was much more substantial with plenty of cherry and cranberry fruit qualities with a lingering spicy cinnamon finish.

The next two wines were excellent syrahs, the 2006 Thompson Vineyard Syrah ($39.20) and my personal favorite of the day’s line up the 2006 Gary’s Vineyard Syrah. ($43.20)

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