Monday, November 26, 2012

Hallcrest Vineyards - Santa Cruz Mountains, Redwoods and the Wine Country

My two favorite places in California to visit are the wine country and the Redwood forest. The beauty of the wine country changes with the seasons and there is no better way to understand and appreciate the terroir of a wine than to taste it in the land from which it was grown.

Muir Woods

I first became enchanted by the Redwood forest when I visited Muir Woods when I was about 8 years old in the cub scouts and again when I went to the Avenue of the Giants in northern California with my grandparents when I was in high school. These enormous majestic trees have been around hundreds of years before I was born and they will continue to be there for future generations long after I have passed. Recently I had the urge to revisit the California Redwoods so on Veterans Day weekend I took a leisurely stroll through Muir Woods. I arrived when the park first opens before the tour busses show so I was able to take a two-hour hike with very few people around. Muir Woods has a paved trail on the valley floor with a number of bridges that cross the flowing stream as well as several trails that take you up into the hills where you can view the valley from the ridgeline.

Redwood Grove in EBRP

There is also redwood grove in the East Bay Regional Park District, about 15 minutes from my house, that I like to hike in from time to time. It’s a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city without the tourists of the major state parks and if I go there when it is raining I rarely see another soul on the trails. The trees aren’t quite as large or as old as those in the state parks, but it’s a great place to go for a hike, ride a bike and find some solitude.

Henry Cowell Redwoods

On the day after Thanksgiving I visited two Redwood forests and a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is the only place in California where the Redwoods and the Wine Country are within the same vicinity. So you can easily take a hike amongst the ancient giant trees and then visit a local winery to experience the uniqueness of the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA.

My first stop was at Henry Cowell Redwoods. I arrived when the park first opened and although it was a beautiful cloudless sunny day it was around 50 degrees. Thankfully I had enough foresight to wear a hooded sweatshirt. But by the end of the hike my fingers were feeling a little numb and it was becoming difficult to push the button on my camera. I took a leisurely stroll through the grove, stopping from time to time to be in awe of the majesty of these towering giants and enjoy the unique smell of the forest floor. I finished the hike around 11:30 AM which gave me just enough time to head over to Hallcrest Vineyards which is only a few minutes away.

Located on a small hill above the town of Felton, the site of the winery was originally established in the 1880s as a retreat for the Hall family. Then in 1941 San Francisco business attorney Chaffee Hall planted White Riesling in the Hallcrest Estate vineyard. He then built the winery in 1945 with the first vintage released in 1946. At the time, Hallcrest was one of only three wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the only one producing varietal wines from estate vineyards.

In 1987, John C. Schumacher and his family bought the Hallcrest site which had been operating as Felton Empire Winery since Chaffee Hall’s death. While visiting I was able to meet John who was busy training an intern and preparing his tanks. He prefers to refer to himself as a “wine shepherd” rather than a “winemaker” as he sees his role is to guide the wine’s development to reflect the wine’s natural reflection of the land, climate and vintage.

The winery and tasting room is located on Felton Empire Road in simple wooden “A-frame” building. Surrounding the winery are old tanks, wooden casks and a wooden deck with tables and umbrellas looking out over their soon-to-be-planted vineyard. In 2004 the vineyard succumbed to Pierce’s Disease and had to be uprooted but there are plans to replant the open field in front of the winery with Pinot Noir.

Until then, Hallcrest is producing small-lot wines from sourced grapes from selected vineyards that represent the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area). They have nine Pinot Noirs on their list as well as have Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel.

In 1989, John made a bold move and launched a second label “The Organic Wineworks” with Hallcrest Vineyards becoming the first winery in the nation to be allowed to label their wines “organically grown and organically processed.” It uses organic production methods to make wine sourced from organically grown grapes. The future estate vineyard is in the process of becoming certified organic so that the wines will not be just “made with organic grapes,” but made using totally organic winemaking methods, thus making them 100% organic. Current organic wines include Pinot Noir from Mendocino, Zinfandel from Lake County, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Rosé.

While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first pour was the recently released 2009 Sauvignon Blanc – Belle Farms.  Belle Farms Vineyard is a one and a half acre vineyard in the eastern foothills of Watsonville which is owned and cared for by Steve Remde. On the nose I picked up stone fruits, apricots, dried peaches and white grapefruit and a hint of almost. On the palate it has a very distinctive minerality, it is medium bodied and has medium (+) acidity and a fairly lengthy finish. This Sauv Blanc is very different than most California versions that tend to have more citrus components or, if grown in warm regions, lean towards tropical fruits. This wine sells for $23.95 a bottle.

The second pour was the 2010 Rosé, form the Organic Wineworks line.  It is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and has a very pronounced nose of strawberries, pomegranates and watermelons and it explodes with flavor on the palate. This is no light-weight Rosé as it medium (+) bodied with just a touch of sweetness. A surprisingly good wine for only $11.95.

The third wine sample was the 2006 Pinot Noir – Vista Del Mar Vineyards. The vineyard in Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at approximately 470 elevation. Vista Del Mare is a small Pinot Noir vineyard with a coastal view as evidenced by its name. It is owned by John and Dixie Rees, but Hallcrest personally cultivates this privately owned vineyard. His wine displays classic Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot characteristics – dark cherries, dense earthiness, strawberries followed by plums and a hint of spice. On the palate it has very soft tannins and medium (+) acidity. It is a wine that could never be mistaken for warmer California regions such as Los Carneros, Santa Barbera or the Russian River. If you’re familiar with and like great Santa Cruz Mountain Pinots, such as David Bruce, then you’ll enjoy this one too. This wine sells for $48 a bottle.

The fourth pour was the 2007 Syrah – Clos de Jeannie. Named after the winemaker’s daughter,  this wine displays vibrant cherries, plums, pipe tobacco and a hint of herbs on the nose. On the palate it has medium tannins and a medium (+) length finish. $21.95

The fifth wine was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – Brigantino Vineyards. The vineyards are located in Hollister in San Benito County and the grapes are organically grown. This is the first time that I’ve had a wine from this region and I was surprised that it was an ’06 as most wineries are releasing their ‘09s and ‘10s in their tasting rooms. This wine is very earthy with underlying notes of black currants, dried tobacco and oak. On the palate it ahs medium (+) tannins, medium (+) acidity, it is full bodied and on the finish it has a heavy tobacco and oaky finish. It has 14.2% alcohol but it fairly well balanced but would probably be more appreciated if it had a steak to go with it. This wine sells for $28 a bottle.

The final wine was the 2008 Zenful Zin, California Zinfandel. The grapes for this wine were harvested a bit late so it is an off-dry wine with distinct notes of dried fruits, raisins, dates and maple syrup on the nose. On the palate it is full bodied, round, soft with medium tannins and acidity with just a touch of sweetness that is definitely delicious. If you know someone who only drinks white wine because they don’t like tannin this would be a good alternative, it would also pair well with spaghetti and meatballs. In fact, for $13.95 I bought a bottle and mad it with exactly that two days later.

To visit or for more information:

Hallcrest Vineyards
The Organic Wine Works
379 Felton Empire Road
Felton, CA 95018
Phone: 1-831-335-4441

After tasting at Hallcrest Vineyards I headed north on Highway 9, which is a very scenic drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and made my way to Big Basin Redwoods. There are multiple trails to choose from on the valley floor and in the hills. I wanted to get some good exercise so I chose the Sequoia Trail which steadily takes you up into the hills and ends at Sempervirens Falls. It is about a 2 hour round trip hike and when you’re done you’ll feel like you’ve been on a stair climber at the gym for a couple hours.

Big Basin Redwoods

There are many more forests and redwoods to choose form around the San Francisco Bay Area, the map below shows just some of the more well-known places to visit: