Terrain shapes the taste in Northern California's Santa Cruz Mountains

SARA SCHNEIDER

I found out something the other day: I like Chardonnay. I hadn'tbought a bottle in years, not being fond of the prevailing, oakyCalifornia style and not being able to afford good white Burgundies(those lean Old World-model Chardonnays). But the first stop in aday of tasting through the moody mountains between Silicon Valleyand the Santa Cruz coastline changed my mind.

What I was really rediscovering was the impact a place can haveon a wine. In an age of 100,000-plus case productions, we forgetthis. While the Gallo wineries of the world do make some fabulous wines unique to subregions and singlevineyards, they're expensive. What we mostly drink are their blendsfrom broader swaths ― and thus generic.

The Santa Cruz Mountains practically force character into wine.On the often-foggy slopes, the grapes ripen slowly. Marine aircools the vines at night, keeping acids intact (a good thing).Flavors mature in the grapes before sugar levels spike too high,allowing lower alcohol levels in the end. These are lively wines.And they're mightily interesting. Mountain soil is often thin andstony, and this is a good thing too: Vines that struggle in poorsoil produce fewer, better grapes, with more concentrated flavor.You can taste the mountain minerals when the winemakers have theinsight to get out of the way.

MULTITASKING MOUNTAINS

The common stars of cool-weather climates are Chardonnay andPinot Noir, and the Santa Cruz Mountains do them proud. But othervarieties also shine here: Cabernet, very importantly (you haven'tlived until you've tasted a Ridge Monte Bello Cab), plus Merlot,Zinfandel, Syrah ― more than 20 in all. Jeffrey Patterson,winemaker at Mount Eden Vineyards, admits, "Many people aresuspicious of a region that can grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet." He says it works here "because of the mosaicthat the region is." The range of elevations, orientations, anddistance from north to south provides serious multitasking skills.But according to Paul Draper, winemaker and CEO of Ridge Vineyards,every grape is grown in the coolest possible conditions forripening here, and that's when it has the potential forgreatness.

At a recent tasting with Draper and his staff ― blendingdecisions were on the line ― the classic character of theirMonte Bello vineyard was the issue: firm acids and bright fruit,grounded in limestone. And in spite of the fact that one blindtasting produced a reversal of an earlier impression (good to knowthat even the makers of such a magnificent Cab are able to laugh atthemselves), in the end they were unanimous about the formula thatbest expressed that character.

The Chardonnay I was drinking when I (re)discovered the mountainsecret was a Bargetto. But it just as well could have been aCinnabar or a rich Mount Eden ― all lively, lean, and full ofthat stony mountain voice.

TOURING AND TASTING INFO: Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers'Association (831/479-9463).

WASHINGTON SYRAHS

Syrah is the newest grape to watch in Washington State. Here isa handful we love.

Columbia "South Chapel Block, Red Willow Vineyard" Syrah2001 (Yakima Valley), $40. Dark and almost brooding, withchocolate, espresso, blueberry, and mineral aromas and flavors.

Covey Run Barrel Select Syrah 2001 (Columbia Valley), $13. Asimple, delicious steal, with flavors of grenadine, vanilla, andjuicy berries.

DeLille "Doyenne" Syrah 2001 (Yakima Valley), $42. Denseblack-licorice and dark-chocolate flavors swirl in this one.Expensive, but great for a special occasion.

Gordon Brothers Syrah 2000 (Columbia Valley), $22. Enticingaromas of cocoa, blackberries, and licorice; saturated flavors ofdark chocolate, coffee, and vanilla.

McCrea Syrah 2002 (Washington), $25. Toasty, complex aromais evocative of the earth and wild herbs. Laced with spicyflavors.

Washington Hills Syrah 2001 (Columbia Valley), $9. Simplebut tasty blackberry, cherry, and vanilla flavors. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club

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