This young winery with vineyards running along Skyline Blvd., overlooking Silicon Valley from the heights of the Santa Cruz Mountains, doesn't really feel like wine country. World-renowned hot-bed of high technology, these lands are not exactly a destination of wine tourism. But legendary Santa Cruz Mountains names such as Ridge Monte Bello have long been on the map of California's wine history. Just minutes drive from swanky Palo Alto, but high enough for snow to form, founded by a high-tech entrepreneur in the early 2000's, Rhys has caught an eye of Burgundy wine geeks.
The winery generated even more buzz when Allen Meadows (aka "the Burghound") - one of world's greatest authorities on Burgundy, gave the 2008 Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir his highest ever score for a domestic Pinot - 95 points. Other wine authorities have been complimentary as well.
Through careful, scientific, geological analysis, the owner - Kevin Harvey (whose daytime job is as a general partner at Benchmark Capital VC firm) - identifies uncultivated, virgin sites in the vicinity of his hometown Woodside, and plants Pinot there. Being a huge Burgundy buff himself, he sticks to decidedly Burgundian techniques, producing cool, low-alcohol, terroir-driven Pinot Noirs that, frankly, might be a turn-off to the palate of "California Pinot" crowd. Absolutely no jammy fruit or balsamic sweetness. Instead you get stems, pepper, acid. Clearly, if you don't pump up the fruit and the sugar, other elements start showing, and vineyard and vintage differences become more evident. That's part of the reason we love Burgundy, and that's what happens here. A lot of character. Not cocktail wines. These must be drunk with food. But at the price of $50/btl for an entry-level bottling, are these going to compete with Burgundy at my dinner table?
A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to visit Rhys for their open house and taste their 2009 Family Farm Vineyard. The wine immediately struck me as different from anything I'd ever had from California. Knowing virtually nothing about Rhys at that point, I wondered why the wine tasted so stemmy? Indeed, with their minimalistic approach to winemaking, turned out they use whole-cluster fermentation (100% stem inclusion) for that particular vineyard. The fruit was in the background, while pepper and stems dominated at this point.
Later on that evening, I had an opportunity to continue with Rhys, over dinner with friends. The afore-mentioned 95-pointer from Burghound - the 2008 Horseshoe Vineyard was now standing on top of the dinner table, along with a bottle of 2008 Family Farm Vineyard.
Next to the wines, I was staring at a plate of the most delectable fall-off-the-bone braised duck leg (Chez Panisse recipe, courtesy of Ed & Mimi).
The 2008 Family Vineyard (a year older vintage than the 2009 I'd tasted earlier that day at the winery) was an enjoyable wine - with hints of stems and pepper spice, but more subtle and integrated, with elegant fruit and texture, and light tannins - it reminded me of the 2001 Domaine D'Arlot Clos des Forets Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru Burgundy (though not quite as complex). I still wish they cut down a bit on the use of stems, but perhaps with age and in warmer vintages, the stem influence is less distracting. The wine was a better match with the duck than the more concentrated Horseshoe vineyard. The high-scoring 2008 Horseshoe had more stuffing - dense and more intense, with tart raspberry, light elegant tannins and a note of fermented creaminess, reminding me of a Chassagne-Montrachet red from a good, fruit-filled vintage (like 2002 or 2005). The stems were not an issue in this wine.
Amazingly, these vineyards have been producing for just a few years, in the plots of land with no history of grape growing by a guy who is used to making software not wine. These Pinots are not inexpensive, but Kevin Harvey has no trouble selling out his entire supply. Gradually the winery is expanding production. It feels like a very boutique but savvy operation, with wines that are certainly making a splash out of the gate. With much anticipation but without a track record of longer-term aging important for development of secondary flavors, they are an intriguing item for me to watch. One thing's for sure - if I am to drink a domestic Pinot, the Rhys style is more likely to end up on my table than anything from Sonoma, Napa, or Central Coast. And that's something to be thankful for.