Mount Eden: America’s Montrachet

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | nov. 2019

I gave up on California Chardonnays sometime in the 1980s. I think it was when I tasted an Australian Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay while lunching at an outdoor bistro with my wife, overlooking the Michigan Avenue Bridge in Chicago, one June Saturday before going to a Cubs game. The Australian Chardonnay was unoaked and displayed luscious pineapple flavors that had, somewhere along the way, disappeared from California Chards. Australia eventually lost its mojo too but is starting to get it back (but that's another story). So why don't I like California Chardonnay? Let's begin with the fact that most of it undergoes full malolactic fermentation, which takes out all that appley, tart malic acid which will give a wine the ability to age. The wines become limp and flabby/soupy and virtually undrinkable after a few years. The wines are overly oaked, in fact most mid-range wines in the $10-15 range never see an oak barrel, instead wheelbarrows of oak chips (but they're really good chips!) are dumped into the fermented wine to impart that oaky flavor, completely disguising the fruit in the wine. Then there's the alcohol content; after the Paris Tasting of 1976 when Freemark Abbey and Chalone vineyards' Chardonnays beat the best Montrachets from France, California vintners started planting Chardonnay grapes in all the wrong places — like the Central Valley. The sun and temperatures in these locales drove up the sugar content before the tannins had achieved phenolic ripeness. The increased sugar content meant increased alcohol. Add in climate change and the result today is California Chardonnay with alcohol levels at or above 14.5 percent. In my wine world, Chardonnay should be in the 12-14 percent range and grown in places where the sugars are in balance with the tannins; Burgundy and Chablis in France and the Willamette Valley in Oregon are three places that come to mind immediately. Don't get me wrong, there are a few places in California that still produce good chardonnay, Mendocino County, Santa Barbra, the Russian River Valley and Carneros come to mind right away, but there is one spot that has moved me ever since I started drinking wine. Mount Eden and the Santa Cruz Mountains are a special place.

The next time you fly into San Francisco on a winery tour trip, instead of going north to Napa and Sonoma, head south to the Arthur Younger Expressway. Take it west to Route 35 or the Skyline Boulevard, then head south to Saratoga. You'll be driving along the San Andreas Fault and the first cultivated vineyard in California. The Almaden Vineyards were planted in 1840. Paul Masson arrived in 1878 and planted cuttings from Louis Latour Burgundy vineyards. He planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and produced the first champagnes for Almaden in 1880. Masson recognized the unique area as particularly good for cool-climate varieties like Pinot and Chard. At 15 miles from the ocean, the effects of the cold Humboldt Current keep temperatures low and fog along the coast is pervasive. Above the clouds at the 1,000-foot elevation, there may be as much as a 50+ degree temperature change during any given day during the growing season. These growing conditions made Masson the “Champagne King of California.” I remember fondly some of Almaden's Monterrey Pinnacles Cabernets with the distinct bell pepper flavor. One of the other iconic pioneers in what is now called the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticulture Area) was Martin Ray, who was a protégé of Paul Masson before he passed away in 1940. Succinctly, Martin was crazy; egotistical, opinionated and wildly ambitious, he produced some of the best Pinots ever made in California. He also made some of the worst as well, accurately reflecting his bi-polar condition. Ray bought Paul Masson's winery in 1936 amidst the depression and transferred the Burgundian cutting from Masson's vineyard to what is now the Mount Eden Vineyard. Ray's erratic genius led to the idea of night harvests and immediate crushing in pursuit of freshness — processes that are taken for granted today — but it resulted in bankruptcy. Ray was also prescient in bottling varietal wines in an era where low-priced, mixed-varietal jug wines were the de rigueur(think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). In 1943 Ray purchased the undeveloped mountaintop that eventually became Mount Eden. As stated before, he planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir budwood in 1945. Ray also planted cuttings from the nearby La Questa Vineyard that had been taken from the Bordeaux first-growth Chateau Margaux. These would later play a role in the 1976 tastings in Paris as expressed in Chalone's Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon that beat out some of the best Bordeaux of France.

Ray's fatal mistake was taking on investors to further expand his business. His lavish lifestyle and financial shenanigans resulted in the partners taking control of the winery in 1972 when they fired Ray and renamed the winery Mount Eden. Over the next decade the stockholders went through a succession of failed winemakers until in 1981, Jeffery Patterson was hired as a vineyard hand and cellar worker after he graduated from the famous wine program at UC Davis. At that point Mount Eden had only about 25 acres of vines, little money and some broken down tractors. Two years later he was made head winemaker and Jeff's wife Ellie became business manager.

After a few more successful years, the partners pretty much left them alone to manage the winery. When Robert Parker bought a case of the 1986 Chardonnay and 1985 Pinot Noir the phone rang off the hook. Despite Ray's fascination with Pinot Noir, the Mount Eden Chardonnays became its best-known wine. After a brief financial reorganization in 1986, Patterson slowly bought up shares in Mount Eden and in 2008, he and his wife became majority owners.

The secret to Mount Eden's success was, in a word, place. The Santa Cruz mountains feature uplifted fossilized seashells courtesy of the San Andreas Fault, which created thin soils that require dry farming, a cool microclimate, high elevation and east-facing exposure. All these elements contribute to a long, slow growing season where phenolic ripeness is in tune with natural sugars.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which was established in 1981, was among the first in California to be defined by its mountain topography. Its boundary follows the fog line around the range. Patterson explains, “We have a moderate microclimate between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay which gives us a long growing season and good acidity.” He adds, “Our soils are old; the San Andreas Fault is one mile away and our soils are dry farmed.”

Bit by bit over two decades Patterson replaced Ray's vines with cuttings from the original vines and never wavered from a low-tech, non-interventionist, balanced style of wine even when the fashion was for fruit bomb Cabernets and oaky rich Chardonnays. Patterson furthered that effort when he switched to natural yeasts in 2006 and small, open-top fermentation tanks. He also solved the succession problem by bringing his son Reid and daughter Sophie into the business as minority owners. So, the future looks bright for the next 20 years.

The estate produces three tiers of wines for their Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs. The Domaine Eden is the entry-level wine, which is the wine I purchased for this tasting. It was about $22 at Binny's in Highland Park, Illinois. The Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay is the next level at about $50 and they bottle a reserve wine in exceptional years that sells in the $70 range. These may seem pricey but the Chardonnays are our country's equivalent of some of the finest French white Burgundies in the world that typically sell for hundreds of dollars if you can find them. “Wine & Spirits” named Mount Eden's 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon to its top 100 wines of the year. My wife and I had the Domaine Eden with seared scallops and a soy-ginger-butter sauce. This wine demands butter, it also appeals to nuttiness. The flavor is deep, great with rich food like a buttery roast chicken or fatty roasted salmon. The perfect dish for this wine would be a hazelnut crusted halibut sautéed in butter. I can only imagine what the reserve wine tastes like. The combination of place and hard work has elevated Mount Eden to the pantheon of American wineries and worth the effort to find. Good hunting.

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