What are we trying so desperately to find when we travel somewhere special to taste fine wine? And how can we best describe the more elusive of the sensations we are searching for, above and beyond the momentary pleasures of a mild buzz? I set off recently on a visit to Silver Mountain Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains in search of definitive answers. Three hours later, I ended up with a couple of bottles of really nice wine instead. In any case, the visit revealed to me a promising new direction to explore, and for that I am quite grateful.
Basically, I learned three things about my own wine tasting habits that may resonate with you as well. If so, I would encourage you to visit Silver Mountain for a future tasting of your own. First, I respond positively to compelling human interest stories that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that life, while full of setback and sorrow, doesn’t always have to suck. Second, I am susceptible to fun-filled consumer experiences that provide me with lots of new topics to discuss with my friends and family when next we meet. Third, as someone with more than a casual interest in wine, I get excited when I discover wines of character and charm that capture my attention and make me want to learn more about them as they continue to age.
This ability of fine wine, regardless of how much it actually costs, to entertain us in its youth but then to evolve over time is the ultimate source of its appeal. If wine can gain in beauty and complexity as it gets older, then so in theory can we. Wines that are made honestly and expertly invite us to drink deeply and with intent, but they also make great company if we decide it is time to think for a moment or two about life’s many challenges directly rather than seek out another distraction. And that’s a very cool combination, in my book at least.
Beer, no matter how well made, rarely does that, since it’s typically meant to serve our more immediate needs for thirst-quenching refreshment and pure, simple pleasure. With distilled spirits, either imbibed straight or served in elegant looking cocktails, the impact tends to be both more visceral and more intense, offering us the immediate creature comforts of warmth and welcome rather than providing space for more serious contemplation, which can at times drift off into rather gloomy territory. That’s a lot to ask of wine, I know, but humans have been doing so for thousands of years, and I don’t think we’re willing to stop asking just yet.
Generally speaking, it is the story that comes first, since all wineries have their own unique origin stories to tell and are generally eager to share them with their guests, who may be likely to buy a few bottles if they sense the human connections at work behind the contents of each glass. The very best stories, of course, are also the most rare. These are tales of hard-working families who bonded themselves to particularly special pieces of land and spent generations tending rows of ancient looking vines that dug deeply into the soil and extracted something of the earth’s very essence to be crafted into distinctive, age-worthy wines. While far more common in Europe than the U.S., such stories can be found among Italian, German, and Swiss winemaking families in Napa, Sonoma, Alameda, and Mendocino Counties, for example, and increasingly elsewhere in the state as founding generations retire or pass away and their sons, daughters, or grandchildren decide to take charge. Given the commercial pressures that such family-run businesses face simply to stay viable in a world filled with corporate-owned winemaking empires, it’s hard to put a price on heritage like this. When we do encounter it, we tend to respond with our hearts as much as our heads. And with wine, that’s often a very good thing.
Stories matter, but wine tasting has to be about more than that, or we wouldn’t actually make the effort to go somewhere distant to do it rather than just swing by the supermarket or wine shop instead, or order online. Making consumer experiences so fun and memorable that they are worth experiencing in person, after all, is the secret sauce that has been powering growth in popular California wine country destinations like Napa Valley for the past forty years. Other regions have since stepped up with their own array of tasting flights, food and wine pairings, gift shops, sculpture gardens, ATV vineyard adventures, overnight accommodations, and a host of other amenities. Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Anderson Valley are overflowing with a wealth of indulgent, Instagrammable offerings, to the point where the wine itself may even be at risk of fading into the ultra-luxurious, all encompassing background. Still, no one wants to suffer to taste good wine, and winemakers who fail to upgrade their facilities to meet consumer demand tend to struggle to attract newer, younger guests more likely to check out reviews on Yelp rather than read the latest issue of Wine Spectator.
When it comes to sheer winemaking ambition, however, it isn’t necessarily the known names in Napa or Sonoma who have the edge. They have reputations to maintain and are often averse to taking unnecessary risks. Experienced wine tasters looking to expand their palates tend to seek out the crusading individuals who operate independently at the winemaking vanguard. These are women and men dedicated to their winemaking craft who are also willing to experiment with new grape varietals, fermentation methods, and artisanal styles in search of something special. Greatness, perhaps, or notoriety, but also a quest for authenticity and total freedom of self expression in service to the grapes and soils from which they originated.
Such winemakers form a loose sort of cohort and collectively have a greater impact than any one of them otherwise would. Unless they have vineyards of their own, they prefer to source their grapes from various vineyards where the prices are fair for the quality of fruit produced, provided it is grown using methods they like, which they then make and cellar wherever rental space is cheap enough to support their operations. They brand the wines assertively to appeal to newer generations on wine drinkers and often create cool-looking tasting lounges in urban or warehouse complex settings, like Healdsburg, downtown Napa, west Berkeley, Tin City (Templeton), or Lompoc, to market the wines directly. Eventually, some of most successful (like Littorai, in SonomaCounty) find ways to purchase their own organically and biodynamically farmed vineyard plots to create the highly prized sorts of wine that make wine connoisseurs and critics swoon. Tracking down such highly sought after wines to taste and add to one’s personal collection becomes part of the adventure.
To recap: wine tasting at its best is one part personal story, one part consumer experience, and one part sensory impression. It’s not about finding the perfect food and wine pairing, trying an obscure grape varietal, or adding a 98 point wine to one’s cellar. It is simply a way to form meaningful connections to the world around us through the magical medium of wine.
The quandary that is Silver Mountain Vineyards (founded in 1979) is that it doesn’t fit squarely or entirely into any of these boxes, even though it unquestionably fits partially and semi-perfectly into each and every one. And that is why I think that visiting here for a wine tasting is such fun. You will be tempted to solve the puzzle of what makes it so special, but an easy solution will elude you. You will likely then want to spend some additional time after your visit trying to work it all out – hopefully with an opened bottle of their excellent estate Pinot. And that will add an extra layer of pleasure to the initial experience. If this sort of thing isn’t at least part of the reason why we still leave our homes and comfort zones to go out and taste new wine, then I don’t know what is.
The Silver Mountain Vineyards story is structured around the personal life journey of its founder, Jerold O’Brien, who rehabilitated an abandoned orchard deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1970s with a goal of making fine wine similar to those he enjoyed from France and that were being made by pioneering California winemakers after the Second World War, including the Russian River Valley vintner, Joseph Swan, and the founder of Chalone Vineyard, Richard Graff. After years of effort, Jerold and his small support staff turned Silver Mountain into a thriving vineyard with an attached winery known for its sustainable, earth-friendly practices. When floods, fires, and even a major earthquake in the 1980s threatened to destroy the dream, Jerold doubled down and rebuilt the winery and continued to craft fine wines with the help of a talented assistant winemaker, Anthony Craig, and group of dependable growers who supplied him with grapes to supplement the estate’s limited production numbers.
Now more than forty years on, thanks in no small part to a devoted circle of wine club members and the strong support of the Santa Cruz Mountains winemaking community, the Silver Mountain story continues. It’s not the multigenerational stuff of wine-making legend spanning multiple wars, revolutions, famines, and plagues, but it’s a fascinating tale of triumph over adversity, nonetheless.
The consumer experience here doesn’t attempt to outdo the luxury offerings you’ll find in abundance in Paso Robles, Sonoma, or Napa, where attentive, attractively styled staff escort you around immaculately landscaped grounds as if it were a tour of the Palace of Versailles, often while serving your wines in varietal specific stemware as they do so. What you can expect here instead is more modest but also somehow more meaningful: a gracious, unassuming welcome, polite and helpful table service, and a comfortable, quiet location beneath the shade of a few ancient looking trees to enjoy your wines. You can choose one of four separate wine flights (4 wines for $15), order wine by the glass or bottle, or do a combination of both, should time allow. Picnics are welcome and encouraged and lingering for two hours or more is very easy and tempting to do.
A bottle of the estate rosé ($22) is perfect for sharing in warmer weather, but glasses ($12) of Pinot Noir (four different versions are available), Chardonnay, or “Alloy” Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux red blend would be equally enjoyable following a tasting flight. Don’t expect anyone aggressively to sell you the wines or convince you of their merits. They are experienced enough to let you decide what, whether, and how much to buy, and they realize that taste in wine is highly subjective. Chances are good, however, that the owner himself will be present to assist you with wine recommendations, talk about the winery’s history, or share his thoughts on the current harvest. It’s not a candlelit tour of the wine caves or ATV ride through the vines, by any means, but it is the sort of simple human kindness that one tends not easily to forget.
When it comes to winemaking artistry, Silver Mountain leans toward the traditional rather than the cutting edge. Burgundian and red Bordeaux varietals are the calling cards here, along with a Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah. The estate vineyards used to make Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot (for blending purposes) are all farmed organically, while the winery itself uses solar panels and water storage technology to minimize its environmental impact on the surrounding natural world. Long-standing relationships with other growers in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties supplement what the estate itself can provide.
The estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are very distinctive expressions of the high elevation, mountainous site where they have been cultivated for decades, and anyone who loves these varietals should ask to taste or purchase them if available. Other Pinot Noir wines are sourced locally from the Miller Hill and Muns Vineyard as well as the from the Tondré Grapefield in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Case production is limited each year, and the wines are given time to mature before release, lending them particular charm and showcasing the fine balance of flavors that makes them so attractive to wine connoisseurs as collectibles.
The Bordeaux blends (made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot) and the Syrah are allowed to age for five years or longer before release, gaining complexity and maturity in the process. Tasting an older red wine that is priced similarly to that of a much younger one is a rare treat, especially for visitors unaccustomed to such things. This is a feature of the Silver Mountain tasting experience that newer, hipper urban winemakers simply cannot reproduce.
Wine tasters are often on the hunt for what they call “peak experiences.” These are encounters with wines that are pronounced by experts, merchants, and collectors to be great. They are anointed as such with high scores by the critics or they can claim a long and storied history of superior vintages in the past that earlier generations of wine enthusiasts have come to value and appreciate. Gaining access to these highly coveted wines is widely regarded as the pinnacle of what wine tasting is all about, similar to an angler landing a prized Chinook salmon, a foodie scoring a top table at a popular Michelin-starred restaurant, or an Elite reviewer on Yelp discovering an amazing taco truck, craft brewery, or BBQ fusion joint before the masses learn about it and weigh it down with long lines and excessive demands for service.
Silver Mountain doesn’t specialize in “peak experiences” like that, in my opinion. They offer summit sensations instead. These are feelings of wellbeing that at least some things in this world are still alright, are still stable, and are still the way that they are supposed to be. Things like the fact that wine tasting in California should still be accessible, affordable, and fun. Things like meeting the winemaker by chance, not prior reservation. Things like sampling wines that are the same age as your son or daughter, ones that you perhaps could save to gift to them when they are old enough to drink, to fall in love, and to get married. I can give all of this a 5-star rating on Yelp. If prompted to do, I could rank the wines from Silver Mountain on a 100-point scale (my highest scores in the 90s would be for the 2013 estate Pinot and 2013 Bates Ranch Cab). I can post images from my visit on Instagram and share them on social media. Perhaps I’ll even sign up for the wine club as a Christmas present to myself this year. Only time will tell.
Wine tasting in most of California, save for isolated places off the beaten path, isn’t what it once was, and neither Silver Mountain nor I can really alter those trends. Good thing, then, we don’t really care to try.