Rhys Vineyard: Defining Santa Cruz Mountains Terroir
Kevin Harvey is a terroirist. He’s also a self-proclaimed “Burghound,” a true lover of Pinot Noir.
“To me, the fascination with wine is terroir,” says Harvey, talking about the concept of wine reflecting the place, even the specific vineyard parcel, where it grows. “That’s the reason wine is compelling to me.”
Harvey believes Pinot Noir is the grape that best reflects its vineyard, and he feels the best terroir is here in the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Northern California.
Spend time with Harvey, who owns Rhys Vineyards in Los Gatos, and you’ll get one of the best lessons on growing and making Pinot. “Everybody thinks climate is the most important thing,” he says when it comes to finding the ideal place to plant, “but it’s not. The soil matters much, much more.”
Harvey fits the mold of the maverick typically drawn to making wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains (think Paul Draper at Ridge or Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon). “Pinot’s all about expression of site and if your site doesn’t have anything to say, the Pinot’s not going to be very interesting.”
“The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is incredibly geologically diverse,” says Harvey, due to tectonic plates pushing up against each other (aka the San Andreas Fault). Harvey searched for land with unique soils because he didn’t want the wines to all be the same. He also paired clones to the geology and aspects (facing east or south) and spaced vines densely, all with the goal of creating tiny lots managed individually for the optimum grapes. This laser-like focus on soil means micro lots in the vineyards and in the winery. Imagine tending 100 micro plots in your garden.
Harvey started by planting Pinot in his own backyard, the Home Vineyard, in Woodside. In 2001 he bought Alpine and Horseshoe vineyards, off of Skyline Boulevard. They are (as are all Rhys plantings) virgin vineyards.
“These vineyards have never had any nonorganic application,” he says. Rhys farms using biodynamic and sustainable practices, cover crops and sheep “mowing” between the vines. For Harvey, doing less is more, and “keeping the vines in balance makes the highest-quality wine.”
Elevations at Alpine peaks at 1,600 feet, with sweeping views and 13 acres of vines—12 planted to Pinot, one to Chardonnay. Here the soil is a dense, white and chalky shale. He finds it imparts a chalky, sea breeze aroma to the Chardonnay. Alpine is such a good terroir for Chard that Harvey plans to replace one acre of Pinot with it. The Alpine Pinot is what he calls generous and outgoing in style.
Horseshoe, at roughly the same altitude and climate, has completely different soil even though it is a mere 300 yards away from Alpine. It too is white shale, but rigid like a balsa wood—almost no density or weight to it. Horseshoe is rockier. Vines have to work harder, pushing roots down 12 or more feet through “fractured sedimentary layers.” This Chardonnay has a “wet-stone nose,” is “introverted” and has plenty of acid.
Horseshoe Pinots are more structured and have stronger mineral notes along with that acid. In fact the one characteristic all Rhys wine shares is high acid. It’s a style Harvey prefers, so no fruit or oak bombs here. But the difference in the taste of each wine is dramatic.
To ensure these differences show in the final wines, Winemaker Jeff Brinkman vinifies the wine in micro lots. During harvest that can mean 100 fermentations happening at once. The wines are treated ever so gently—the juice is never pumped and is moved by gravity or pneumatic pressure. All wines are fermented with native (wild) yeasts; the Pinots are made with mostly whole grape clusters (stems and all).
You could call the Rhys super-focused way of growing and making wine obsessive, perhaps borderline crazy, not only in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but in much of California wine country. The payoff, at least for Harvey, is a balanced wine that ages a long time (yes, even the Chardonnays). He’s not done tweaking the vineyards or winemaking process. Rhys doesn’t make much wine—producing 8,000 cases a year (and growing slowly), selling out quickly through the winery’s mailing list, for which there is a wait. Should you seek out these bottles, you’ll taste a wine with a point of view: its home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Mary Orlin is the WineFashionista, blending wine and fragrance with style. She is the James Beard Award- and Emmy Award-winning co-founder of Orlin Media, specializing in video storytelling for wineries. Mary writes on The Huffington Post, has been featured in Gastronomique En Vogue and Uncorked, produces for the AOL “You’ve Got” video series and most recently was the executive producer of the NBC show “In Wine Country,” which she launched in 2001. Mary is a Certified Sommelier, having passed the exam by the Court of Master Sommeliers.