In a warehouse near San Francisco last year, I had a eureka moment. It was there that I finally tasted the wines of Rhys Vineyards, which had been the object of rapturous praise. I instantly understand why: Not only were they the best New World pinot noirs I'd ever encountered, they were shockingly close in quality to the finest red Burgundies. I recently had another opportunity to sample the Rhys portfolio and was floored again. And it's not just the pinots: Rhys also makes amazing syrahs and chardonnays. I can't get these wines out of my head. Evidently, other people can't, either: Rhys sells only via mailing list, and it is full. So why am I telling you about Rhys? For one thing, there is a waiting list, and they're taking names. More importantly, I think Rhys is the most exciting story on the American wine scene in a long time, not least because of the speed with which it has succeeded: incredibly, it sold its first vintage just five years ago.
Rhys is a classic case of one man's obsession run splendidly amok: Kevin Harvey, a tall, genial 46-year-old Silicon Valley software entrepreneur caught the wine bug in the early 1990s. It soon mutated into a Burgundy fixation, and in 1995 he decided to dabble in fantasy by planting some pinot noir vines—Burgundy's signature red grape variety— in the backyard of his Woodside, Calif., home, set in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Imagine drilling for oil in your lawn and immediately hitting a gusher; that's essentially what happened with Harvey. He vinified the grapes in his garage, and the wine turned out to be shockingly good (he insists he had no clue his lawn could cough up such quality; he says it was "pure serendipity"). He had been thinking about starting a winery in Sonoma, but it now occurred to him that there might be gold in the mountains behind his house.
History suggested as much. The Santa Cruz range, separating San Francisco Bay from the Pacific, has an illustrious if sadly underappreciated viticultural heritage Legendary figures like Paul Masson and Martin Ray produced their wines in these rugged mountains. Most of Ray's property, which he established in the 1940s, now belongs to the excellent Mount Eden Vineyards. The area is also home to Ridge Vineyards, whose flagship cabernet sauvignon, the Ridge Monte Bello, has been making wine enthusiasts swoon for decades. With a rich array of microclimates, the Santa Cruz appellation is unusually versatile, capable of bearing superb cabernets and outstanding pinot noirs and chardonnays, too. Yet, despite its impressive track record and proximity to San Francisco, it has long been overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma.
What most intrigued Harvey about his garage wine was its minerality, an attribute his favorite Burgundies had in abundance but which was rare to find in California pinot noirs—or in any California wines, for that matter. From tasting a number of older Santa Cruz bottlings, Harvey concluded that the region could make the most mineral-driven wines in the entire New World. Minerality is a controversial topic. Oenophiles routinely invoke this term to describe aromas and flavors that seem, well, minerally (chalk, flint, wet stones, etc). But some scientists discourage its use because there is no solid evidence that minerals in the soil can so directly influence a wine's taste. Harvey has little patience for the naysayers; he is convinced minerality is real, that it imparts freshness and nuance to wines and is an extra dimension that separates the great ones from the merely good, and that science will eventually catch up with what our palates are telling us.
Further exploration—and Harvey was nothing if not diligent—revealed that the steep inclines of the Santa Cruz range were carpeted with rocks and also had very shallow, weathered soils. From his travels, Harvey had observed that many of Europe's most acclaimed vineyards were situated on land just like that. Thin, poor soil is desirable because it forces vines to struggle for nutrients, which has the effect of limiting their output and yielding very concentrated fruit. According to Harvey, it also causes the grapes to ripen relatively early, which keeps alcohol levels in check. As for those rocks, it wasn't just their prevalence that was notable; it was also their variety. The Santa Cruz appellation is bisected by the San Andreas Fault, which is where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates collide, and all that churning has created remarkable geological diversity. The hillsides are strewn with chert, shale, limestone, mudstone, and sandstone. Intuitively, at least, this combination of factors seemed to account for the piercing minerality that Harvey had found in his backyard cuvee and in those other Santa Cruz wines.