Mead On Wine

© 1996 JDM Enterprises
All Rights Reserved
Vol. H No. 30

Santa Cruz Eccentric

by Jerry D. Mead

I'm not sure what it is about the Santa Cruz Mountains, whether it attracts people who are a little "different," or whether the region makes them that way.

I mean David Bruce makes some great wines, but there have indeed been some aberrations over the years. And then there's crazy Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Winery whose newsletter is purported to actually be understood by some folks. Then there was the winemaker with the skeleton of an airplane in his tree. Need I go on?

I knew Ken Burnap, owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (SCMV) for some years before his first vintage in 1975 (heralded as the greatest Pinot Noir ever made in California at the time), and he was always "different." For one thing, he was always convinced that Pinot Noir made the greatest wine in the world (an obvious eccentricity in the mind of a Bordeaux fancier), and that the top of a mountain in Santa Cruz might be the perfect place to grow it in California.

Burnap gave up two successful Southern California businesses in 1974 to buy and build his tiny gravity flow winery, that came complete with visiting deer and bobcat. An artist's rendering of the latter still adorns the decidedly low-tech label. He had been an industrial painting contractor and was partner in The Hobbit restaurant which had the largest selection of California wines at the fairest prices, anywhere in the area.

Other than a few lots of homemade wine, Burnap had no experience either growing grapes or making wine. But he had visited wineries near and far, read everything there was to read and had a habit of succeeding at everything.

He bought an existing vineyard from another vintner who had never had a crop from it, but was forced to sell to raise cash for his latest divorce. Burnap made a few gallons of homemade wine from the vineyard in 1974 from the few grapes the birds left behind. The 1975 vintage of estate Pinot Noir was harvested by friends with scissors and buckets.

When the fermenting wine went through a particularly funky phase, Burnap almost poured it down the drain in disgust. Good thing he did not, as it came around and went on to receive wide critical acclaim. I wasn't using points then, but it would have had a near perfect score if I had.

For 26 consecutive vintages Burnap has continued to make his few thousand cases of wine, the estate Pinot, to be sure, and now Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and an occasional Duriff (the real name of what we call Petite Sirah).

I followed the wines very closely for 20 years, and bought most of the reds, but had a missed a few vintages of late. I recently had the opportunity to taste the entire line, and SCMV is doing what it always did best...making the biggest wines imaginable, sometimes eccentric wines, over the top wines, but always delicious wines that beg a second glass.

They will not be easy to find, as production is limited and national distribution is spotty. If you call the winery for an appointment to visit or to learn where the wines are sold locally, you will almost certainly talk to either Burnap or his Cellarmaster, Jeff Emery. There is no one else. SCMV, 2300 Jarvis Rd., Santa Cruz, CA 95065, phone or fax (408) 426-6209; e-mail:

SCMV 1994 "S. Miller Vineyard" Chardonnay ($15) I once suggested a law that would prevent Burnap making anything but red wine...some early whites were dreadful. One needed to be decanted. He's got it right now. Really tasty, toasty oak and vanilla on an apple and citrus base. Crisp finish. Rating: 88/86

SCMV 1992 "Matteson" Pinot Noir ($20) Really big monster Pinot...but a gentle giant. Full bodied, tons of fruit flavor and extract, but no harsh tannins. Naming a specific fruit is difficult, but Burnap finds hints of "leather, tobacco and a lot of sweet spice that is somewhere between clove and cardamom." Exceptional; cellar worthy. Rating: 92/86

SCMV 1994 "San Ysidro" Merlot ($20) Don't buy this one expecting a soft, light cherry flavored easy quaffer. SCMV doesn't know the meaning of "soft or easy." One of the biggest Merlots in the state, and there's cherry alright, but it's very intense, deep, black cherry. There's some other black fruit, too. The tannins are there and they're bold, but they're also round and inoffensive. Pleasantly tart finish. Rating: 93/86

SCMV 1990 "Bates" Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) Burnap is selling 6 year old Cabernet because he couldn't sell it any younger. It's too big. It's so big that at age six it still seems very youthful. Earthy, dusty, leathery and with every manner of black and red fruit expressed, cherry, berry, plum and currant. I promise you it will improve for ten years, and probably 20. Rating: 91/85

SCMV 1992 Duriff ($17) This wine is simply unbelievable. Match it with Cajun blackened anything, wild game or a hunk of gorgonzola. It is huge. It is opaque. It is also delicious and a pleasure to drink, though like all the SCMV reds there's no telling just how long it will improve in the cellar. How big is it? It's so big that Burnap softened with 8 percent Merlot and 8 percent Chardonnay! That's right, white wine, and it's still inky black. (Blending with white is actually a common practice in the Rhone, Chianti, Rioja and elsewhere.) Black raspberries, black pepper and more. This would be a good wine to buy for children born in 1992 to drink when they turn 21. Rating: 96/90

SCMV 1992 "Estate" Pinot Noir ($25) Bigger than some people think a Pinot should be and underpriced whether that's true or not. Unbelievably intense and extracted from a drought year and a dry-farmed 14 acre vineyard yielding way less than a ton of extremely small-berried grapes to the acre. Fermented with wild yeasts and handmade down to hand-punching the fermentation cap, this is like no Pinot you've ever tasted, unless you've tasted others from SCMV. Really ripe plum, cherry and boysenberry flavors, plus that unique, impossible to describe Burgundian Pinot aftertaste. Will it age? I still have a few bottles of the 26 year old 1975 and they're drinking fine. A definite collectable. Get in line. Only 108 cases made. Rating: 98/88

The "Wine of the Week" will return next week.

Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value. For a reprint explaining the scoring system in depth and a pocket scoring guide, send $1 to: Mead's 100 Points, P.O. Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702-1598.


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Latest Update: September 20, 1996