Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards

In naming their vineyards, vintners seek inspiration in all sorts of places: geologic formations, historic landmarks, the family dog.

Albutom Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains sounds as if it has perhaps descended from Pilgrims.

Dr. Thomas Fogarty, who owns the vineyard, is a pilgrim, all right, one of the first modern vintners drawn to the region, where he founded Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards in 1981.

At that time he planted a small vineyard of chardonnay on his 325-acre estate nearly 2,000 feet up the Santa Cruz Mountains. He’d invited several friends to a planting party, but then was summoned to a hospital emergency. The call came at about the same time his beloved San Francisco 49ers were starting their playoff march to their first Super Bowl, raising suspicions about the nature of the “emergency.”

At any rate, his pals proceeded to prepare the vineyard. At the end of the project, one of them noted wryly that the work had been done by “all but Tom.” Shortened to “Albutom,” the name has persisted in recognizing the site, the occasion and one of the signature chardonnays to distinguish the Santa Cruz Mountains.

As an American Viticultural Area, Santa Cruz Mountains sprawls across 480,000 acres and three counties. But because of the region’s steep slopes, sensitive soils and vast spreads of publicly owned lands, only about 1,400 acres are planted to wine grapes. The region’s 60 or so wineries are spread from Half Moon Bay in the north to near Watsonville in the south.

Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards is at Skyline Ridge in the appellation’s northern reaches, not far from Stanford University Medical Center, where Fogarty, a cardiovascular surgeon, long taught.

Though a home winemaker, he began to cultivate kiwis rather than grapes when he bought his estate. Then he tasted a wine from the La Tache vineyard of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy. That’s all the persuasion he needed to try his hand with pinot noir.

At the outset, he hired as his winemaker and vineyard manager Michael Martella. Over the past three decades they’ve established a reputation for wines that capture the distinctiveness of the Santa Cruz Mountains with unusual resonance, finesse and value.

Mostly, Fogarty is recognized these days for its rich yet zesty chardonnays and its harmonious and persistent pinot noirs, though the winery also makes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, all with fruit grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its gewurztraminer is made from grapes grown in Monterey County.

While the gewurztraminer is popular, the wines responsible for the winery’s high standing are its chardonnays and pinot noirs, which are distinguished by their European styling – reserved in alcohol, lean in structure, clear in expression.

Nathan Kandler, who has been with Fogarty for the past decade and who has been its winemaker since last spring, attributes their character in large part to the region’s nutritionally stingy, fractured and thin sandstone and shale soils. Those sparse and hard soils account for the distinctive citric tones and angular builds of the chardonnays, and the focused fruit and lean structure of the pinot noirs, he’s convinced.

What’s more, high and sunny Santa Cruz Mountains provides a long, bright and relatively cool growing season, yielding wines with lower sugars and higher acids than customarily found in other coastal California wine regions.

A tasting of current Fogarty releases shows that grapes need not arrive at the crush pad with high sugar levels to produce wines assertive and deep.

The entry-level 2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($35) is lightly colored, leanly built and low in alcohol (12.9 percent) but delivers readily accessible fruit from the berry family, set off against a creamy background. The 2011 Santa Cruz Mountain Razorback Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65) is similarly willowy in stature and slight in alcohol (12.7 percent), but enhances its cheery fruit with notes of persimmon, earth and spice. The most delicate member of the winery’s pinot portfolio is the 2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Rapley Trail Pinot Noir ($65), but delicacy only refers to its structure, not the resonating richness of its fruit. The most intense of the current pinots is the 2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Rapley Trail Vineyard M Block Pinot Noir ($80), a bit higher in alcohol than the others (13.3 percent), with riper fruit and a denser build.

Fogarty’s chardonnays also escalate in focus and heft, though the starter 2010 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($30) won’t disappoint any fan of the varietal looking for ripe tropical and pear flavors complemented with creamy oak and revitalizing acidity. The 2010 Santa Cruz Mountain Langley Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($56) is a step up in color, richness and complexity, with its aroma and flavor starting with citrus and then roaming through spiced apples, bananas, mangos and pears, all against a backdrop of smoky oak.

The three-quarter-acre Albutom Vineyard that Fogarty put in 33 years ago – so to speak – is represented by two chardonnays now on the market, the 2009 ($50) and the 2010 ($56). With 14.6 percent alcohol, the 2009 is the heftier, riper and more bracing of the two, but both are lean and angular in build, and both have the zesty acidity and citric underpinning identified with Santa Cruz Mountains chardonnays. The vintage of 2010 was the latest to develop in the winery’s history, with the harvest of the chardonnay not finished until Nov. 9. This long, cool growing season resulted in an Albutom Vineyard chardonnay unusually low in alcohol – 11.9 percent – but without a loss of lemony fruit or a sacrifice of cleansing acidity, making it ideal to pair with seafood.

Fogarty might not have been around when his pals planted the vines, but they apparently did OK without his supervision.