I’m sitting at a table in a parking lot—at 18 Hangar Way, Suite C, in Watsonville, to be exact. Near an airport.
There’s an airport in Watsonville, a farming community between Santa Cruz and Monterey. And there are wineries. Today, 10 of ’em all, in one place. Here.
Am I slurring? Talking too loud? Where’s the restroom again?
That’s right. It’s under the gorilla.
“And he doesn’t peek,” says Al Drewke, owner of Roudon-Smith Winery. Drewke’s referring to an ape face painted into a jungle mural on the wine-warehouse wall.
I’m outside, taking a break, snacking on cheese and chocolate from Original Sin, a Soquel, Calif., caterer.
It’s 2 p.m. I started tasting wine around noon. I might be tipsy, animated. Babbling on and on (and on) to a Bay Area couple about this unexpected treat. A tiny, tasty wine event, well, here.
Rather than in Santa Cruz. Or Monterey.
Watsonville, defined by Urban Dictionary, is “just a boring crappy town,” while Santa Cruz is “kick-ass … laid-back, (with) great surfing (and) awesome local bands.”
So Watsonville and wine? Sounds like a juicy adventure.
Dave and I planned a Saturday visit to four or five wineries near Watsonville and nearby Aptos. We never made it past stop No. 1.
Stop No. 1 was Roudon-Smith, billed as one of the original wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Appellation. Though it’s just off Highway 1, we took back roads there, weaving our way through the hills of the Pajaro Valley, drooling over strawberry fields and a few pricey homes. We cruised past a local animal shelter advertising $40 spays and neuters, an antenna biz, a thrift store and a hydroponics retailer.
At Roudon-Smith, an event was gearing up. An art fair? Barrel-tasting? Bottles were appearing on tables circling the interior of a large warehouse. Barrels lined one wall. A giant mural included colorful plants and primates.
It was a few minutes before noon. A woman greeted us warmly. “You’re the first ones here!”
Turns out Roudon-Smith shares space in the Santa Cruz Winemakers’ Studio, a newish wine co-op that includes Myka Cellars and Wargin Wines.
When the Hangar Way tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, three wineries are pouring. The day we visited, the co-op was partying with seven additional wineries, appetizers and music. Happy me.
So let’s do the math while I still can: Ten wineries times, say, three 1-ounce tastes of wine at each, is 30 ounces of wine. That’s not including generous extra pours or the occasional revisit of something amazing.
At this type of event, pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee. I’m rhyming.
We tasted slowly, spending time at each tasting table. We met passionate winery owners like Drewke, who assumed sole ownership of Roudon-Smith in 2011. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Drewke worked in tech. Then Uncle Sam came calling. Military service over, Drewke thought: “Do I want to herd cats again?” The answer (negatory) included going back to school—in the Bordeaux region of France—for a master’s degree in the wine business.
Roudon-Smith’s Santa Cruz-grown chardonnay is zingy. Drewke said creamy flavors should not be foisted on a zesty grape, chock full of citrus and minerality. This causes the taster’s brain to rebel. You gotta know the fruit.
“I don’t butter lemons and limes,” Drewke says.
Roudon-Smith’s wines, crafted by winemaker Brandon Armitage, were among the more-mature vintages served at the event. Armitage also has his own label and was serving at a table nearby.
I savored Roudon-Smith’s 2008 pinot noir, aged in neutral oak, possibly because of the way Drewke talked about the grapes, which are growing “right down the street.” Pinot noir thrives with the valley’s warm days and cool evening fog. It’s a finicky grape that demands special attention. As a winemaker, Drewke said, you’re constantly checking in: “Are you comfy, dear? Can I rub your feet, dear?” If you fail to pamper, the grape “builds up grudges and lets its angst and anger out in the bottle.”
Roudon-Smith treats its grapes right. The splendid result: a light bodied mix of anise and cherry.
Dave bought a bottle of 2007 Duet ($27), a blend of cabernet franc (60 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (40), made from San Miguel grapes.
One table down, nine to go. We moved three feet to the right and landed at Bottle Jack Wines. Winemaker John Ritchey, 34, greeted us: “You’ve never heard of us. We’re super-small and super-new.”
Ritchey poured his 2008 Firenze, a super Tuscan-style wine. (Outlaw Italians! Google it!)
The caterer walks up behind us: “Would you like caprese?” Mmm. Tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella pair marvelously with the Firenze. (And I probably need to eat something.)
Ritchey fell in love with wine-making while working with the Peace Corps in Moldova. He returned to Fresno State for an enology degree, missing class to pick up grapes for his own winery.
Ritchey is an optimist. “Economy tanking? Collapse? That’s a good time to start a winery.”
Halfway around the room, and a few wineries later, we land at the table of Mica Raas, pouring his Myka Cellars. The co-op is Raas’ brainchild.
Raas dreams of the Pajaro Valley becoming its own appellation. He opened the wine co-op in Watsonville because the space was affordable. But he also enjoys his newish role of outsider winemaker, playing up the “rebel” label for news media.
Raas didn’t exactly hire the guy who painted the mural to paint a jungle. Raas paid for the paint, and gave the artist carte blanche. Then Raas held his breath. He described coming back the next day, saying to himself, “Please don’t be a naked lady. Please don’t be a naked lady.”
Of course, Raas supports artistic expression. “I just can’t have a 40-foot-high naked lady in here. Think of the detail.”
I complied. Then we bought Myka Cellars’ Mitzi Unoaked 2012 Chardonnay ($28) and the 2011 Kane Cabernet Sauvignon ($26).
I needed to visit the restroom under the gorilla.
Five wineries down. Five to go.
Pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee.