Meeting Prudy Foxx, Santa Cruz Mountains
In July 2013, The Sommelier Journal invited me to accompany their sommelier Terroir Experience through the Santa Cruz Mountains. There Prudy Foxx of Foxx Viticulture, the premier viticultural consultant for the region, hosted us for a tasting, and discussion of some of the unique winegrowing elements of the Mountains.
This weekend, the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers’ Association hosted their annual Grand Pro tasting. Fifteen of us were asked to come together to taste and rate 120 total wines (each of us tasted 60, with the wines being distributed through 3 groups) of the region.
To open the tasting, Prudy Foxx guided us through a survey of the varied character of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Following is a portion of what Fox had to share with us. Her discussion focused on three key factors of terroir–climate, soil, and socioeconomic elements.
Prudy Foxx Talks Terroir of the Santa Cruz Mountains
“When it comes to the idea of terroir, some people mention climate conditions, and soil, and stop there, but I have found over the years there are a lot of human elements that factor in.
“I do believe wine comes from the vineyards. That’s why I spend all my time out there. I took it too seriously.
“Capital investments in the vineyard, how care and maintenance is done, all factor in.
“You have to have healthy soils. There needs to be life in the soil, so the vines can take up minerals, or micronutrients from the soil. Some people call it minerality, but it’s that the vines need to be in live soil to take up micronutrients to grow.
“I am all about vineyard aspects [the angle and direction in relation to the sun of the vineyard slope]. There are so many different aspects in the vineyards here. The San Andreas Fault runs through the AVA. If you look over the appellation, it’s like folds in fabric, all these different folds of land, cliffs, and aspects in all different directions.
“If you look at either side of the fault… you can actually go down to Watsonville, and look at the fault itself. You can see the Pacific plate rubbing up against the North American plate. The fault, and that activity has a big impact on the soils here.
“At the top of the Mountains, you get more rock. Then, as you come down towards the bottom [of the Mountains] there are colluvial soils that have eroded from the top, and mix over alluvial soils near the rivers. So, you get a lot of different soils depending on where the vineyard is, and all those soil differences affect the flavor [of the wine].
“The Santa Cruz Mountains are a series of ridges. On the coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains you have close proximity to the ocean, and maritime influence. But then at the top [even close to the ocean] at 3000 ft there is less coastal influence. The fog comes in but below you so you can get a lot more radiant heat. In some of those areas people are trying some Italian stuff because it is just so hot [in comparison to lower elevation within the fog zone].
“Then on the Saratoga Hills side of the Mountains it is generally warmer, and is good for consistent ripening of Cabernet. But, again, it really depends on where you are located, and what direction you are facing. The temperature and conditions will be really different depending on the aspect of your vineyard slope. [Even in the Saratoga Hills side of the Santa Cruz Mountains,] it could be cool enough to grow Pinot Noir.
“The Santa Cruz Mountains is all about hills, and valleys, and slopes, and how the slope really captures light and heat. The direction of the slope influence what light the vineyard receives, and the heat it has to absorb. Different soil types absorb heat at different rates, so influence what the vines receive.
“Grapes can grow almost anywhere, in almost any conditions. That’s why it’s one of the oldest forms of agriculture. But one of the things grapes hate is wet feet. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a vine, wet feet. We don’t have that problem here [thanks to the elevation and slopes].
“There is a big diversity of soils. Some of the higher areas have a mudstone. As they dry out the soil hardens, and turns into rock. At that point it begins to act like clay [just in the sense that] as it dries out it is very hard to re-wet. That is part of why these years after years of drought are hard on vineyards. Areas with those sorts of soils, it is very hard for that soil to get re-wet.
“But then we have areas with red soil, areas that are almost like pure sand, loamy sands, rock…
“Shatter occurs [when the clusters get wet from fog or rain during flowering]. Whether it happens depends on the weather that vintage. If it happens, it affects the flavor.
“How you train the vineyard also impacts the flavor of the wine. Cane pruning, versus cordon, versus [other types of training], all impact how the fruit grows, and so also the flavor. Pruning can have an important impact.
“Light levels affect development of anthocyanins and phenolics, [and the thickness of the skins]. When you have a lot of sun exposure, the plant wants a place for all that energy [from photosynthesis] to go. The fruit is a heat sink for that energy. So, sometimes leaving a lot of fruit on the vine in conditions like that can be really important. It might seem counter intuitive because we tend to think low yield is better, but not always. [How much fruit you leave on the vine is part of the overall vine balance, and depends on all these conditions.] When you have too many leaves on the vine, you’re going to get a real green development of underripe flavor in the wine.
“When people talk about making your vine suffer, it is not always a good thing. There are times when leaves are no longer photosynthesizing [because of how the vine is suffering], so the grapes are only ripening [gaining sugar] because they are dehydrating on the vine, not because they are receiving what they need from the vine. [The grape gains sugars, but the seeds are not ripening. It results in wine that tastes overripe and underripe simultaneously.]
“Terroir includes climate, the temperature, the rainfall… all of which vary depending on the time of the year. It includes the soil, which is part of the infrastructure, and the drainage of the vineyard. It impacts the texture, the minerality, the chemistry of the wine. There are also the socioeconomic aspects of the vineyard. [How the vineyard is planted, or pruned is part of the infrastructure of the vineyard, and is a matter of labor in the vineyard.] Some of this is a matter of what you can afford, your capital investment, and also of how you take care of your workforce, if they can afford to live and work there all year. [The capital investment in the vineyard, how much equipment is needed or used, the labor, how hand intensive the work is, the growing, the farming. All of this factors into yield. Yield can vary in some elements by vintage.] All of these are elements of the terroir.”
Thank you to Prudy Foxx, and Megan Metz.
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Love the S.C. Mountain AVA, glad to see the coverage. Also think its a great concept and kudos to Randy getting everyone in the vineyards!