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Santa Cruz Mountains AVA ~ Terroir from an Expert ~ Dr. Mark Greenspan ~ Part 1

Santa Cruz Mountains AVA ~ Terroir from an Expert ~ Dr. Mark Greenspan… It doesn’t get much better than sitting with someone trained in viticulture, and Dr. Mark Greenspan, of Advanced Viticulture, is as good as it gets. I wanted to learn about the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA because I attended the World Of Pinot Noir this spring, and sat in on the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA discussion. As people discussed their place on the mountain, I learned that there’s a lot going on in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not much of which I previously knew.

If you read Wine Business Monthly, you’re familiar with Mark’s writings. If you don’t read WBM, Mark has almost two decades of viticultural scientific research and field experience. He’s provided viticultural leadership to winery estate vineyards and to winery grape suppliers, while managing one of the largest portfolios of viticultural research projects in the private industry sector. Mark has worked side-by-side with leading viticulturists, vineyard managers, winemakers, and agricultural technologists, while keeping closely in touch with academic research.

Mark’s eclectic background includes a Masters degree in Horticulture/Viticulture and a Doctorate in Agricultural Engineering, both from the University of California, Davis. He is one of very few private practitioners who have been elected as an honorary member of Gamma Sigma Delta, the Agricultural Honor Society.

He’s regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in wine grape irrigation and has written scientific and trade journal articles on the subject. In addition to his command of grapevine irrigation practices, he has extensive experience in vineyard mineral nutrition, crop load management, vineyard uniformity, grape maturation, weather, climate, and viticultural technologies.

I was honored to have some of his valuable time to learn about the Santa Cruz Mountains. My intereview with Mark Greenspan follows:

[Q]  Santa Cruz Mountains is not like other wine regions. Why?

[A]  It doesn’t have a high density of vineyards and wineries, which can either market separately or market together. And in the Santa Cruz Mountains, they don’t have the density. They’re spread out and are few and far between. There’s power in numbers, and if they break it down, there’s only going to be handful of members in each area. Some vineyards, for instance,  have two or three different soils within just one vineyard on one property. There’s a tremendous amount of variability. Different kinds of soils: sand stone, to clay, to loamy soils. There’s a tremendous amount of variability within one property. I always ask why wineries focus on soils so much. I’m more of a climate oriented AVA and terroir believer. I believe climate has much more affect on differences for a region.

[Q]  Santa Cruz Mountains is a rather large AVA. How does this work in the AVA scheme of things?

[A]  That’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s defined partially by elevations, based on which side of the mountain a vineyard is on. That’s how they drew the boundaries. West side, cooler side, it’s a higher/lower (?) elevation than the other side, the warmer side (I think). They adjusted it so that it’s roughly at that level where you could grow grapes, where it’s not too cold (it’s too cold near the ocean). And as you go up the mountain it gets a little warmer and stays a little warmer at night. And, on the inland, eastern side of the mountain, it’s warmer, and they have elevation defined, because as you get to the valley, it’s a lot warmer, and it takes a lot of the characteristics out of the AVA, which is generally a cooler climate region as compared to other AVA regions in the state.

[Q]  What are the climates like here?

[A]  There are really two distinct climate sides of the mountain: there’s the cooler Pinot Noir side, and there’s the warmer Cabernet side. Obviously there are other varieties that go along with those sides, but there are two distinct climatologies. One is on the eastern side, and has less direct ocean influences, but is more influenced by the San Francisco Bay. This means the air warms more before it gets there and stays warmer. Plus there’s the simple fact that there are two aspects: one is facing east, and one’s facing west.

[Q]  Can you explain this really unique region?

[A]  The only other region that I can think of that’s similar is the Sonoma Coast, only because it’s a large AVA also and runs along the Pacific Ocean. It really doesn’t have the same elevation, though, but it’s definitely different.

[Q]  Tell me about the Santa Cruz Mountains.

[A]  The highest point in the Santa Cruz Mountain range is the Loma Prieta Peak at 3,786 feet. The mountains are largely the result of a compressive uplift, caused by a leftward bend of the San Andreas Fault’s geophysical and climatic factors. The appellation encompasses the Santa Cruz Mountain range, from Half Moon Bay in the north, to Mount Madonna in the south. The east and west boundaries are defined by elevation, extending down to 800 feet in the east and 400 feet in the west. This makes it a very unique AVA with this amount of elevation.

The only other AVA I can think of that’s comparable, is up in Mendocino in the Yorkville Highlands [between 1,000 and 2,200 feet in elevation], which is defined by elevation also, but doesn’t have as much coastal influences, either.

[Q]  What other factors make this region so unique?

[A]  I think it’s safe to say that the Santa Cruz Mountain range has two things going for it that define it: one is proximity to the ocean and the second is elevation. It’s really hard to think of another appellation that has those two in such dramatic fashion.

We may not have that appellation anywhere else in the world that has these features.

Other areas that I might question:

• Atlantic is quite different

• Europe has very different climate patterns

• Chile is said to be close to California climate, but they mostly farm on the coastal plains

[Q]  There’s talk about regions within the Santa Cruz Mountains? Have you heard about this movement?

[A]  No, I haven’t heard about this. Santa Cruz Mountains is probably not nearly as well known as it should be. It needs a good storyteller to get the word out, but not dilute its potential by fragmenting it before the name is instantly synonymous with wine, first. It’s important to keep it as a unified AVA for economic purposes.

Tomorrow, Part 2…

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5 Responses to “Santa Cruz Mountains AVA ~ Terroir from an Expert ~ Dr. Mark Greenspan ~ Part 1”

  1. ken payton says:

    With respect to the boundaries, they were drawn by Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Dave Bennion, one of the founders of Ridge. The two gentlemen hiked, I mean hiked, the entire length of what was to become the AVA. The Westside is held at 400 feet (with a few exceptions for favored vineyards, Bates Ranch, for example), the Eastside, 800 feet.

    On my wine site, reignofterroir.com, I have multiple interviews with founding members of the AVA, including Ken Burnap, Val and Dexter Alghren, Bob Mullen, Jeff Emery, as well as a talk with relative newcomer Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks, with more to come.

    Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a brilliant mosaic of microclimates and wine styles. It deserves to be much more widely known.

  2. Jo says:

    Ken… Yes indeed… I agree. Sitting with Mark, and then transcribing it, doesn’t even begin to be the tip of the iceberg. My real “working for the man” days had me learning a lot about Sonoma, then Napa, and then the Sierras in Murphys. From there, as an independent, I’m learning all else. This was my first real experience with Santa Cruz, and what I learned could be put on the head of a pin, versus all that’s there to know.

    It’s an amazing AVA that deserves so much more of a spotlight than it’s ever had. Now, I just need the time to wander…. Thankfully, not to set up any boundaries. It’s a HUGE AVA, as you’ve noted.

  3. ken payton says:

    Great to have your participation! Santa Cruz Mtns. rocks!

  4. Bill Eyer says:

    I would have to say I agree with the sentiment that the Santa Cruz Mtns. rock! I spent a whole week there last year and it was definitely on my list of AVAs that were a must see and experience first hand. I was indeed impressed with some of the winemaking going on there and have blogged a few posts about my adventures in SCM. I consider myself an advocate of this AVA and would love to see it get more recognition than it’s currently afforded.

    Thanks for sharing this interview, great information was gleaned!

  5. Jo says:


    Thanks for your comments. I know that Mark shed a lot of insight into the SCM for me, and feel very fortunate to have had this time with him. He’s a very proficient writer, and has a monthly column in Wine Business Monthly’s physical magazine.

    Ken Payton, who commented about, is another writer resource from that region.

    I’ve also been going back with Laura Ness, since she attended the PS Symposium, last Tuesday. She lives in Los Gatos, and has written quite a bit about this AVA (most notably for Appellation America), and is very involved in all of their events.

    It looks like those who have already visited and who love to write have begun a quiet process.

    I, like you, however, wish there were more voices for this appellation, because it’s so magnificent, with plenty of great history and wine coming from that region. Keep up the good work.

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