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Santa Clara-Santa Cruz - Notable Wineries By District And Region

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(Note: Information Originally Published In 1955 - Presented For Historical Perspective!)


Almaden Vineyards, Los Gatos About midway between Los Gatos and the former mining village of Almaden, some six miles south of San Jose, are to be found the winery and domain of Almaden, overlooking the undulating hills toward Loma Prieta and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here some of the finest champagnes and sherries of California are produced as well as table wines and other aperitif and dessert wines of great merit.

Founder of Almaden was the Frenchman Etienne Thee, a farmer from Bordeaux who is said to have come to California lured by the Gold Rush but who turned to less elusive and more permanent pursuits, grape growing and wine making. To this end he purchased from the Guadalajara pioneer Jose Augustin Narvaez part of the old Rancho San Juan Bautista, securing for himself a fertile tract of land along the creek called Guadalupe River. Here he planted his first vines in 1852 and later, on a high knoll with its sweeping valley and mountain view, built his home, which still stands today.

Thee was soon joined in his enterprise by a neighbor and compatriot, Charles Lefranc, once said to have been a tailor in Passy, the suburb of Paris. The vineyards were enlarged and planted to cuttings of choice varieties imported from the districts of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone Valley in France. Lefranc married Thee's daughter Adele and eventually inherited his friend and father-in-law's property. He named it Almaden, after the nearby quicksilver mines of New Almaden, so called by the Spaniards in honor of the well-known quicksilver mining town of that name in the province of Ciudad Real in New Castile, Spain.

Lefranc prospered together with his vineyards and by the end of the eighteen seventies could boast that they contained more vines than any other in the county and, what was even more important, that his wines rated with the very best in all the West. The finest cooperage was imported from France around Cape Horn, some of it to continue in use down to the present. Many were the famous guests who enjoyed Lefranc's warm hospitality, among whom are said to have numbered Admiral Farragut, Generals Sherman, Halleck, and Ulysses S. Grant.

The French influence and atmosphere were dominant at Almaden and this tradition was strengthened when Lefranc hired a young Burgundian to help in the office and winery. This was Paul Masson, who was to make his own name great in the California wine industry and also followed another precedent by marrying Lefranc's daughter Louise. Paul Masson eventually became associated with Lefranc in the production and merchandising of champagnes and table wines in a jointly owned business, Lefranc-Masson. He never owned any interest in the Almaden vineyards, but established himself on his own property, which he acquired and developed in the hills above Saratoga. Eventually Almaden was inherited by Charles Lefranc's son Henry and after the latter's death in r9o9 the property was held in trust for the family until it was sold to Charles Jones. With the advent of Prohibition Almaden entered a dormant period as far as wine making was concerned.

In 1941 Louis A. Benoist, well-known San Francisco businessman and social leader and president of the Lawrence Warehouse Company, national field-warehousing concern, purchased Almaden at the advice of the noted wine authority Frank Schoonmaker. As wine maker and plant manager, Oliver J. Goulet was engaged, one of the foremost experts in the field. Since 1954 Goulet is ably assisted by A. C. (Al) Huntsinger, formerly general manager of the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery at St. Helena.

Under the direction of Ollie Goulet the winery and other buildings were renovated and the original vineyards brought back into shape. Additional acreage was acquired, including a tract high up in the mountains near Eagle Rock, planted to Johannisberg Riesling and Traminer vines, and another a few miles south of the Almaden ranch where Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Chardonnay, and Pinot blanc are grown. There are also important vineyards of Pinot noir.

At Almaden, Louis Benoist revived the tradition of hospitality set by Charles Lefranc. A charming host, he receives with elegance in the villa built by Etienne Thee over a hundred years ago. Excellent luncheons and dinners are given, preceded by the traditional aperitif, Almaden Brut Champagne, and accompanied by a selection of the ranch's choice vintages.

The policy of Louis Benoist and Ollie Goulet is to produce only wines of the highest quality. Recent winery expansions include a new champagne cellar and an additional sherry room featuring six Soleras, making Almaden's Solera operation the most modern and probably the largest in the country.

All wines (with the exception of the Vermouths) carry the Almaden brand on the label, many with the Santa Clara Valley appellation of origin. They include the following:

Table wines: RED: Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, Burgundy, and Chianti; Mountain Red Burgundy and Claret in the low-price range;

WHITE: Johannisberg Riesling, Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Traminer, Dry Semillon, Sylvaner, Grey Riesling, and Chablis; Mountain White Sauterne and Chablis in the low-price range;

ROSE: Grenache Rose (outstanding of its type and extremely popular).

Sparkling wines (bottle-fermented) : Almaden Brut Champagne (the specialite de la maison available also in magnums, very dry and full-flavored without acidity, ranking with the very best), Almaden Extra-Dry (medium dry), Pink Champagne, and Sparkling Burgundy.

Aperitif and Dessert wines: Solera Sherries (all outstanding flop sherries, produced from Palomino grapes and matured in small oak butts brought over from Spain) : Cocktail Sherry (very pale and very dry, on the Fino order), Golden Sherry, and Cream Sherry;

Solera Ports (probably the only ones produced in the U.S.A. by a Solera system) : Ruby Port and Tawny Port;

Vermouths (marketed under the Nob Hill brand) : Dry and Sweet.

Lone Hill Vineyards, Los Gatos

Owners of the Lone Hill Vineyards are the four brothers Arthur H., Rodolphe A., Clovis T., the wine maker, and Ambroise N. Mirassou. Their father, Herman Mirassou, is the younger brother of the late Peter Mirassou of the Mirassou Vineyards at Evergreen, near San Jose (see there), and the grandson of Pierre Pellier, one of the pioneer winegrowers of Santa Clara County.

The Lone Hill Vineyards, originally set out in 1864 by a former The Northern Coastal Region 155 New Yorker, David M. Harwood, were purchased by this branch of the Mirassou family in 1936. In order to get a longer marketing period for their grapes the four brothers built their winery in 1946.

Lone Hill concentrates on making available to the public betterthan-average table wines at a competitive price to get the maximum number of people interested in wine consumption. Much of the business is devoted to supplying very inexpensive wines to customers bringing their own gallon jugs to the winery, saving--thereby bottling and merchandising costs.

Table wines are also bottled under the Lone Hill Green Label and the Lone Hill Reserve Label, mostly Burgundy, Sauterne, Vino Rosso (medium-sweet red table wine), and Vin Rose (a blend). Dessert wines are also available.

The Lone Hill Gold Label is reserved for a few quality wines, such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling, produced from neighboring vineyards which have since been replanted to other crops. When these wines are exhausted this label will be used for bottling other varietal table wines.

Clovis Mirassou is the inventor of a five-gallon barrel with interior plastic compartments from which five different wines can be poured from separate spigots.

Novitiate of Los Gatos, Los Gatos

In the hills above Los Gatos lies the beautiful and magnificently situated Seminary of the Sacred Heart Novitiate of the Society of Jesus. Here young men begin their training for possible missionary work in the Orient, teaching positions in schools operated by the Jesuits in California, or for parochial duties in some of the dioceses along the West Coast.

Since its founding the Novitiate has maintained the tradition for producing fine altar wines in strict accordance with the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. Once the needs for sacramental wines had been met, the remainder of the production was made available to the public through commercial channels.

The Jesuit fathers have full charge of the production of the wines, while the Jesuit brothers supervise or carry on the actual work in the vineyards and winery. The novices and the junior students pick most of the grapes each fall. Many of the vines were originally imported from France, notably the muscats from the region of Montpellier near the Mediterranean.

President of the Novitiate is Father John F. X. Connolly, S.J., while Father Ralph J. Deward, S.J., is the general manager, Brother Michael Walsh, S.J., the wine maker, and Father James E. Ransford the chemist in charge.

Both table wines and aperitif and dessert wines are produced, marketed for the public under the Novitiate brand. They include:

Table wines:

RED: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Burgundy;

WHITE: Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Semillon, Chateau Novitiate (Sweet Sauterne), Dry Sauterne, Chablis;

ROSE: Grenache Rose.

Aperitif and Dessert wines:

Dry Sherry, Cocktail Sherry (medium dry), Sherry (medium sweet), and Golden Sherry (sweet) ; Port; two specialty wines from muscat grapes, the famed Novitiate Black Muscat (from Muscat Hamburg grapes exclusively) and the Muscat Frontignan (all from that grape, the vines of which were originally brought over from Frontignan); Tokay and Angelica.

Novitiate Altar wines, available only to the clergy:

Dry wines: RED: Manresa (Burgundy); WHITE: Villa Joseph (medium-dry sauterne), Vin Dore (slightly sweet sauterne) ; San Carlos (chablis type).

Sweet wines: Villa Maria (medium-sweet sherry), Novitiate (port), San Jose (black muscat), Guadalupe (golden muscatel), San Ignacio (tokay), and 1'Admirable (angelica).

Paul Masson Vineyards, Saratoga

A great name in the history of the California wine industry and a national enterprise, founded by that famed Frenchman from Burgundy, Paul Masson.

Paul Masson first worked for Charles Lefranc in the latter's winery at Almaden and while employed there looked for the best place to establish vineyards and a winery of his own. He decided on a location in the mountains above Saratoga where the soil and climate were eminently suited to the growing of the finer wine grape varieties. He acquired lands there, named "La Cresta," in the eighteen eighties and planted them to cuttings of choice imported vines. He married Charles Lefranc's daughter and established a business partnership with his former employer for the merchandising of their wines, known as Lefranc-Masson. On the death of LeFranc, Paul Masson acquired the latter's interest in their joint business, merged it with his Saratoga holdings and the Paul Masson Champagne Company succeeded the partnership, champagne having become the principal product.

The original winery Paul Masson had built on his Saratoga property was destroyed by the r9o6 earthquake, but was rebuilt by him in the following years, using same of the sandstone from old St. Joseph's Church in San Jose, which had been destroyed in the same disaster. Paul Masson made his name forever famous by producing champagnes and table wines of the highest quality. For over half a century he worked in his steeply sloping mountain vineyards and in his wine cellars establishing a great name for his wines and becoming somewhat of a legendary figure himself. In 1936 he retired from his vineyards and passed away four years later, a greatly respected personality and a true modern pioneer of the best that can be produced in California wines.

Before he retired Paul Masson had sold his vineyards and winery to Martin Ray, a native of the village of Saratoga at the foot of the hills where Masson had created his domain. Martin Ray operated the enterprise with skill and success, following the tradition of producing only the best in champagne and table wines. A disastrous fire occurred in 1941, wrecking the winery and causing great losses, but Martin Ray, with energy and determination, rebuilt both the winery and his business. Two years later he sold the enterprise to Joseph E. Seagram's, the distillers, later establishing another domain of his own even higher up in the mountains. Seagram's held the Masson winery and vineyards only a short while, disposing of the business in 1945 to a company in which Alfred Fromm and Franz Sichel are the partners and who have operated it since that time.

Both the Fromm and the Sichel families have been in the wine industry for a great number of years, the former for five generations and the latter for seven. The Fromms are winegrowers from Bingen on the Rhine in Germany since 1864 and the Sichel name is a familiar one in the wine industry both in Mainz, Germany, and in Bordeaux, France, as well as in this country as importers. Max Fromm, the father of Alfred, was a famous wine blender in Germany and is still active, though in his eighties, and continues to advise his sons Alfred and Norman in their California wine enterprise.

Kurt G. Opper, one of the best-known wine makers in the country, is the winery manager, while Hans Hyba, the champagne master, is one of the foremost champagne makers. Hyba, a very modest person, has contributed notable improvements to the production process of bottle-fermented champagne and experts of famous French champagne houses have visited him to observe his methods, which are available to anyone wanting to use them.

The main Paul Masson winery is located on the Saratoga property, while the champagne winery and cellars are to be found in Cupertino. A third winery, at Mountain View, Cupertino, is used as a bottling plant and storeroom.

Paul Masson Vineyards produces both table wines and sparkling wines of superior quality as well as some notable aperitif and dessert wines. Their champagnes rate among the very best of the state and of their table wines the finer varietals are the more notable.

The table wines, both red and white as well as the rose, and the sparkling wines are marketed under the Paul Masson brand, while the aperitif and dessert wines carry the Masson label.

Table wines: RED: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Gamay Beaujolais, and Burgundy;

WHITE: Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc Vrai, Chateau Masson (Sweet Semillon), Dry Semillon, Dry Sauterne, Riesling, and Chablis;

ROSE: Vin Rose Sec.

Sparkling wines (bottle-fermented) : Brut Champagne (predominantly from Pinot blanc, Folle blanche, and Johannisberg Riesling grapes, the cuvees having been additionally aged), Extra Dry Champagne, Oeil de Perdrix (Partridge's Eye) Pink Champagne (Triple Red), and Sparkling Burgundy (Cuvee Rouge).

Aperitif and Dessert wines: Marketed in special heart-shaped decanters: Rare Cream Sherry and Rare Tawny Port, both outstanding wines of their types; Pale Dry Sherry and Rich Golden Sherry, Rich Ruby Port, Choice Muscatel (all also available in magnums); Vermouths: Double Dry and Sweet.

Martin Ray, Inc., Saratoga

High above the Saratoga foothills rises Mt. Eden to an altitude of some two thousand feet, commanding a grandiose view of the whole of the Santa Clara Valley. It is here on the very summit of the mountain that Martin Ray devotes his skill to the production of the finest and costliest California wines, of which the Pinot Noir champagnes and table wines especially rank as supreme achievements, comparable to the finest wines of France.

Born into a farming family of Saratoga, Martin Ray first became a stockbroker, a trade he followed with sufficient success to start, at a relatively early age, the wine-making career he ambitioned. He had set his heart on Paul Masson's winery and vineyards above his native village and in 1936 he accomplished his desire, purchasing them from that great man when the latter retired from his life work. Martin Ray operated the enterprise with success and distinction, and then, desirous of a more restricted field of operations, sold it in 1943 for a good price. He then bought, built, planted, and developed his present domain, which is adjacent to his former property but is situated on even loftier heights.

Martin Ray, or Rusty, as he is known to his friends, is a dynamic and forceful personality, an excellent showman, deeply devoted to his art, and as profoundly appreciative of truly fine wines as he is impatient with any other. His vineyards, planted on the eastern and southern exposures of the mountain slopes, are planted to three varieties only: Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Chardonnay. An underground concrete pipe system with strategically located pumps ensures proper drainage during the rainy season and preservation of the topsoil. All of the work done in vineyards; wine making, bottling, and shipping is accomplished by Martin Ray and his family or under his immediate supervision. The wines are clarified by racking and decanting, not by filtering or fining; the wines sometimes throwing a deposit when maturing, as do many of the great European vintages.

Martin Ray's wines are all 100 per cent varietal vintage wines and of the best years only. Any wine not measuring up to the highest standards is disposed of and sold in bulk. The policy is to produce only the very best and to improve wherever possible, regardless of cost. Production is in a small scale, the wines being destined for gourmets and connoisseurs and for the best restaurants and clubs. It is not surprising that their cost is high.

The Martin Ray wines include the following champagnes and table wines, which are available in the vintages indicated, to be succeeded by later vintages:

Champagnes (bottle-fermented) : Madame Pinot Champagne (Blanc de noir), made entirely from the free-run juice of the Pinot noir grape, vintage 1950; Sang-de-Pinot Champagne (Rose de noir), a coral-pink champagne, made from the first light pressing of the Pinot noir grape, vintage I949.

Table wines (all marketed in champagne bottles with champagne corks for better aging, a Martin Ray trademark since 1936):

RED: Pinot Noir, vintage 1941, one of California's greatest wines, produced from Martin Ray's old vineyards, available only in limited quantities and easily the costliest California table wine; Pinot Noir, vintage ig5r, the first great Pinot Noir vintage from his present domain; Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 1947, his finest Cabernet Sauvignon to date; Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 1946, a great full-bodied wine, is available in very limited quantities for laying-down purposes; Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 1948 and similar in character to the 1947, is developing well.

WHITE: Chardonnay, vintage 1952, a true Mountain Chardonnay produced from Pinot Chardonnay grapes only.

ROSE: Pinot Noir Rose, vintage 1952, coral pink, and the only rose produced in California from the Pinot noir grape.