March 27, 2018 – Mark and Gail Hoover were on a winetasting vacation in Murphy’s a few years back, drawn, like so many, to the charm and wine-infused nature of the place. This is a quaint foothills town filled to the brim with tasting rooms. After a few days of exploration, Mark had one simple observation, shared with Gail over a glass of the local Zin: “We can do this!” And thus, an amateur winemaking fixation that had been a source of pleasure since 1981 became the glimmer of a commercial reality that today is Integrity Wines.
Hoover—a sixth generation born and raised Santa Cruzan whose family moved here in the 1840s—went to school at Santa Cruz High, attended Hartnell College and also UCSC, where he majored in Environmental Studies and Philosophy.
Although he now considers winemaking his primary vocation, Hoover also owns two other businesses, Vision Print & Promotions, a printing and promotions/marketing company (he’s been involved with printing since he was 15 years old) and his training company (Mark Hoover Training), specializing in small business training and development for small business owners. Mark met his wife, Gail, while they were both working at a printing company they later purchased.
Mark has always been interested in fermentation science, it seems. “When I was in 4th grade, I decided to experiment by taking some of my mother’s Fleishman’s bread yeast and mixing it in some Welch’s grape juice in my father’s darkroom. It smelled really good but tasted really bad!” he recalls. He remembers making his first wine at age 24, with enough success that he kept at it.
He’s delighted to have reached the point of “going commercial,” but it’s one of those classic tales of long days’ journey into many nights preceding that proverbial overnight success. He religiously took all the extension classes at UC Davis, where he is still enrolled, and was fortunate enough to work with Monterey winegrowing pioneer, Doug Meador, who planted the original Ventana vineyard, to acquire some great Arroyo Seco chardonnay that garnered him an amateur winemaking award. Fast forward to 2016, and his SLH Chardonnay would win a Double Gold at the Orange County Fair, vaulting him into the limelight.
The Integrity Wines tasting room at 135 Aviation Way in Watsonville recently opened on a regular basis for tasting every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5:00 PM. Hoover chose this location because Watsonville had the right kind of space available. “There have been some unexpected surprises,” he explains. “Number one, the City of Watsonville is extremely supportive and easy to work with; two, the community has totally embraced us as their winery; and three, the reverse commute is awesome. All three of our businesses are in the same building!” Living in Aptos, he’s one of the lucky ones with a reverse commute!
It’s an exhilarating place to taste wines. If the combination of planes taking off and landing, with the latter sounding as though they might literally join you at the bar for a sip, excites you, come on by. But don’t come for the jet fuel: come for the excellent wine.
Observe the label on the bottle. It bears a simple thumbprint. Why? “Because many hands touch this wine,” explains Mark. There is a whiteboard in the cellar with the names of every person who had something to do with the current set of wines resting there, from vineyard owner to pickers to sorters to crushers to barrel toppers to bottlers—everyone who has laid a hand on a particular wine has their name listed under that wine’s name. Among the instructions to the “Cellar Rats” is the simple phrase that encourages clean winemaking: “Everyone is the janitor.”
About the label, Mark is often asked, “Whose thumbprint is that?” His reply is simply, “It’s yours. Yours is the last hand to touch this bottle. You’re the reason we make the wine.”
Thank him and the many hands of his crew for the wide-ranging lineup of wines, which include two Pinot Grigios (because life gives you choices), two Chardonnays (because there are so many lovely fruit larders to tap), a Sauv Blanc (really – just one? yes, there might be more), three Pinots (because one is not enough, and neither are two, and three is probably not enough, either), a Riesling (and there will be more – this is a growing obsession) and at least two Cabs. Oh, the Cabs: they will make you swoon.
Current wines on the tasting menu and in barrel hail from as far north as Dry Creek Valley and as far south as the Santa Lucia Highlands. He’s sourcing from some really well-known vineyards, like Griva in Arroyo Seco, from whence comes some thrilling Chardonnay and Pinot, and the Kennedy Vineyard in Los Gatos, farmed by Greg Perucci. He’s also gotten his hands on some rarified Chard and Riesling from L’Estancia in the SLH and Cabernet from Perry Vineyard in the hills of Saratoga. Pinot Grigio from Bassor Vineyard in Watsonville adds to the growing depth in the white wine deparment. Brilliant timing, persistence and solid winemaking are earning him more of the very best fruit these places have to offer.
The resulting wines are all top drawer. The 2016 SLH Riesling from L’Estancia vineyard is all spoken for by the Rosewood resort chain, and the 2016 SLH Chardonnay, from a biodynamic vineyard, took Double Gold at the Orange County Fair.
While the 2016 hits that more middle of the road example of California Sauv Blanc that has a broad appeal, the 2017 Sauv Blanc from Dry Creek Valley is heading towards that New Zealand expression Mark fancies. He loves the grapefruit and the austerity of the NZ Sauv Blancs, but adds some richness and depth with some barrel contact.
One of the most beguiling wines is the 2017 Griva Pinot Noir, flaunting aromatics of chaparral and sage, along with roses and sassafrass. Simple gorgeous, it floods the palate with cranberry, cherry, orange spice and ruby red grapefruit, dancing on your palate with the exuberance of a liberated prisoner.
A big Riesling fan, Hoover is planning on doing an off-dry version for 2018, hoping to convert people to the European style of just a kiss of sweetness, while broadsiding you with plentiful acid.
“People say they don’t want a sweet Riesling, but almost every time they taste one in the Kabinett style, they walk out with it.” Kabinett is typically filled with racy acidity and just a hint of residual sugar. (Spatlese is usually much sweeter, and Auslese, sweeter still, as it’s typically late harvest. In contrast, Trocken is the bone-dry style.)
Hoover says he’s found great success in using 1-ton plastic egg shaped fermenters that actually look like Mercury space capsules. They seem to extract color much more rapidly than your typical one-ton fermenting bins. Case in point are the 2017 Perry Vineyard and Kennedy Vineyard Cabernets: both are gorgeous in color, heavily pigmented but not at all tasting overly extracted in terms of tannin. These are lovely wines, especially the Perry, with elegant, supple tannins, beautiful blackberry fruit and awesome acid, while the Kennedy comes off massive, almost brusque, with overt earth notes and all the charm of a closed fist. They will play well together, though, if the 2016 combination of the two is any indication.
Thanks to the diligence and care of Hoover and his crew of “Wine Custodians,” each bears the absolutely undeniable thumbprint of its vineyard origin. And thus, each wine shines with an inherent integrity that you can both behold and appreciate.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.