PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULES HOLDSWORTH
Raise a toast to one of the creators of the Santa Cruz Mountains wine appellation and his legacy
Life is sometimes an arc that leads to you back to where you belong. You just don’t know when, how or why. When Jeff Emery, a 19-year-old college student at UC Santa Cruz, got the call to help the owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard bottle wine in 1979, he could never have imagined that he would spend, literally, the rest of his life in the wine business. Because one little phone call can change everything, it’s always best to answer. You can always hang up.
If you believe in fate, Emery’s was cast long before he was born. The tale begins with a very young Ken Burnap, trying to impress a young lady in Texas. “I was smitten by this girl, Mary Ellen, but her mother didn’t think much of me. I decided to impress her, and take her to the fanciest restaurant in town.” Naturally, it came complete with one of those super snooty sommeliers. Never mind that Burnap was just 18. He looked 21, which came in handy when buying beer for the boys, or in this case, wine for the girl.
Naturally, Burnap butchered the name of the fancy French wine he ordered and the somm corrected him with haughty disdain. The next morning, Burnap was in the library, reading everything he could about French wine. His obsession grew. He traveled to France, befriended vignerons, became an expert in every region, beginning with Bordeaux, but eventually falling for the charms of Burgundy. His wine collection grew, along with his circle of winemaker friends. Food and wine became his life’s passion, although the construction business was his means to an end.
Along the way, Burnap and a business colleague, Howard Philippi, decided to open a restaurant in Orange County called The Hobbit. It had a huge basement, perfect for storing wines. Guests entered through a trap door, where they were greeted with Champagne, then asked to choose a bottle to accompany their dinner. Upstairs they would go, feasting their way through a splendid multicourse meal that often didn’t wrap up until 1am. It was Burnap’s idea of the good life.
He admits, “We had no idea what we were doing. The first week, we invited all our friends, and that was great. Then what? We got out the yellow pages and invited all the doctors. We sent them written invitations. There was some debate: Were chiropractors really doctors? We invited them anyway.” One day, the restaurant critic from the LA Times came to dine and was most impressed. She offered to get her writeup placed in the Sunday edition, which had a wider circulation than the Thursday paper, where her restaurant reviews usually appeared.
“The Sunday edition hit on a Saturday, and the phone started ringing off the hook,” recalls Burnap. “It was crazy! We had to start taking reservations a year in advance. We’d call people to remind them, and they’d say, ‘Oh, my husband must have made that reservation. We’re no longer together!’ And we’d say, bring somebody else then!” Howard’s son, Mike, now runs the restaurant, which continues to thrive.
The vineyard, first planted in 1863, has a stunning view of the Monterey Bay. It was love at first sight. Burnap had to have it.
Meanwhile, Burnap’s lust for Burgundy sparked the desire to have his own vineyard in California where he could make pinot noir. He was leaning towards the Santa Cruz Mountains, when he crossed paths with David Bruce, who was going through a divorce and needed to unload some assets in order to purchase the winery from his ex. One of those assets happened to be a dry-farmed vineyard on Jarvis Road that was planted to zinfandel and pinot noir. “I loved the 1968 zin,” says Burnap. “It was one of my favorite wines that Dr. David ever made.” The vineyard, first planted in 1863, has a stunning view of the Monterey Bay. It was love at first sight. Burnap had to have it. And that’s how Emery came into the picture.
“Bring your toothbrush and a change of clothes,” Emery’s friend told him on that day in 1979. “You might be there a while.” Indeed, he never left. Burnap went on to help map out the original Santa Cruz Mountains appellation and get it approved as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1981.
Fast forward 40 years, and Burnap and Emery are sitting together in the current production facility of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, on Swift Street in Santa Cruz, flipping through some of Burnap’s old log books, tasting a couple of wines from their early years together. One is a 1977 labeled “Caberenet Sauvignon.” It’s a bit dusty, oozing of pine and well-preserved cab character, owing to 12% alcohol. Says Emery of the flagrant typo on the label, “Somebody in TTB approved that label! What did I know about cabernet back then?” TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau which regulates the wine industry.
They also have a 1974 gallon jug open from the very first pinot noir harvest off the Jarvis estate: It’s redolent of orange peel, iodine and history. Tasting with them are two of the young men who have apprenticed with Emery: Cole Thomas and Ken Swegles, both having served as his assistant winemakers, along with Dennis Hoey. All three have gone on to create their own wine brands: Hoey with Odonata, and Swegles and Thomas with Madson. All owe their careers to Burnap, who admits he’s spent more time with Emery than with his own kids.
With 40 years to talk about, there’s a lot of bouncing around. Emery and Burnap flash back to January of 1983, when rains in the Santa Cruz Mountains caused extreme flooding and mudslides. “It was right after the holidays, and we hadn’t been at the winery in a long time, so we had no supplies,” recalls Burnap. The power went out. Burnap decided to leave but didn’t get far.
“Fortunately, we had lots of cans of pâté,” recalls Emery. “And wine!” Burnap called his buddies in LA (remember land lines? they come in handy) and told them, “We’re starting with the 1950 Burgundies and drinking our way through the cellar! They went crazy!” After about a week, Burnap had had it, and walked out, climbing over massive entanglements of trees and rubble.
Burnap says 1975 was his favorite vintage from the Jarvis vineyard. “It was better than when my first kid was born! Such a great vintage. I love 1988 and 1989, too. I figured I made a great wine every 10 years or so. In Burgundy, they claim they make great wine every year!”
Around 2003, Burnap decided to retire and sail around the world. The vineyard was sold in 2004. Emery, who bought the brand (but not the vineyard), was heartbroken, knowing that he could no longer make wine at this storied place. It had been his office all his adult life. It felt like having a body part severed. He made the last vintage from the property in 2003. The new owners made a bungled attempt to continue its pinot prowess, but failed. That’s another story.
Emery moved on, making wines at Big Basin Vineyards in Boulder Creek, until moving in 2008 to his current location on Swift Street. Burnap, now 89, has no intention of slowing down. He eagerly looks forward to trying a new restaurant or going sailing. Asked if he still dreams about owning a vineyard, he quickly nods in the affirmative. Where would that vineyard be, if you could pick anywhere? “Jarvis. I would want my old vineyard back. There is no place like it in the world.”
Did he ever return to that snooty French restaurant that, like Helen of Troy, launched a thousand unsuspecting ships? “No,” he says. “And I regret it.” You might expect that Burnap had, all these years, wanted to tell that somm off, to set him straight, to give him a dose of his own medicine.
“No,” says Burnap. “I really regret not going back to thank him.”
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.