BEHIND THE BOTTLE
Jeff Emery juggles wine, brandy and song
By Deborah Luhrman Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Looking more like a backwoodsman than a denizen of the glittering world of fine wines and prize-winning brandies, Jeff Emery may be the winemaker who most embodies the spirit of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Growing up, his family had a weekend house in Bonny Doon, and there he fell in love with mountain living at an early age. Emery, now 54, reminisces about hiking along Fall Creek back when the limekiln cabins were still standing, and he hasn’t strayed far since then—currently he lives in Felton with his wife, Andrea, and their 9-year-old daughter.
Emery went to UC Santa Cruz and one day filled in for a buddy who was helping bottle wine at a small vineyard off Vine Hill Road. One thing led to another, and before long, he was hooked and had apprenticed himself to vineyard owner and winemaker, Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
“Ken was an incredible mentor and teacher,” says Emery. “He was self-taught, but he was a typical Virgo who spent weeks in the library at UC Davis doing loads of research. He believed wines should be demystified and fun.”
The two became good friends and worked together for more than 20 years, making excellent pinot noirs from grapes originally planted in the Vine Hill vineyard by David Bruce. When Burnap retired and sold the property, Emery got to keep the label and equipment as a reward for his years of hard work.
Emery spent a few years making wine in Felton and with Bradley Brown at Big Basin Vineyards in Boulder Creek. Then when Bonny Doon Vineyards downsized in 2008, he took Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard into Santa Cruz and became the first winery to rent space in the Swift Street complex.
You can take the winery out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the winery. Emery still makes pinot noirs exclusively from grapes harvested within a mile-and-a-half radius of the original vineyard he loved so much.
“It’s my theory that the native plants we have out there in the mountains—the hot chaparral, the redwoods, the bay laurel and the forest surrounding the vineyards—give the wine more character and more intensity,” he says. “It imparts a savory spiciness or white pepper taste.”
The climate in the Santa Cruz Mountains is perfect for pinot noir. Cool nights keep the fruit from leaching too much acid, so the resulting grapes have good acid levels and can be turned into food-friendly, European-style wines without much tinkering.
Emery saves his tinkering for the equipment. His fermentation tanks are draped in white sheets and girdled with green drip irrigation hoses. While other wineries may spend thousands on fancy cooling systems, Emery turns on the water and reduces temperatures through evaporation—just like those old Boy Scout canteens.
“What’s kept me at the game for 35 years is that blend of art and science that goes into winemaking,” he says. “Lab numbers are a guide, but we’re still flying by the seat of our pants, making decisions on gut feeling, smells and tastes.”
In addition to pinots, the label includes an intense cabernet sauvignon made with grapes from the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and an easy drinking grenache with fruit from Mendocino and Monterey Counties.
But it’s Emery’s second label—Quinta Cruz—that’s suddenly on top and outselling the parent brand.
Tastes of Spain and Portugal
Emery calls it dumb luck. It started with a vacation to Spain and Portugal, and the three cases of fabulous wines that he brought home. Then, serendipitously, he noticed that Pierce Ranch in the San Antonio Valley was growing some of these Iberian Peninsula varietals—like Tempranillo, Graciano and Touriga. The Touriga was especially obscure and cheap, so he decided to launch Quinta Cruz and gamble on something different.
“It’s the under-30 crowd that’s driving the business now,” he says, somewhat amazed. “They’re not worried about price. They just want to be the first to find something new to introduce to their friends.”
Quinta Cruz puts out eight Iberian varietals, including a wine called Rabelo—which is the only port made in California with the true grape varieties used in Portugal and fortified with alambic brandy, also made by Emery through his partnership in Osocalis Distillery.
The new varietals have helped Emery grow production by 43% in the last five years to 5,000 cases annually, still small but now available at restaurants in New York and San Francisco, as well as locally in restaurants like Soif, Gabriella Café and Mundaka.
Most wines can be sampled in the no-frills tasting room Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 5pm for a mere $3, refundable with purchase. “I don’t believe in gouging people for tasting fees,” says Emery. “I’m trying to make a living, not a killing.”
Music and mushrooms
If that sounds like a line from a country song, it probably is. For the past 18 years, Emery has hosted a weekly radio show called Backroads, currently airing on KZSC Sundays from noon to 2pm. He features old and new folk artists, spinning Pete Seeger back to back with Roseanne Cash and Dar Williams.
He and his wife are well known in the world of singer-songwriters with an alternative Americana bent. For years they helped organize underground tours of Northern California for aspiring young musicians, hosting concerts in their home. Nowadays, concerts are held at the winery and are well worth catching.
Befitting a mountain man, Emery’s other great passion is hunting for wild mushrooms. He’s a founding member of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz and can often be found on forays through the woods or participating in wine and mushroom pairings.
Since he’s been such a help and inspiration for young winemakers—like Denis Hoey of Odonata—Emery is sometimes called the patriarch of local winemakers, a term that makes him cringe. “As I get older, my peer group is just getting larger,” he says with a laugh.
Osocalis: Spirits of the Santa Cruz Mountains
Hidden away in the Soquel Hills for the past 20 years, artisanal Osocalis Distillery is set to shine in 2014. For starters, partners Daniel Farber and Jeff Emery took home two Good Food Awards in January in the spirits category for their Apple Brandy and Rare Alambic Brandy.
The company is also purchasing a beautiful 100-acre property in Corralitos that’s been certified organic since 1964. Existing apple trees will stay for the production of apple brandy and perhaps hard cider. Then they plan to plant new vineyards of French Colombard, Ugni blanc and Folle blanche—grapes that form the backbone of all California brandies.
“We’re going to make 100%-certified-organic Santa Cruz County brandy,” beams Emery, who calls the project, “More fun than an IRA.”
Since the brandies are made using two antique French alambic copper stills and aged up to 20 years in 400-liter barrels from Cognac, there’s a huge up front investment and none of the partners has yet to make a cent.
Brandy is made by distilling wine, and Farber is Osocalis’ distiller. Emery makes the wine Farber distills, currently using grapes from the Russian River. “It’s a whole different level of smells and tastes, and it pushes my craft of aromas,” Emery says.
Osocalis brandies are distributed in 13 states and can be purchased at the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard tasting room on Swift Street, but they can’t be tasted there due to antiquated California laws. At the distillery, tastings can be arranged by appointment.
Emery is part of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild now pushing Sacramento to better accommodate the current boom in micro-distilleries. Last year they had some success in changing laws to permit tasting at a distillery where spirits are being made, but they want that law expanded to include brewpub-style satellite locations. –DL