Because California’s Silicon Valley is perceived as the capital of technological development. it’s easy to forget that there are historic wine-growing areas in the heart of the area.
With its ideal soils, mild climate, hundreds of acres of vineyards and scenic beauty, Santa Clara Valley has become a warm and unique destination for wine lovers.
The history of winemaking and viticulture in the Santa Clara Valley goes back to the 18th century. From the discovery of native “Vitis Californica” grapes growing wild and the first plantings of Mission grapes at the Santa Clara Mission in 1798, through boom years and Depression, phylloxera and Prohibition, the region has some of the richest tradition of anywhere in the country.
There are several wineries, still in operation, that have celebrated or will soon celebrate their 100th year anniversary of producing and selling wine. The oldest winery is Morgan Hill Cellars, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2013, after being owned by three consecutive Italian families: the Colombanos, the Pedrizzettis and, now, the Sampognaros. The winery was founded in 1913 by Camillo Colombano, an Italian immigrant, after he smuggled Barbera rootstock hidden inside his boots with the purpose of starting a vineyard.
The history of Ross Vineyards and Winery dates back to 1915, when Joseph and Josephine Coffe, French immigrants, purchased a 300-acre ranch in the Paradise Valley region of Morgan Hill along Llagas Creek, which now is the Chesbro Reservoir. On this ranch, Joseph Coffe planted 40 acres of wine grapes for winemaking at his successful business, The Wine Depot, in downtown San Jose.
Their grandson persuaded the new owners of the ranch, Judy and Jerry Ross, to replant grapevines in 1999. All of the original ranch buildings and farming equipment are still there. Wine tasting takes place in an old barn held together by square nails and with the original horse tack hanging from the rafters.
Today’s Kirigin Cellars was founded in 1916 by an Italian immigrant named Pietro Bonesio, who named it Uvas Winery. In 1932, he turned the winery over to his three sons, and it was renamed Bonesio Brothers. When the Bonesios retired in 1976, they sold the winery to Nikola Kirigin-Chargin, a winemaker from Croatia, who renamed it Kirigin Cellars.
The current owner, Dhruv Khanna, purchased the winery in 2000 and restored much of the 48-and-a-half acres back to its former glory. The Bonesios’ original home, built in the early 1900s and made from timber hauled from Mount Madonna, is now a historical landmark.
After Alfonso Bertero emigrated from Turin, Italy, he founded the Bertero Winery in 1917. He sold wine for religious purposes during Prohibition, but soon turned to bootlegging after realizing how profitable it was. Wanting to show off his new-found wealth, he built a home with crushed abalone shells on the outside walls so that it would sparkle in the sunlight. The home is still standing next to the winery and visible from the roadside. Today, under new ownership, the property is known as Solis Winery.
The Guglielmo Winery holds the distinction of being the oldest, continuously operated family winery in Santa Clara Valley. During Prohibition, Emilio and Emilia Guglielmo would use a trap door, located beneath their bedroom floor, to access a secret cellar that held several tanks of wine. Emilio supplied his family, the church and even an elected official or two with wine. His three grandsons operate the winery today.
With the rise of Silicon Valley, farmland gave way to technology parks, housing and shopping malls. Well known wineries such as Mirassou and Almaden were sold and their old vineyards torn up and subdivided. In much of the county, the viticultural history is represented by little more than street names and historical markers.
But in 1989, a winemaking resurgence began. The key event was the designation of a distinct American Viticultural Area, or AVA. Before then, the region’s wines were typically labeled “Central Coast” or “Santa Clara County.”
Gene Guglielmo researched and filed the petition, and on March 28, 1989, the Santa Clara Valley AVA was finally declared. It encompasses an area of more than 300,000 acres within Santa Clara County, and includes all the existing wineries in the area not currently part of another AVA, as well as several notable vineyards, including the Vanumanutagi, Dorcich and Wiedeman vineyards.
The first new vineyard to be planted within the newly formed AVA was the 20-acre Mannstand Vineyard. 1999 saw the beginning of one of the most ambitious new plantings when Bill and Brenda Murphy acquired 150 acres in San Martin around the Corde Valle golf course and resort, and opened Clos LaChance Winery.
The early 2000s brought Castillo’s Hillside Shire Winery, owned by Jess and Roni Jo Castillo. It’s a family affair with their son, Nate, managing the vineyard and tasting room and their daughter, Vivienne, designing their labels and entertaining the crowds that visit their unique, European styled tasting room.
There even are two new wineries started by engineers from Silicon Valley: Lightheart Cellars and Satori Cellars. Lightheart, a small estate winery in San Martin, is owned by Sheldon Haynie and Jane Mika-Haynie. Satori is owned by Tom and Sandy Moller, who planted their first vineyard on about 20 acres of their property in 2000.
Santa Clara Valley continues to draw new wineries, including Sunlit Oaks Winery, Stefania Wine, Miramar Vineyards, Seeker Vineyard, and Lion Ranch Vineyards and Winery.
As the AVA celebrates its quarter-century mark, the valley’s winemakers and grape growers continue to maintain the traditions of Charles Lefranc, Paul Masson, Peter Mirassou and Mario Gemello in producing some of the finest wines in the country, while keeping the expansion of Silicon Valley at bay.
To learn more about the wineries of Santa Clara Valley, go to: www.SantaClaraWines.com