There is a drama unfolding in the mountain range that frames Palo Alto's sunsets. It's the afternoon of Oct. 19, and rains are expected again tonight. Winemaker Michael Martella is on an emotional rollercoaster, largely dictated by the unusually fickle fall weather.
October is harvest time in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's a time when the quality of the 2007 vintage can come together or fall apart.
Harvest in the Napa and Sonoma valleys tends to start earlier: Their warmer climates, loamy soils and ample access to the sun's rays trigger ripeness and sugar before rain usually comes into the picture.
Mountain vineyards are a different story.
"Growing grapes in the mountains is fun, but challenging," Martella said. He should know. He's been the viticulturist and winemaker at award-winning Thomas Fogarty winery since 1981 and has his own imprint, "Martella," for grapes he sources from select vineyards from Sonoma to Paso Robles.
"Mountain soils are marginal. They're shallow and extremely well-drained, so the vines have to struggle to produce fruit. You really have to be more in tune with the growing season: more aware of things like capturing sunlight," Martella said.
While sun-drenched AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) to the north can wrap up harvests by early October, winemakers in the mountains are trying to squeeze in a little extra hang-time for their crop.
But seven rainstorms in peak harvest season have him a little off balance. Too much moisture on the mature bunches can ruin a crop if mildew sets in.
"It's been a very up-and-down, emotional time. I don't know what's going on. For now, I've hit the 'pause' button on harvest."
So he likes the forecast for the week of the 21st: a series of dry, warm days to bring in the last of the 2007 vintage. "We're finally getting our Indian summer. Next week is getting better and better all the time."
The challenges of being a mountain vintner are many, but so are the rewards. When vines have to struggle to produce, winemakers can be rewarded by low yields of intensely flavored, small-berried fruit. In more prolific growing areas, winemakers typically thin out an abundant crop to try to gain some of that concentration.
"The topography, the cooler climate and the rockier soils can conspire to make some very intense wines," said David Gates, vice president of vineyard management for Ridge Vineyards.
Those intense flavors can make wines for the ages.
Ridge's Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon blend, named for the limestone ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains on which the winery is built, is a local superstar in the world of wine. Last spring, a 35-year-old Ridge Monte Bello was ranked the best by critics on both sides of the Atlantic in a 30-year anniversary rematch of the now-famous 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting. The original event put California wines on the map when a panel of judges -- including a group of staunch French connoisseurs -- voted West coast wines superior to Bordeaux. Critics of the 1976 results quipped that the California wines would never age gracefully.
Judges at the event also ranked recent whites and reds from California and France. The 2000 vintage of Monte Bello handily took the judges' top spot.
But as California wines go, Napa Valley still gets the lion's share of attention. The destination restaurants, palatial tasting rooms and an emergent "wine lifestyle" grab magazine headlines, but local connoisseurs say the rusticity of the Santa Cruz Mountains is an authentic antidote to the hype.
"You'd be surprised at how many people don't know about local wines," said Randy Robinson, proprietor of Palo Alto wine bar Vino Locale -- literally "local wine" in Italian. "Local wines are all we do. People come in and ask if we have anything from Napa. I tell them 'No,'" he says with a proud smile. "And then I say, 'But have you heard about Michael Martella, or Ridge, or the Ahlgrens?' I know all the winemakers up there, and I love them."
Robinson thinks Palo Alto is living in the shadow of something great.
"People spend hours driving up to Napa when there are 70 wineries literally in their own backyard," Robinson says.
It's Monday, Oct. 22, and Gates is up on Monte Bello ridge harvesting Cabernet. He's looking at a long week of work, but he's happy with the high-pressure system that brought the clear skies and warm afternoons.
"We live and die by the weather. ... It's been a crazy harvest," he said.
With 60 percent of the Cabernet already picked, he's hoping to get the remaining 40 percent before the end of the month.
Martella is feeling hopeful, too. Hanging out in his Skyline Boulevard office Tuesday morning at Thomas Fogarty, he's looking almost relaxed. There are still acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and some rain-washed Chardonnay to pick. But walking through the drying vineyards on the sunny morning, he's happy to find everything still intact. Now he just needs a burst of energy to do the work.
"You get all geared up for the harvest, and then you come to a halt. Then you have to get all worked up again," he said.