Exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains | Left Bend Winery Interview
Left Bend Winery is a small boutique estate located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA which is south of San Jose on the border of the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was officially recognized in 1981 and was one of the first AVAs to have its boundaries defined by elevation. One the east side, by the San Francisco Bay, the boundary is set at an elevation of 800 feet and on the west side, by the Monterey Bay, the boundary is set at an elevation of 400 feet. Within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA there are six subregions that encompass elevations from 400 feet to over 2,600 feet, they include; Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills, Ben Lomond Mountain, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley.
One of the most interesting things we found out about the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was the diversity of their microclimates. So what exactly are microclimates? Microclimates are places that have a completely different climate than the surrounding areas due to wind exposure, sun exposure, and all around geography. These microclimates can vary in size from a few square feet to several miles. For example, down near downtown Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains experiences quite a bit of wind gusts compared to further north where some areas are better protected by hills. This probably does not seem like much but this slight variance in wind and protection from the environment can be the difference of a few degrees and amount of sun just a few feet apart.
Left Bend started back in 2008 when Gary Robinson first moved out to Los Gatos, CA, where Gary's interest for wine slowly began to grow. Then in 2013 Gary was joined by Richard Hanke, a fellow cyclist and wine enthusiast. Check out our interview below to learn more about Gary's path into the wine industry and about some of the interesting wine-making techniques he applies to his wine-making philosophy such as the Solera System.
Q1: I know you decided to plant vines in your backyard in 2008. What were your thoughts at first when you planted them? What did you plant?
Gary Robinson (GR): When I moved out to 12 years ago to Los Gatos there was an ordinance in place for Wild Fire Safety where I would have to weed wack the backyard every year. So instead of having to do that every year I decided to plant some vines in my backyard since I had noticed some vines in other people’s yards already. One person helped me with learning about how to plant and take care of the vines, that was Bill Brosseau from Testarossa Winery. I only planted around 300 vines which is relatively small, actually enough to fill one barrel which is around 300 bottles. I planted the top half of the vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon and the bottom half with Syrah. I chose these two since they can be blended together and do well in the climate.
Q2: After deciding to attend UC Davis, how did your career in the wine industry progress, specifically from Garagiste winemaker to Left Bend Winery?
GR: I started off with taking a few full classes (three to be exact) and some weekend seminar courses while I was busy planting the vines in my backyard. At first I started to use the vines that I had planted to experiment and practice making wines in my garage from the 2009 harvest of my backyard. My first vintage was made with grapes from the Black Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in 2010, I purchased one ton of Cabernet Sauvignon and one ton of Syrah. I rented out a space at the old Cinnabar Wine Estate in 2010 to make the wine, which was owned by Mt. Eden Winery, which I used again in 2011. Since the 2012 harvest, I have been at a winery in San Martin.
Q3: Aside from your wine estate, we just wanted to ask you a few questions about your interest and experience with wines. What is your ‘AHA’ moment wine? One that truly left an impression on you?
GR: When I was in college I worked at a small wine ship in Newton, MA where every once in a while they would give us a wine to take home to learn a little more about it. The very first wine that opened my eyes to the wine world was a Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, since it was better than anything that I had had in college prior. Another wine was a Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that had aged for a few years from a trip I took to Napa. I opened it up with my brother-in-law who said “this is a symphony”, which was completely right!
Q4: What wine regions aside from Santa Cruz, do you really enjoy? What wines do you enjoy drinking?
GR: I really enjoy Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons, one that I do really want to try more is aged Riesling.
Q5: I saw you are an avid cyclist, do you compete? What else do you enjoy doing in your life outside of your winery, such as hobbies, etc.?
GR: I don’t compete but I use to lead club cycling rides into the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is actually how Richard and I met (Richard is Gary’s business partner). Richard joined Left Bend a few years after we met. Another hobby I have is skiing, a fun story with that is when my friend and I went skiing in Bear Valley in Tahoe, and it took us 30 plus minutes to find his skis after he lost them.
Q6: Who are some winemakers that have influenced your wine-making career? Any mentors?
GR: Yes, Bill (Bill Brosseau from Testatrossa Winery).
Q7: How would you describe your wine-making philosophy and why it is important to you?
GR: We are trying to achieve really balanced wines. We do this by; making sure the complexity carries throughout the wine from beginning to finish, nice nose, a wine that can continue to carry itself and is built to age, but that does not mean it can’t be drunk now, also needs solid structure and good tannins. An example is our Cabernet Franc which has between 10-14% Syrah in order to add structure and acidity to the Cabernet Franc.
Q8: From your email you were telling us that you just released your first offering of the Mashup. Can you tell us why this wine is so special? What is the Solera Type System/Fractional Blending?
GR: The Mashup is a Syrah – Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. Multi-vintage. Uses a fractional blending or Solera type system, so as we proceed, we will add a new vintage to it each year. The Solera System is generally used for sherry and champagne. It creates consistency as new vintages are added each year. Think of it as multiple barrels stacked up on top of one another. Every bottling takes juice from the bottom barrel of the Solera System as the new vintage is added in the top. We use medium to heavy toasted American oak barrels for our Solera System. I find that American oak does really well with fruit that has a lot of acidity and structure like the Santa Cruz fruit. I find that the Solera System also helps soften up the wine used in the Mashup as well as helps to create aged flavors such as leather and tobacco.
Q9: For anyone who wants to come up to Santa Cruz and visit do you have tastings available?
GR: We don’t have an estate but we have a tasting room at 346 N. Santa Cruz Ave. Los Gatos, CA 95030 and we also sell online. Our hours are Thursday to Saturday 12 to 7 and Sundays from 12 to 4. Also we can deliver by bike locally.
Q10: Let’s finish off with a fun question. What is something about you that most people might not know about you and is something that they should know or would find very interesting?
GR: I've had a lifelong fascination with bacteria and yeast in food. Middle School - I dug up Sassafras root and made soda; High School - homemade yogurt; college - beer of course; 2000 - sourdough breads including a stint at Amy's bread in NYC. So wine is a natural progression.
It was a real treat to talk to Gary about his estate and his progression into the wine industry. You can see and hear the passion he has. One thing that was really interesting for us was the use of the Solera System. Gary gave us a pretty detailed description of what the Solera System is in our interview with him above. Now let us take a deeper look into the two samples he sent out to us.
This is the inaugural vintage of Gary's Solera System wine called the Mashup V1 which consists of 25% of each of the following vintages: 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Mashup V1 is made up of 50% Syrah, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Cabernet Franc from the Black Ridge, Camel Hill, Eden Valley and Vanumanutagi Vineyards all within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The Black Ridge Vineyard is located in the El Sereno Area of the Santa Cruz Mountains on an eastward facing slope. The climate in this area begins with morning fog that clears quickly to show for warm days. The Camel Hill Vineyard is located in the same area as the Black Ridge Vineyard but with more age on the vines leading to more approachable wines in their youth. The owners of Camel Hill Vineyard also breeds and raises horses, camels, emus and Sicillian donkeys. The next the Eden Valley Vineyard is a lower elevation vineyard located at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. More about the Vanumanutagi Vineyard in the background information of the Syrah. Small production bottling and a definite must try if you ever get the chance, only 50 cases produced.
First of the two Left Bend reds sent over to us from Gary. Very interesting label on the bottle. All the different words have to do with what is in the wine, how it is made, and what to expect from it...It does not disappoint! Deep and dark garnet red. Love the nose on the pop and pour (PNP) of this bottle. Smokey attack of meat, grilled herbs that slowly softened and opened up with some dark berry undertones. On day two there were some caramel notes that developed on the nose. Moderate tannins (7/10) and moderate plus body. Palate was coated with dark cherries that continues through to the middle of the body. Smooth, balanced, solid acidity and definitely extracted. As it opened up over the evening there were some savory undertones and something similar soft roses. Moderate length for a finish. Very surprised by this wine and surprised in a good way. Definitely one to pick up and drink. Loved it!
2016 till 2022.
Price Point:$$ - Sample provided by the Estate. Was available from the Estate for $55.00, but the Mashup V2 is now available for $55.00.
This is a single vineyard bottling of 100% Syrah from the Vanumanutagi Vineyard. Vanumanutagi is a Samoan word that means "Vale of the Singing Birds", and each of the blocks within the vineyard are named after Robert Louis Stevenson novels, such as Kidnapped, Jekyll & Hyde and Treasure Island. Vanumanutagi is located at the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains and was planted in 1981. It sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet with steep slopes. Soil is rocky and well drained, straining the vines and producing low yields but high concentrated ones. This bottling is aged in 30% new American oak and 70% neutral oak barrels for a total of 23 months. Small production as with all of the wines from Left Bend, only 60 cases produced.
Second of the two Left Bend reds sent over to us from Gary. Love the labels on these wines and the name of this vineyard, 'Vanumanutagi' which is a Samoan word meaning "Vale of the Singing Bird". Trust us this wine sings! Bright ruby red with purplish hues. Nose started off a little tight with just red cherries and a slight perfume, but as it opened up over the next few hours it developed some cinnamon, vanilla, baking spices and some light lead. Strong acidity on the palate, makes us this it is definitely packing a punch and can last. The strong acidity hides the alcohol well. Moderate tannins (6/10) and moderate body carried by the acidity. Strong attack of red fruits and cherries. As it had some time to breathe the palate developed some baking spices, slight caramel and herbs, all very subtle. Slightly drying finish from the acidity with a little wet rock feel. A ton of potential with this wine, we drank this on day one, two, three, four and it kept opening up and its body held together. With a few extra years this will definitely score a few more points.
2016 till 2026.
Price Point:$$ - Sample provided by the Estate. Is available from the Estate for $35.00.
Overall, Gary is making some spectacular wines out of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. This definitely puts them on our map, highly recommended. If you want to make it out to his tasting room or order their wines check out the information below.
Where are they located? 364 N. Santa Cruz Ave, Los Gatos, CA 95030
Do you need an appointment? No, tasting room hours are from noon till 7pm on Thursday to Saturday and noon till 4pm on Sunday.
Who is their winemaker? Gary Robinson
Price Ranges: $24.00 to $55.00
Recommend: Hopefully one day we will be able to try out his Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but he definitely knows what he is doing with Syrah. Highly recommended.
More Posts: - Tasting Notes - Winemaker and Owner Interview