Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Pt 3

Ξ December 18th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Jeff EmeryIn this final part of the interview Mr. Emery indulges my historical curiosity. He expands upon Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s founder, Ken Burnap, and touches on the legendary Martin Ray, an early friend of Mr. Burnap’s.
I would encourage folks who visit tasting rooms, any tasting room, to ask a few questions. Inquire after the winery’s origins. Sure, the person behind the counter may be reading from a hackneyed script and the winery may be little more than the investment of a trust fund baby. That is its own story. Still, persist. Cut through the bull. And ever so often you’ll run across someone like Jeff Emery, someone whose life is coextensive with his work. It’s all about the work. And I believe the living culture of wine, especially the labor of its making, is the better part.
Any fool can rate a wine. But it takes a special fool to remain indifferent to a vinous history in which they nevertheless participate.
pt 1
pt 2
Early bottling, 1987Admin Would you tell us a bit more of the historical origins of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard? And of Ken Burnap specifically.
Jeff Emery Ken Burnap had been interested in wine very early on. He got started in kind of a backdoor way. He lived in Texas when he was a late teenager, in his early twenties, and he took a gal from the prom to the best restaurant in San Antonio at the time. He tried to order a bottle of Bordeaux and completely butchered the French pronunciation of the wine. The waiter, a snobby sommelier, made him feel about two inches tall. And in a classic early twenty-something attitude Ken vowed he’d go home and learn as much as he could and show the bastard! The more he learned about wine the more he became fascinated by it.
He was drinking first growth Bordeaux in San Antonio at a time when the neighbors basically only drank bourbon and martinis. He said they would literally put their empty bottles in paper bags before they put them in the garbage because only winos drank wine! That was the attitude at the time.
So it was through his love of wine all those years that he had come to find that he preferred Burgundy, pinot noir, of course. Now fast forward to what Ken said before [pt 1], “Why does California produce pinots that are so flabby and uninteresting compared to Burgundy?” He decided it had to do with where it was grown.
The HobbitBut he had no intention of ever being a winemaker or starting a winery. He had started a restaurant called The Hobbit in the city of Orange, California, which is still going today, his partner’s son still runs it. Ken had done that because of a real love of food and wine. He was the sommelier and his partners, Howard and Bev Philippi were the chefs. A single seating a night, eight to ten course meal, and the wine was priced at retail. Not at a high mark-up. And he sold more wine per table per night than any restaurant in L.A. in the second year of business. He had a lot of interaction with winemakers, that’s where he got a lot of his information and developed a lot of his ideas about Burgundy and California pinot.
So, as a hobby he started looking at maps (we go back to the meticulous Virgo thing). I have in a file every quadrangle of the Santa Cruz Mountains in great detail, with every patch shaded in that looked like it could be potentially a good vineyard site. He had done this before I met him. And as a hobbiest, with no conscious intention of ever being involved in the wine business, he would get out of Southern California and come up here and drive around pretty places to look at vineyard property. Or property he thought would be good for a vineyard. He did that for a number of years.
old vineyard, the first.Then he stumbled across this property on Jarvis Road that he ended up owning. It had just been planted with pinot noir. It was owned by David Bruce. He and David Bruce were buddies because they had similar philosophies on pinot noir when they met. As Ken says, they put a realtor between them to save their friendship! David had planted it to pinot, he had intended to have it as a second source on into the future. It had 80 years of zinfandel on it when David pulled the zin in 1969, ‘68 was the last crop of zinfandel from the vineyard. David was in a divorce at the time and had to divest himself of some properties. David never saw the production from that vineyard, the pinot noir he’d planted. Ken bought it in 1974; the first crop was ‘75.
So before he bought it Ken sat on top of the hill of the vineyard, it had met all his criteria, he had this whole list of criteria that a vineyard had to have to meet his idea of the perfect site; he drank a bottle of champagne on the hill thinking, “Ok. This would be it”.
Did he finished that bottle? Something people will not often admit today!
JE (laughter) Yes! And he was alone at the time. And through the course of drinking that bottle he realized we all tell ourselves “If only… then”. If only I’d saved this much money; if only when I do this, I’ll do that. If only… Well, he just decided… he was incredibly busy and overworked with his businesses in Southern California, he just decided to jump in with both feet and buy the property and make the wine. He then spent two years commuting, 104 flights a year on Air California, three days a week here, four days a week in SoCal. He got invited to Air California picnics because the pilots saw him more often than any staff member! And he started the winery. He did the ‘75-’76 production year while commuting back and forth.
He sold his contracting company which was his main business. He had to, at the time, sell the restaurant. The Tied-House restrictions were such that he couldn’t own a winegrower’s license and an on-sale license at the same time.
Tied-House restrictions?
JE Yes. They were put in at the repeal of Prohibition to keep mostly Mafia-based monopolies from controlling production and sales all the way through. It was broken by Domaine Chandon when they wanted to have their restaurant. They brought the legislation to the state to get it changed to where you could simultaneously produce and sell wine as the same entity. But Ken had to sell by law and he says it was a blessing in disguise because he probably would have tried to keep the restaurant, to do both. Much too much work. So he sold his interest in The Hobbit in order to start the winery. He moved up here in 1977.
And there is an intriguing Martin Ray connection…
JE I don’t know that much about it. I do know Ken spent a fair amount of time visiting with Martin Ray when he was first looking at property. Realize that at that time, as Ken points out, having been the buyer for this restaurant, that in 1969 there were something like 12 to 15 wineries in the Napa Valley. He knew the dogs’ names, he knew the kids’ names, he knew all these people. The group of wineries was very small, in the Santa Cruz Mountains even more so. He became very good friends with Bob Mullen, Martin Ray, all the folks here at the time.
I know that Ken went to Martin’s place a few times. I do remember a couple of stories where Martin was a real showman. He liked things to be very classy. Ken and his wife were invited for a luncheon at Martin Ray’s place and when going up that dirt road, still a dirt road today, part way up there is a kind of a pull out and a view of the whole of the Santa Clara Valley. There was a table set up with a linen tablecloth, champagne in a champagne bucket, and two flutes… you were supposed to stop there, admire the view, drink the bottle of champagne, enjoy that before proceeding further up to the house for the luncheon. That was the kind of thing Martin would do.
Delightful. What is your advice to young winemakers?
Jeff Emery in his tasting roomJE That is a very open question…. Don’t believe the stereotypes, trust your palate and your tastes. Learn from as many different approaches as you can, talk to different people. Try different wines, try the wines of the world. Don’t stay within California. Realize that wine is a subjective thing, everybody’s taste buds are different. The mission should be to demystify wine, make it fun and accessible. Remove the dos and don’ts, how you should have it, how you should drink it, how you should open the bottle… By and large I think that’s naturally falling by the wayside as the younger generation comes to wine. They are less worried about that….
Would you ever go to screw cap?
JE I have nothing against screw caps for something like the verdejo I produced in August and will be selling next month. But I don’t own a screw cap machine and I own a corker and my own bottling line. I’m not about to go out and buy another piece of equipment. So in my case it is that simple.
I would not use screw cap for the long term aged pinots. I would still do traditional cork. I think screw cap make absolute perfect sense for shorter term drinking wines. And there should be no stigma attached to that.
I’d like, lastly, to ask about your adopted child. Would you be willing to say a few words?
JE Oh! Yes. We have a little girl we adopted from China in 2005. She’ll be five this coming February. We couldn’t have children for various reasons. We looked into options. We like the China connection. We looked into the US program but there is this legal limbo period where the court may or may not grant you the child. We didn’t want to go through that uncertainty. People ask why international when there are kids here, that’s one of the reasons.
We were torn between Russia or China. My wife is a Russian major, speaks Russian, so that was attractive. In the end, children of China are healthy, they were available only because of their gender, not because of any family/social issue. And Russia is a drinking culture. There can be some alcohol issues there…
She’s a joy! The timing was interesting. We were doing this just as I was officially taking over the business from Ken. You have to do things for both alcohol licenses and adoptions. Finger prints, background checks, that kind of thing, so I had these two forms going to the FBI office to get these background checks, one for getting an alcohol license and one for adopting a child! (laughter) It really cracked people up!
Thank you very much, Jeff.
JE A pleasure, Ken.


2 Responses to ' Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Pt 3 '

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  1. on December 19th, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for the great interview!

  2. Morton Leslie said,

    on December 21st, 2008 at 10:15 am

    I enjoyed reading this particular history. Back in the days (70’s)when the ASE convention would oscillate back and forth from Coronado and Disneyland we always had the problem of finding a decent restaurant. One year at Disneyland, I entertained a wine writer, he picked The Hobbit, I had a decent meal, and I got to know Ken. I remember riding with him going somewhere in the Southland, sitting shotgun, and having a long conversation. I swear he told me at some time in his past he had driven race cars. I saw him a couple times after he sold The Hobbit, I think he said he had another restaurant in the S. Cruz area. But I never knew he got into the wine business. I’m glad to hear he got more than just a taste. Thanks for the interview and the photos.

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