REVIEW: Big Basin Vineyards, Saratoga, CA

We’ve done it again, we’ve skipped off to California and had an absolute whale of a time. This time we mixed it up a bit and skipped across to Hawai’i as well, but more on that later. You’ve got to love a good competition win, there’s nothing like it for providing a holiday of a lifetime. Anyway, you may remember that previous trips to California have spawned a whole series of wine blogs. Like this, this or even this. There are more. I’ll leave you to browse.

You’ll be happy to know this trip was no different. Much wine was consumed and some of it made it into my little wine notebook. Look out for a few boozy posts coming in the next few weeks. The first of those posts is based around a lovely little tasting room for Big Basin Vineyards in Saratoga, CA.

Saratoga is a cute little historic village in Santa Clara County just north of Santa Cruz and west of San Jose. We’d never visited before and I was glad I’d popped by to visit this vineyard. The highway 17 drive from Santa Cruz is bendy and mountainous which is a lot of fun and there are some beautiful views of the Santa Cruz mountains, nestled in which are some of the vineyards Big Basin use for their grapes. The village itself has some quaint buildings, beautiful views and, for some reason, an absolute abundance of hairdressing salons. There are a decent numbers of local area tasting rooms as well, so a great place to stop if you’re enjoying a splash of enotourism.

I really wanted to try Big Basin’s wines because I have not had the opportunity to try so many wines which are so unashamedly from the area of California that I love – the Santa Cruz Mountains, and around the beautiful bay of Monterey County. On the whole they did not disappoint.

The first thing you notice about Big Basin Vineyards, in their chic, yet still comfortable and homely tasting room is the phenomenal artwork on the walls. This is all the product of Matt Jones, a live painter who has created some work of beautiful depth and complexity that is featured on the walls of the tasting rooms and, more importantly, on the labels of the bottles.

A very exclusive bottle. More on that later.

We were warmly greeted by our host, Assistant Tasting Room Manager, Chris Spangler. If we didn’t still have the memory of Xavi, of Cal Feru relatively fresh in our minds, he might be described as the nicest guy in wine. He definitely can be counted as amongst the most passionate and knowledgeable guys in wine. Like all his colleagues, he’s not just tasting room staff (not that there’s any just about a role like that), he’s also inextricably involved in the winemaking process, from collecting the grapes right through to giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Wine Club members right at the other end. Big Basin is by no means a quiet tasting room, it was buzzing with groups of visitors right through our visit, both walk-ins and members, and I am pleased to say that I could see that every single one of them was getting as friendly and personalised a service as we were pleased to receive.

Chris started us off with a generous pour of the Wirz Vineyard Riesling 2012, whilst we watched a short video introducing the winery. In fact, why don’t I go right ahead and embed that video from YouTube so you can enjoy it for yourself? It’ll give you a lovely sense of how beautiful this area of the world is.

As well as having the best scenery ever, this video explains admirably how the folks at Big Basin aim to create sustainable, organic wines which reflect the landscape that created them – a true experiment in terroir. They harvest in small sections when the grapes are perfectly ripe, sometimes following down the lines of vines, day by day, to ensure a premium product. This means that yields are lower, but of course instead you can read ‘exclusive’ here instead. 

Wirz Vineyard Riesling 2012
Cienega Valley 

A crisp apple nose with a very light, slightly creamy floral, this wine is big and dry, tasting of that delicious crisp apple. With a dry, almost abrupt finish, this is a very complete flavour. Super refreshing and aged in light oak, there is perhaps a very light hint of mandarin in here. This crisp flavour reflects the grapes, which grow in one of the highest vineyards in Monterey County.

Only 43 cases were produced, and at the time we visited I believe there were only 5… Ooops, no 4 bottles left. Better get in quick if you want one of these, it should age excellently.

Coastview Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

Grown at an unusual elevation, which is risky for the thin skinned pinot noir, this wine is surprisingly sunny and astringent on the nose, with just a hint of cut wood. It is flavoured with a floral and rich cherry with good, medium body. The elevation shines through this wine, it smells of the mountains and mellows out to a short finish with interesting aromatices. It has a lighter, more clouder colour for a Pinot. Not my personal favourite of the bunch, but certainly an interesting flavour that I have not tasted before and worth a go for that hint of mountain alone.

Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012

From a rare south facing vineyard which overlooks the Pacific (near Watsonville apparently – we’ve been there, to the County Fair!) this Pinot is slightly deeper in colour than the last. It is brighter, with more fruit than the last, but less aromatic too – no mountains here, but more tannins and oak. It disappears in the mouth leaving just a light bitterness. Much more berry than cherry, perhaps even strawberry, this is a pretty easy going wine.

Homestead 2012

Your host’s recommendation for a ‘Tuesday night wine’, this blend has a vibrant colour and was a surprising pick for me. Sweet and homely, it has deep tannins and decent body. There is a slight tannic smell that is cut with a hint of cherry, complemented by an interesting mineral quality on the nose and a taste which is bold black fruits. It has a longer finish with a clear alcohol flavour, again a product of the conditions in which the grapes grow and ripen on the 112 year old vines at the Wirz Vineyard.

Paderewski Vineyard GSM 2012

Named for the pianist, composer and first Prime Minister of Poland who owned the land originally because of his love of Paso Robles, this vineyard uses the local heat to stretch the vines causing more sugars, a higher alcohol and a much deeper flavour. This made it my favourite of the bunch,  with its zinging red colour, real alcohol sting on the nose and that authentic smell of the California sunshine which I have never been able to define any further, but is something that I look forward to whenever I get over to the US because those sunny wines just don’t seem to make it to the UK.

This wine is round and soft and changes character in the mouth. With great body, it has flavours of plum and is a deep savoury flavour but still full of sunshine. And on the finish, you taste a hot pepper spice of firewater. Delicious.

Coastview Vineyards Syrah 2010

This wine has a deep, dark colour with a nose that is light touch, but full of hefty fruit. I found it surprisingly light on the palette, with violets, lavendar and the natural dash of sourness from fresh picked blackberries which  lingers on the finish. There is some of the tannins you would expect from a Syrah but it is actually relatively light. This was definitely more to my taste than the Pinots, but that said I was ordering Pinot Noirs again after my visit to Big Basin Vineyards, having fallen out of love with them somewhat previously.

Estate Reserve Syrah 2009
Frenchie’s Ranch

Named for Frenchman, Justin Lacau who tended the vines on the land after prohibition that Big Basin Vineyards calls home today, this was a very special treat for us to try. Deep and intoxicating on the nose, this is a big, savoury, oaky wine.

It changes all the way through the experience – as you lift it to your mouth, your senses detect a complex new aromatic, full of granite and oak and the taste is punchy and without fruit or sweetness. Despite this huge sensory experience, it fades to a whisper at the end. And then, as you set your glass back down on the bar, there is deep sense of freshly cracked pepper which lingers on, reminding you of the great time you had with this great wine.

Many thanks to Big Basin Vineyards for being so welcoming and letting us share their beautiful wines. I absolutely love the Californian winemakers’ passion and enthusiasm. While the French want you to earn their wine, the Californian’s delight in sharing what they have achieved. And what a privilege it is.


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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