Mount Eden: One of California’s Oldest and Greatest Producers

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Winemaker Jeffrey Patterson, right, with assistant winemaker Sean Geoghegan

Mount Eden produces some of the most admirable, consistent and ageworthy expressions of terroir to be found anywhere in California. Their wines—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyard at the top of Table Mountain, 2000 feet above the Silicon Valley town of Saratoga–have gone from strength to strength in the past two decades.

In writing this, I wholeheartedly concur with Matt Kramer, who stated in his 2004 New California Wine that “if I were to present a European, say, the wines of just one California winery to demonstrate the originality of California wine, I’d choose Mount Eden Vineyards.”

In the more humble words of Mount Eden winemaker and co-owner Jeffrey Patterson, during a retrospective of his wines from the decade of the ‘90s over the course of a tasting menu dinner at Saratoga’s The Plumed Horse Restaurant toward the end of last year, “Since 1990, we know what we’re doing.”

Last year’s ‘90s retrospective tasting followed on a look back at the ‘80s at Mount Eden with Jeffrey a couple of years earlier that I wrote about here. This week I also tasted newer releases of Mount Eden Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs at a trade tasting in San Francisco called “In Pursuit of Balance” that focused on domestic Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs by producers aiming for lower alcohol levels and more balanced, food-friendly wines.

These tastings confirmed for me that, although the estate has faced many challenges related to the climate and growing conditions at its high altitude location—circumstances I will describe in more detail when addressing the vintages from the ’90s below—Jeffrey has nonetheless managed to produce some of California’s best Chardonnays and some of Santa Cruz Mountains AVA’s most distinctive and ageworthy Cabernets year after year. Pinot Noir, which is a difficult and finicky grape to grow, has not always done as well, but for the most part since 1997, and even more convincingly in the last several years, they are also some of California’s very best and most terroir-driven.

Mount Eden Chardonnays

Mount Eden Chardonnays

For my complete tasting notes and vintage summary for our 1990 retrospective, as well as the newer releases of Pinot and Chardonnay I recently tasted, see the end of this report.

The plain spoken Patterson, whose accent and cadences remind me of the great journalist Bill Moyers, first came to Mount Eden as assistant winemaker in 1981. Jeffrey had graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1975 with a degree in biology. An enthusiastic wine drinker and collector, he decided to pursue a career in the wine business and, in 1979, enrolled in the U.C. Davis viticulture and enology program, where he studied for two years.

Mount Eden’s Origins

The vineyard Jeffrey arrived at in 1981 had been known as Mount Eden since 1971. It was originally planted in 1943 by one of California’s most visionary and controversial winemakers, Martin Ray.

In 1936, Ray had first purchased La Cresta, the historical vineyard further down the hill planted by Paul Masson in the early 1900s. Masson, who Ray long considered his mentor, suggested to Ray that he start from scratch, with just a bare mountaintop. After Masson’s death, Ray did sell La Cresta on to Joseph Seagram, and purchased the mountain top property that he cleared and planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He called it Martin Ray Vineyard.

Those plantings included Chardonnay budwood from La Cresta that Masson had originally taken from the grand cru Corton vineyard in Burgundy. Martin Ray also planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-1940s, with budwood from the La Questa vineyard, which had been planted in Woodside in the 1890s with cuttings from Chateau Margaux.

Following a series of legal maneuvers after Martin Ray’s finances became the subject of major litigation in the early 1970s, the property became Mount Eden Vineyards. Dick Graff of Chalone was one of several winemakers brought in to make wine by the new owners.

A little over a year after Jeffrey’s arrival at Mount Eden in 1981, he was promoted to head winemaker and general manager. His wife Ellie became the winery’s business manager. In 1986, they became significant shareholders in the company and in 1993, Jeffrey became the winery’s president. Today, Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson live in the house Martin Ray built on Mount Eden in the early 1950s, surrounded by the winery’s historic estate vineyard.

Domaine vs. Estate Wines

Mount Eden recently purchased the mountain vineyards formerly belonging to Cinnabar. The vineyard was originally planted to Pinot Noir in 1983, and Jeffrey has started replanting and grafting over. They have moved their red wine production to the winery on this site, leaving the Chardonnay production at the Mount Eden winery. Mount Eden is using grapes from this new vineyard, as well as “declassified” grapes from the estate vineyard, to produce a second label, Domaine Eden.

At our dinner at The Plumed Horse, where we tasted through the vintages from the 1990s, Jeffrey explained how they separate out the barrels for the estate wine and the domaine wine: “My wife and I and [assistant winemaker] Sean [Geoghegan] will go through the cellar and pick the lots that have a lot of tension, good acidity, expansive finish, subtle aromas. More French like. Everything else goes into the Domaine [bottlings].”

Mount Eden now makes about 1500 cases of the estate Chardonnay, and 2,000 cases of Domaine Chardonnay. They usually make only about 700 to 800 cases of the Pinot Noir Estate, and about twice that number of cases of the Domaine. They also make about 450 cases of the estate Cabernet.

Jeffrey is also the winemaker for House Wines, and for the Mountain Winery, which replanted about six acres of Pinot Noir vines in 2004. He also makes the wine for Manresa Restaurant’s private bottling of a meritage style wine.

Patterson’s Winemaking Style

Jeffrey approached winemaking in the ’80s aiming for transparency and delicacy. He wanted to produce a strongly varietal wine in which the fruit spoke clearly, with no tannic extraction. In doing so, his approach was quite different from that of Martin Ray, who had aimed for maximum ripeness and power in his wines.

Jeffrey has reached his goal of transparent, minerally, delicate wines in part by picking earlier, using different equipment and working with grapes from vineyards he replanted.

Jeffrey asserts that his wines have a “certain tension” and a “lack of obvious fruit, especially the Chardonnays.” With Chardonnay, Jeffrey’s goal is to make a 20-year wine.

Mount Eden Pinot Noir is more savory, as well as more restrained and structured (i.e., more of a French style) than most California Pinots. The wines are all below 14% alcohol. Jeffrey doesn’t like wine over 14%, as it “feels pushed.”

Jeffrey used to rack the Chardonnay, so after they were finished with fermentation and malolactics, they would take the wine off its gross lees. He stopped doing that in about 2002, and finds that aging sur lie helps create more richness and complexity, but also more reductive qualities in the wine.

Jeffrey is “fighting premox” by using corks that are only treated with wax, no silicone. He’s also picking at early maturity and using higher levels of SO2.

Stem Inclusion in Pinot Noir

9/26/10 Ridge Lytton Springs Bloggers Tasting

Jeffrey told us, “In the ‘70s, a lot of Mount Eden Pinot Noir was very stemmy. They used 100% stems in the fermenter. The stems to my taste never resolved, they never became beautiful. They remained stemmy. So when I first got to Mount Eden in the early ‘80s, I got rid of the stems entirely. As I evolved, I wanted to create more complexity, more longevity, more mystery, as an older wine, so I started to add more stems in about 1989-90.” A portion of the grapes are now not crushed at all, just left to ferment whole.

Jeffrey explained that it’s ultimately about the fermentation dynamic –“by having whole berries in the fermenter, you have a lengthening of the fermentation process, so you can get a little more maybe out of the grapes. Because it’s still going on, it’s still gassy. And those whole berries are slowly exuding a little bit of sugar into the pulp of the fermentation. Then when you press the wine off, the sugar jumps up because there’s still a little bit of grape that still hasn’t been broken down. This slows down the fermentation, with a gentle slope to the sugars.”

Like me, Jeffrey is not a fan of the taste of stems, and that’s not what he’s going for. He says he’s just using the whole cluster, which reached 30% in 2009, for its effect in slowing fermentation and making it a little gentler.

Oak Regimen

When Jeffrey arrived in 1981, the oak was 100% new. They would buy about half Sirugue and half François Frères. The Sirugues were lighter toast, and François Frères were the more powerful, heavier toast barrels. They liked the balance of both types. Jeffrey still more or less follows that same regimen. He said that over the years he’s experimented with other coopers, like Rousseau lately, but he’s still held on to that house style. His goal in an ideal harvest would be half the barrels new and half from the previous year.

Vineyard Replanting

Martin Ray’s original plantings were 10 foot by 10 foot, except for the Chardonnay. When Martin Ray had started at Paul Masson in the ’30s, plantings were tighter–6 foot by 6 foot, with no trellising, and all head trained. Martin Ray tried out his own system in planting Mount Eden, using a basket cane idea, tying the cane to the stake, which he’d seen in Germany and Cote Rôtie.

Unfortunately, the untrellised, basket cane vines produced grapes of very different ripeness levels—ripest on top, and much less ripe lower down on the vine. Much of the Martin Ray plantings were also affected by leaf roll virus.

When Jeffrey replanted in 1996 and 1998, he went with 3 foot by 8 foot spacing, trellising, and a “mosaic” of clones. He also wanted to dry farm, to make a more natural wine with more “wildness.” He used a drought tolerant rootstock, 1103 Paulsen.

My Tasting Notes and Vintage Details

MOUNT EDEN RETROSPECTIVE WITH JEFFREY PATTERSON: THE ’90S – The Plumed Horse Restaurant, Saratoga, California (12/2/2011)

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Jeffrey Patterson with Plumed Horse Chef Peter Armellino

1990s Chardonnays

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This was an incredible flight (we actually did it in three flights, with food courses) of elegant Chardonnays. My favorites were the 1990, 1992 and 1997. I gathered that these were Jeffrey’s favorites as well.

Jeffrey related that 1990 was a normal harvest in terms of timing, but a smaller harvest in terms of yields, with lots of density. It is drinking fabulously now. It was selected as wine of the year by California Grapevine, and everyone wanted some. Mount Eden Chardonnays have continued to sell well since this vintage.

Jeffrey said 1991 was an extremely late harvest, the latest he had seen working at Mount Eden. It was also a very large harvest, and Jeffrey was very worried about it being good, because it was so big. But he reported that everyone loved it and it has aged well. The alcohol level for both 1990 and 1991 was 13.2%.

1992 was a very early harvest. 1993 was normal. The ’94 and ’95 have aged prematurely, according to Jeffrey. He attributes this partly to the fact that he used to stir the lees. There were also problems with brett in ’95 and ’96. Jeffrey reacted to these vintages by making the wines without any filtration, all natural yeasts and all natural malolactic fermentations. He also increased SO2 levels, from about 25 parts per million free SO2 pre-1997 to about 40 ppm now. He reports there’s been no problem with brett since.

Jeffrey reported that in 1997, it was 80 degrees every day. They had early bud break and even growth. Naturally harvest was early. Jeffrey didn’t have high hopes for the Chardonnay (unlike the Cabernet, which did very well with the heat in 1997). He explained that when you have a big harvest you worry about the lack of concentration. But he reported that it has “aged very comfortably and elegantly, like a great wine should.” I quite agree.

1998 because of the El Nino conditions was very small. Our bottle, unfortunately, was corked. In ’99, it snowed in April. They had a relatively large harvest but extremely late. It doesn’t have quite the concentration of the great vintages.

1990s Pinot Noirs

See the detail on vintages with respect to the Chardonnays above, as the same conditions impacted the Pinot Noirs we tasted. The greatest of these for me were the 1994 and the 1997 Vieilles Vignes, a one-time separate bottling from grapes taken from the vines Martin Ray originally planted, before those vineyards were replanted in 1998.

In ’92, Jeffrey told us he decided not to spray with sulfur during the bloom. He therefore missed an interval during the spring, which he now sees as a big mistake. Mount Eden had a huge problem with mildew. Jeffrey told us that mildew in Pinot Noir really affects the wine. In ’92 Pinot Noirs he tastes today, he finds a certain bitterness, tannin quality, and “just a bad, bad flavor.” He bottled a little of the ’92 under a separate label called Madame Pinot, which he brought for our tasting. It bore out his concerns about what mildew had done to the vintage.

In 1994, Jeffrey reported they had a lot of heat in August that drove the harvest forward. The color is still strong and the wine is very aromatic. Jeffrey told us, “Pinot is funny, it can kind of gain weight—start out simple and light, and then with a decade of aging, get deeper in color and character. It’s a really unusual wine in that respect.” 1994 is an example of this, which still shows as a youthful wine with good color. Jeffrey loves it.

All of the Pinots we tasted from the 1990s had a certain percentage of stems—12 to 25%–as discussed above.
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  • 1990 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Cloudy, bricking, opaque, dark cherry red color; nice, focused, green fern, light tobacco nose; youthful, stemmy, tart red fruit, tart cranberry, green bean palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 1991 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Cloudy, bricking, medium dark cherry color; light TCA, tart cherry, subdued nose; TCA, tart red fruit palate with green notes (NR/flawed)
  • 1992 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Madame Pinot – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking, dark cherry red color; raspberry, light green notes nose; narrow, pinched, arch, tart green notes, lime palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)
  • 1993 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Lightly bricking medium cherry red color; a little VA, tart cherry, tart red fruit, lightly savory nose; youthful, concentrated, tart red fruit, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral palate with a vein of honey; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
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  • 1994 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking, medium dark cherry red color; savory, ham, salt cured bacon nose; tasty, tart cherry, tart raspberry, pink grapefruit, mineral palate with depth; long finish (94 pts.)
  • 1995 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking medium dark cherry red color; brett, savory nose; brett, savory, very tart red fruit, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 1996 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking, medium dark cherry red color; savory, light brett, baked ham, tart cherry nose; tasty, youthful, tart cherry palate with sweetness and medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 1997 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium dark ruby color; TCA nose and palate (NR/flawed)
  • 1997 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Cuvée Vieilles Vignes – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium dark ruby color with pale meniscus; lovely, rich, raspberry, black raspberry nose; concentrated, rich, raspberry, black raspberry, black cherry palate; will go 30 years; long finish (94 pts.)
  • 1998 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Dark ruby color; a little VA, light TCA, tart black cherry, black raspberry nose; tasty, youthful, tart black cherry, black raspberry, light cola palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 1999 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium dark ruby color; tart red fruit, green bean nose with green notes; youthful, tart red fruit, cinnamon, brett palate with green edges; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)

Cabernet Flight

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Jeffrey told us that the 1990 Cabernet “caused a lot of commotion.” He explained, “It was in tastings and would win them over and over and over. It was the first vintage of Cabernet I made at Mount Eden that was really successful.” We didn’t try all the Cabernets from the 1990s, as we did with the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but these three were elegant, youthful wines with balance and delicious flavors that should go for another two decades or more.

Jeffrey told us that Cabernet Sauvignon has always been Mount Eden’s great challenge, due to the difficulty of achieving full ripeness in cooler years at Mount Eden. Jeffrey was proud that the latest release made Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Top 100 for 2011.

MOUNT EDEN: RECENT CHARDONNAY AND PINOT NOIR VINTAGES – Julia Morgan Ballroom, Merchants Exchange Building, San Francisco, California (3/19/2012)


Mount Eden Chardonnay

Mount Eden Chardonnay

These were really stunning wines, strongly carrying on Mount Eden’s long tradition of distinguished, minerally, elegant Chardonnay. The Domaine bottling, priced at about half the cost of the estate Chardonnay, represents a good value. The 2009 was lovely, floral and minerally. The 2007 Reserve had more weight and complexity, but needs three to four years of aging before it will show all it has to offer.

Pinot Noirs

Mount Eden Pinot Noir

Mount Eden Pinot Noir

The 2010 Domaine Pinot Noir bottling is an excellent value–better than most Pinots at the price. The 2008 and 2009 estate bottlings were simply stunning–some of the best Mount Eden Pinots I’ve tasted yet. They not only have gorgeous fruit, which Mount Eden Pinots from prior decades sometimes lacked, but also the minerality and focus that Mount Eden Pinots usually display. And both estate Pinots should age beautifully for 15 to 20 years, if not longer.

  • 2010 Domaine Eden Pinot Noir – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light medium cherry red color; reduction, tart cherry nose; tart red fruit, roses, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light medium cherry red color; appealing, ripe cherry, cherry pie nose; tasty, rich, cherry, cherry pie, mineral palate; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
  • 2008 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; roses, tart cherry, dried cherry nose; tasty, delicate, tart cherry, tart raspberry, roses, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 94+ points (94 pts.)

For information on a major tasting of Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs on Sunday, April 1, that will include Mount Eden, go to the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers website.

This entry was posted in Cabernet Sauvignon, California Wine, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains, Winemakers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mount Eden: One of California’s Oldest and Greatest Producers

  1. Greg Bardakos says:

    This is to two people that I have met in working in the restaurant industry for over 30 years.
    It is to Jeffery and Peter.
    Saying that they are both class acts, puts me in a lower rating/appreciation/knowledge of who they really are.
    They are this.
    Putting it simply- “ABOUT AS GOOD AS IT GETS!” Take it for what it is. If you disagree, you need to catch up!
    I am a wine buyer. Mount Eden wine’s will NEVER BE OFF ANY LIST I BUILD! That is a fact. I just told Sarah and Cindy
    that yesterday. (They sell Mount Eden wines.)
    Get ahold of me at my email address. I will have one, NO, two of the best stories about Mount Eden.
    Peter, we will talk about..LOL.Like i said before. HE IS IN ANOTHER CLASS!
    Hope to hear from all!

  2. Eric Guido says:

    This was such a well written and detailed peice. I really enjoyed the read and wish I could have attended this tasting. Well Done. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Travel Blog | Richard Jennings: Is Chardonnay Entering Its Golden Age?

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