Redwood City’s Famous Climate Fertile Terroir for Backyard Vineyards

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Eight thousand years ago a farmer somewhere in the Georgia region of Central Asia stepped out of his stone dwelling to check the grape vines in his yard, hoping they were ready for the wine crush. He was one of the first.

Eight thousand years later Russell Muzzolini stepped on his porch on Valota Road in Redwood City and did the same, the green leaves of the vines blending into the vista of Red Morton Park beyond, across the street.

So did Tom Boyle on Don Court, Ann Ramsay on Alameda de las Pulgas, Bill Butler on Montelena Court and many other residents with their own yards of vines, each of them participating in one of the oldest, most maddening and most rewarding endeavors in human history: winemaking.

This is a great place to grow wine grapes. Of the more than 100 American Viticultural Areas designated in California by the Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau, one, the Santa Clara Mountains AVA, comes right down the hills to Interstate 280 and almost touches Redwood City at Woodside Road. That puts the hills above the city on the map of AVAs that includes Stags Leap, Oakville, St. Helena and internationally renowned growers.

David Page says of the region, it’s “an amazing place to grow wine, because of the moderate climate and because of the elevation and because of the variety and richness of the soil. If Silicon Valley weren’t here it would probably be a more gigantic version of Napa.”

Page’s two businesses in the Fair Oaks area — Post & Trellis, which designs and builds vineyards for private clients; and La Honda Winery, which makes wine and hosts 150 functions a year in its event space — manage 35 acres with 35,000 vines on 50 scattered plots. One of them is a homestead with 110-year-old Cabernet and Zinfandel vines that has been in the same family since 1860.The wine is good, and the soil and climate are productive.

Butler gets the equivalent of 3,500 bottles of Cabernet and Merlot out of the fewer-than-two-acres vineyard in his Woodside backyard. His yard is within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

A poor producer would yield fewer than 3,000 bottles in the space; a commercial producer might get over 10,000. But Butler’s spaced his vines eight feet by eight feet, which cut the size of the vineyard by a third compared to a commercial operation.

It’s good wine.

“I sold some to a guy named George Lucas,” he said. “He bought a case and then called and said ‘I want another case.’ Our niece went to Marin Catholic and he was at an auction and we provided the wine.”

Thousands of people have had the same chance as George Lucas. At any number of charitable fundraisers — for Kainos, the San Mateo Police Activities League, the Sheriff’s Athletic League, Susan G. Komen breast cancer research, Hope Services, the Make-a-Wish Foundation or Lucille Salter Packard Children’s Hospital — chances are that Butler’s Montelena Vineyards wine was served. And that attendees had the chance to bid on it. He estimates this wine has helped nonprofits generate more than $100,000.

Muzzolini’s 10-year-old vineyard is whatever fits onto his standard 5,000- square-foot residential lot, after the house. His 33 plants are both low-water-use landscaping and grape workhorses that, in a good year, could make 10 to 20 gallons of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.

“I could probably get a half barrel, 12 cases, which is not bad if the animals would not eat all my stuff,” he said. “I’ve never got to that … the more I think about it the more I think I’m devastated by stuff getting eaten by animals, so I usually only end up getting maybe only half of that. It must be that animals talk to each and know to come by.”

His is a melting pot of invaders, raccoons, possums, squirrels. He doesn’t get many deer.

Tom Boyle does. He and wife Catherine are hanging up their Brix meters and retiring the TomCat Vineyards label after almost 20 years. He hasn’t decided what to do with the 58 Sangiovese plants next door to Sequoia Hospital.

They netted the vineyard, installed water “scarecrows” and watched the grapes, but the vermin, especially the deer, won. “The vines were just starting to bud and the grapes were nothing more than a little tiny speck,” Tom Boyle said. “They came early and I wasn’t prepared and they ate everything in one and a half days. They took the whole crop away.”

Expense also is figuring into his decision. “By the time we could actually make some grapes it was 2005, but it was $40 a bottle to make … I felt good. I liked it. We both enjoyed doing that, having the wine, sharing it with our friends, that was all fun. But that just seemed too expensive after a while. It just didn’t seem right to spend that much money.

“My ego was not that great,” he said.

Tom Boyle still likes the idea of a vineyard, because it connects with his father-in-law, an Italian immigrant who built the house. “He passed away when we did all of this, but I would have liked to have seen him walking through the vineyard here on his property. He would have been really happy to see that. … I’m a little melancholy that I’m not going to continue.”

Ramsay is in a similar predicament for different reasons. Thousands of people are surprised every day to suddenly come upon her two-acre vineyard hard on the side of the road at Alameda de las Pulgas and Polhemus Avenue, a burst of agriculture among block after block of gated mansions.

She’s the third-generation owner of the land and the mind behind what once was Orchard Hills Vineyards’ Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc wines. At one time they were sold at local supermarkets and liquor shops.

“I planted this vineyard in 1994,” she said. “I thought it would be so exciting. It was exciting then. Maybe a little less now that the accountant sat down with me and said, ‘Do you know how much this vineyard’s costing you?’

“I almost passed out.”

Her vineyard is connected with Napa Valley wine royalty. The planter was Jim Barbour. Barbour started his career driving a tractor for Laurie Wood, who with Charles Carpy, brought Freemark Abbey out of dormancy in the 1960s. In 1976 Freemark was one of the six American wineries that competed for honors against four legendary French wineries in the famous “Judgment of Paris.” The high finishes of the American wines established the fame of the Napa wine region.

Barbour Vineyards today produces 300 cases of estate wine handmade by Celia Welch Grace Family Vineyards, one of whose wines auctioned for $160,000 at the 2012 Naples Winter Wine Festival.

Ramsay has had much experience with vineyard managers and winemakers, some good, some bad. At one low point Barbour told her, “Ann, go to Safeway and buy your wine.”

But she has persisted and is now very happy with the vineyard management of David Page and La Honda Winery. La Honda blends her grapes and produces a Sauvignon Blanc that she says is “just delicious.”

Her problems come on two, not four, legs. Her large property is prime Atherton real estate and one of the very last of its size in the urban landscape. The town is not an enthusiastic booster.

“I just hope, if La Honda doesn’t want to do it any more, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll try to find somebody new before I rip it up, but I’m not going into the wine business again.”

On the other hand, “I like to look at the vineyard. I eat the grapes,” she said.

Butler and Muzzolini, though, show no signs of giving up their bottle labels.

Butler was looking for “cheap landscaping” 25 years ago — a vineyard cost half the price of two acres of landscaping — and he didn’t drink wine when he hired Bob Mullen, founder of Woodside Vineyards, to establish the vineyard. Woodside’s Brian Caselden still makes the wine. Butler’s so committed that he built a magnificent 1,000-bottle wine cave and tasting room under the house and has 10,000 bottles in off-site storage.

“Cheaper than landscaping? I was kidding. It was landscaping gone awry,” Butler said.

“By the time I’m all done, assuming the land’s free, it’s 20-, 30-dollars a bottle. We don’t use anything non-natural on this property and it’s not the way I used to do it — my daughter’s a strident environmentalist — but obviously it’s a great idea. It’s a lot more work and costs a lot more money, but that’s all right.

“The fewer grapes I pick, the less money I lose. So you have a bad harvest, I’m way up front,” Butler said.

Muzzolini is converting his vineyard, not abandoning it. As Cabernet vines give up growing or get eaten, he replants with Zinfandel and Pinot.

“That’s the journey of the past eight to 10 years now, trying to figure out what’s the best,” he said.

He produces every bottle of Vinneria Muzzolini wine in his garage and has a barrel room in his basement, maintains years-long good connections with Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains and knows where to pick up more grapes when he wants to augment the pick.

“It’s sort of died down as far as how aggressively I try to produce and sell wine now, so it’s more doing it for fun, which is where I started. But what’s the old saying? ‘How do you make a little money in wine? You take a lot of money and invest it in a vineyard.'”

This story was published in the May print edition of Climate Magazine.