Rhys Vineyards: digging deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains

In search of the best Pinot Noir, the founder of Rhys Vineyard was drawn towards California's Santa Cruz Mountains. Kevin Harvey speaks on why it's also the perfect ground for testing out ideas in terroir

Words by Courtney Humiston In partnership with Justerini & Brooks

kevin harvey at rhys vineyard

For Kevin Harvey, a former venture capitalist and software entrepreneur – a person curious by their very nature – loving and appreciating wine was simply not enough. He had questions. ‘I first fell in love with Pinot; actually, with California Pinot. But then quickly moved to Burgundy and became sort of obsessed with this idea: Why is some Pinot better than others?

That not-so-simple question would take him from Burgundy, deep into the geological history of the planet and ultimately to the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountain range where he founded Rhys Vineyards in 2001.

‘If you look at the pattern of the slope of the Cote d’Or, all the Grand Crus are sort of in the same zone. Some people believe that is a climate zone but it’s really not. It’s a zone of soil depth and fractured rock. Above the Grand Crus is rockier and below the Grand Crus are deeper, deeper [clay] soils.’ Harvey determined that what makes the best Pinot Noir is not the temperature, clonal selection or farming practices (although all of that matters), but rather the earth itself: ‘The biggest thing that effects quality is something you can never change, which is the site… the soil.’

kevin harvey at rhys vineyards

Harvey continues: ‘Pinot needs a somewhat perfect balance of clay and fractured rock. Clay for more of the fruit and the rocks for more of the structure.’

Reflecting on the wines from his home in California, he realised that much of California Pinot Noir is planted on valley floors with mainly clay soils — what would constitute a Village level wine in Burgundy. Much. But not all.

His quest to find Pinot in California that shared some of the characteristics of the wines he loved from Burgundy led him to the Santa Cruz Mountains. ‘The wines really showed this minerality and complexity that can come only from site,’ he says. As it turns out, Harvey’s soil theory tested true: The wines that he loved (primarily made by the legendary Mt. Eden) were planted on shallow clay soil over rocky substrate.

The Santa Cruz Mountain range was formed many millions of years ago when the Pacific plate and the North American tectonic plate collided along the San Andreas Fault, pushing layers and layers of ancient soils from the bottom of the sea to the top of the mountain. ‘What’s interesting about the Pacific Plate is it’s all marine geology formed at the bottom of the ocean… The great thing about being at the bottom of the ocean is that you are collecting all the nutrients from the life that is going on above, be it plankton or in the case of limestone, it’s coral.’

rhys vineyards at sunrise

The other thing that attracted Harvey to the Santa Cruz Mountains were the extreme differences in geology across very short distances: a perfect place to test the concept of terroir. ‘The big question was if we planted these vineyards on sites that had that combination of clay and fractured bedrock but were different from each other, would the wines show that?’

Every decision that Harvey and his team made when developing the vineyards was with this question in mind. Rather than planting different clones in blocks or rows and vinifying those clones separately, as is common in California, they interspersed 15 different clones throughout the vineyard; the techinique, known as sélection massale, is how vineyards in Burgundy are planted.

Everything we do is meant to enhance site expression

Rhys viticulturist and general manager Javier Tapia Meza, who had previously worked with Fetzer vineyards, one of the oldest organic wineries in California, farmed the Rhys vineyards biodynamically for the first seven years. At that point, he found that the vineyards fell into a natural balance and that biodynamic preparations were no longer necessary – and Harvey pondered whether they could be a terroir distraction. ‘Because the vineyards are so alive and surrounded by biodiversity, we found that we didn’t need to prescriptively compost,’ says Tapia. Now they practice ‘minimal input’ farming using custom cover crop designed for the needs of the vines.

In the winery, Winemaker Jeff Brinkman continues this gentle, less-is-more approach. All the fruit is gravity fed and foot trodden, and fermentations occur spontaneously. ‘Because we are surrounded by a diverse ecosystem – this, plus organic farming — we get all the yeast and nutrients we need for a healthy fermentation. The yeast is a part of terroir expression.’

French oak barrels at Rhys are made from air-dried staves, a timely and expensive commitment meant to limit the noticeable presence of wood. ‘Everything we do is meant to enhance site expression, with each site driving what is in the glass.’

rhys vineyards

And has it worked? Harvey laughs and pours the wine. We taste two wines from the 2014 vintage: Alpine, which was the first site they planted in 2001 and Horseshoe, developed a few years later. ‘The vineyards are only 300 yards apart but are totally different geologies…. The geologies are nine million years apart.’

Alpine is the younger of the two and is composed of sedimentary deposit — young silt stone with a chalky texture. The wine is powerful and fleshy with a juicy red-fruit profile. Whereas Horseshoe, planted on diatomaceous shale with interbedded limestone is elegant and structured, ethereal and overtly mineral.

The wines are certainly distinctive from one another and also original in their own respect. Are they Burgundian in style? Californian? Can you even say they carry a Santa Cruz style? The best wines defy such generalisations. Most importantly, is Harvey satisfied with what’s in the glass? ‘The quality has exceeded my wildest dreams.’

The wines of Rhys Vineyards are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks