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

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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, 2,000 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."

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Winemaker Jeffrey Patterson, right, with assistant winemaker Sean Geoghegan

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 I attended at Saratoga's The Plumed Horse Restaurant toward the end of last year -- "Since 1990, we know what we're doing."

This week I also sampled newer releases of Mount Eden Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs at a tasting for the wine trade in San Francisco called "In Pursuit of Balance," which 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, 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. For the most part since 1997, however, and even more convincingly in the last several years, they are also some of California's very best and most terroir-driven.

The plain-spoken Patterson, whose accent and cadences remind me of the great journalist Bill Moyers, first came to Mount Eden as an assistant winemaker in 1981. Jeffrey had graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1975 with a degree in biology. 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.

The vineyard Jeffrey arrived at in 1981 had been known as Mount Eden since 1971. It was originally planted in 1945 by one of California's most visionary and controversial winemakers, Martin Ray.

Those plantings included Chardonnay budwood from Paul Masson's La Cresta Vineyard 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.

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.

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 percent alcohol. Jeffrey doesn't like wine over 14 percent, as it "feels pushed."

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 Spectator's Download file" target="_hplink">Top 100 for 2011.

The Mount Eden Chardonnays from the 1990s we tasted were elegant and aging, for the most part, beautifully. My favorites were the 1990, 1992 and 1997.

The greatest of the Pinot Noirs 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.

The latest vintages I tasted are also stunning, carrying on Mount Eden's long tradition of distinguished, minerally, elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Domaine bottlings, priced at about half the cost of the estate, represent a good value.

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 complete report on my blog here.

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.