05/23/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Visit to Varner: Superb Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnays

Bob and Jim Varner

Santa Cruz Mountains produces some excellent, minerally, ageworthy Chardonnay with vibrant acidity.

I've previously written here about the long lived, complex Chardonnays of Mount Eden, and about the great Chards from Rhys and Ridge. The other Chardonnays from this region in the same league come from a vineyard in Portola Valley planted by identical twin brothers, Bob and Jim Varner.

The keys to the Varners' terrific Chardonnays are meticulous farming and very gentle winemaking techniques.

I recently had a chance to visit the Varners' vineyard and to taste through not only the latest vintage in bottle, but also the 2011 vintage from barrel. For two very cool vintages -- 2010 and 2011 -- these are remarkable wines. The 2011 barrel samples, in particular, give me hope for some excellent wines from this most challenging of recent California vintages.

Background/The Vineyard

Jim and Bob both went to U.C. Davis in the '70s, where Jim studied oenology while Bob was studying biology. Jim took Dr. Maynard Amerine's class, where he tasted Burgundy -- the source of great, minerally whites and reds, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir -- and decided he wanted to make wines like that.

After graduation, Jim went to work for Souverain in Napa. He knew he needed to find a cool climate location, though, for the kind of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir he wanted to make. Sonoma County and Carneros were possibilities, but U.C. Davis Professor Ann Noble introduced him to Greg Melchor, who owned 230 acres of largely forested land in Portola Valley, ten miles from the ocean in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

The natural spot for siting a vineyard there were then hayfields of limited productivity. It was now 1980, and Bob took an academic leave from a Ph.D. program in genetics at U.C. Berkeley to help with the project, which is now Spring Ridge Vineyard.

The brothers initially planted two acres of Chardonnay close to the home that was on the property, hence that section's name, Home Block. In a remarkable bit of youthful daredevilry, they chose to plant this first piece of the vineyard on its own roots, instead of on rootstock resistant to the phylloxera louse that devastates vitis vinifera vines, like Chardonnay. Vitis vinifera, which originated in Europe, lacks the resistance of American grape rootstock, since phylloxera originated in the Americas.

I guess they were thinking that the site is relatively remote from any other vineyard, and wanted to experiment with grapes grown on their own roots. Still, it was a risky move, and one they repeated the next year when they planted a second block of Chardonnay, known as Amphitheater Block, which has clay and loam soil.

In 1987 they planted their third set of Chardonnay vines, the Bee Block, this time on phylloxera resistant rootstock, with cuttings from the Home Block. The Varners claim the Bee Block Chardonnay has developed in recent years into being the most minerally of the three.

For years, the Varners sold their fruit to Thomas Fogarty, and then to Bargetto. They also worked at Fogarty, and in 1987 established a wine import business known as Park Wine Co.

In 1997, they planted their first Pinot Noir vines in what is known as Hidden Block. Five years later they planted more Pinot on the Picnic Block. This brought their total vineyard size to 14 acres.

Looking down the hill from the winery

The place is an amazing showplace for terroir in America, since they have the same varieties of grape planted on neighboring parcels, with vineyard blocks that are only a few hundred feet from each other being separately vinified and bottled using the same techniques. The differences in flavors, acid levels and the like, however, are fascinating.

The Varners report that the vines on their own roots, like Amphitheater Block, seem to get ripe sooner and to tolerate heat better than grafted vines. Although Bee Block, on phylloxera resistant rootstock, gets the ripest of all, it also has higher acidity.

The Varners dry farm, with no fertilizer, and have never used insecticides. They also use a fairly unique form of canopy management--the vines are head-trained and cane pruned with four canes on two wires, one foot apart--to ensure the grape bunches all receive filtered sunlight.

Vine trellising system

Dr. Kirk Neely and his wife Holly Myers purchased the land, which lies adjacent to the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, from Greg Melchor, and Bob Varner takes care of it for him. The Neelys share the Varners' commitment to both the vineyards and the entire property. The Varners bottle three vineyard designate Chardonnays and one Pinot Noir blend under their eponymous label, Varner, and three vineyard designate Pinots and one Chardonnay blend under the name of their partners, Neely.


They have used only indigenous yeast since the beginning, when they started out with all new equipment. The grapes go into two-ton fermenters for a cool soak, with two to three percent whole clusters.

After fermentation, the wine spends two months in a stainless steel tank before going into oak. They rack by gravity, using a handcrafted tool from Burgundy that gently tips the barrels.

Device used to gently tip the barrels

The Wines

My favorite Varner Chardonnays to date have been the '09 Bee and Amphitheater Block, but the 2011 versions, from barrel, seem likely to at least equal, if not surpass, those minerally gems. My favorite Varner Pinot to date was the '04 Hidden Block.

The 2011 Chardonnay barrel samples we tried were quite delicious, especially the Bee Block. The Pinots were lighter bodied, showing a lot of floral qualities that could be quite appealing in the near term.

My favorite of the 2011 Pinots was the Hidden Block. The Chardonnays should be bottled in June and available for purchase in the Fall.

We also tasted most of the current releases, the 2010 Chardonnays and 2009 Pinots. The Chardonnays were complex and tightly wound. I particularly liked the Varner Bee Block and the Neely Holly's Cuvee. Among the Pinots, my favorites were the '09 Varner Three Blocks and the '08 Hidden Block.

For my complete tasting notes, see the full report on my blog here.