Venture Capitalist Bottles California Pinots That Rival Burgundy
Software entrepreneur Kevin Harvey, co-founder of Benchmark Capital, is used to backing startups that make it big, such as Proofpoint and MySQL. It turns out he’s also got the Midas touch when it comes to California’s best spots for pinot noir. He’s just invested in his seventh parcel in the under-appreciated Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.
His savory, earthy, silky-textured Rhys Vineyards pinots are the closest yet to a California version of great Burgundy—and it’s time to pounce. Here’s why.
The stellar 2012s have just been released, and even though the winery already has a wait list, a handful of retailers will be offering them soon.
Harvey insists that the secret of his pinot success lies in his vineyards. He’s a dirt fanatic whose idea of fun is trawling online for tiny pieces of land that fulfill his exacting requirements.
Like so many who fall hard for pinot, he traces his obsession to a wine epiphany: “A Gary Farrell wine from the Russian River Valley that someone brought to a party in the early 1990s,” he remembers with a smile as he, his winemaker Jeff Brinkman, and I head out to tour vineyards in Harvey's SUV. “It was my first pinot.” That led him to a love of Burgundy, pinot noir’s home, and a fascination with the way each grand cru’s earthy, mineral character reflects where the grapes were grown.
In 1995, he tried his first experiment: planting vines in his backyard in Woodside, Calif., a town in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains that’s home turf to such tech billionaires as Oracle’s Larry Ellison. The wine, which Harvey made in his garage, whetted his thirst for more.
“I started looking all over for vineyard sites,” he says. “I studied the conditions that make the best pinots. In the New World you have to find the great pieces of land. Cool climate counts, but distinctive soil matters more than anything.” The Burgundians would agree.
Today, you get to his vast 30,000-square-foot cave winery by driving 2,300 feet up steep, winding mountain roads that have hairpin curves with no guardrails. It's in the outskirts of Los Gatos, roughly due west of San Jose.
Harvey has the casual Silicon Valley look—a gray-flecked, close-cropped beard, a thick suede-like vest over an open plaid shirt—that belies his highly disciplined focus and (clearly) deep pockets. By 2001, he was persuaded that the thin-soil slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, cooled by the Pacific Ocean to the west and by San Francisco Bay to the east, were the sweet spots. Though barely known compared to Napa and Sonoma, the region has a century-long history of iconoclasts making great wines such as Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello cabernet.
Why are these slopes so perfect for pinot? As we reach Alpine Vineyard, one of five Rhys properties in the area, Harvey stops by some rocks to give me a quick Santa Cruz geology lesson.
He uses his hands to illustrate the way two tectonic plates collided to form the San Andreas Fault that bisected the mountain range and churned up an amazing diversity of soil and rock types. He rattles off rock names like a trained petrologist.
Each of his seven estate vineyards has a different mix. For instance, Alpine’s vertigo inducing, south-facing slopes, eight miles from the Pacific, have shallow, chalky soil that lets the roots go deep. A few hundred yards away, Horseshoe Vineyard lies on a ridge of brittle Monterey shale and limestone, while tiny Skyline Vineyard near the winery, at 2,360 feet, is a turbulent rock pile of fractured mudstone, limestone, and sandstone.
Harvey's idea is to make a wine from each that shows off those differences. So far Rhys bottles pinots from six of those vineyards, including one in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, and all taste strikingly different. A seventh, Pajaro, farther south just west of Gilroy, will debut wine in the next couple of years.
To underscore that individuality, he has also invested in price-is-no-object winemaking, using labor-intensive foot treading and 129 tiny fermenters to keep every parcel of grapes separate. It's no wonder he still spends half his time at his day job. As the oft-repeated saying goes, ‘To make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a big one.’
Wines to Buy
Rhys makes two chardonnays and two syrahs worth seeking out, but I’d put my money on the pinots. The fragrant Family Farm Vineyard ($80), from a spot near Harvey’s home, is juicy and earthy-spicy, while the nearby Home Vineyard ($140) produces one that’s darker and deeper. The Bearwallow Vineyard ($100), from Anderson Valley, is all pure fruit and bright intensity.
My top scorers, though, are from the highest-elevation vineyards: the Alpine ($125) is succulent and rich; a wine labeled Swan Terrace ($160), from a special part of the vineyard, is even better, with that super-refined elegance that makes pinot lovers swoon.
Silky textured Horseshoe Vineyard ($120) has power, drama, and an intense floral and mineral character. The spicy, exotic Skyline Vineyard ($160) is as close to Vosne-Romanée as California gets.