Thursday, January 12, 2012

Big Dog Vineyards – San Francisco Bay

A visit to Big Dog Vineyards really starts miles away as you leave Silicon Valley and start the climb up Calaveras Road.  You are leaving the tensions of the valley behind you as you drive past the Ed R. Levin County Park.  Here you might spy a hiker along the trails, bicyclists along the road or an equestrian negotiating the bridal path.  As you continue several horse ranches, keep an eye out for a hawk or owl in the trees along the side of the road.  While it is tempting to follow Calaveras further into the back country of Santa Clara County, turn right onto Felter Road as it winds around the hills overlooking Santa Clara Valley.  Watch for the sign pointing to Big Dog Vineyards on the left.  Up along the narrow drive past yet another horse ranch you will round the bend where you are looking down upon the San Francisco Bay and you finally spot the acres of vineyards nestled up on the hillside above a beautiful home.  Welcome to Big Dog Vineyards!

Mark Capalongan, owner and winemaker at Big Dog Vineyards, moved to this area many years ago to get to the country.  When local winemakers suggested that he plant grapes on the hillsides he checked with UC Davis and soil analysis came back saying that this rocky, limestone, well-drained hilltop was an ideal area for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Planting on a hilltop location is not only expensive, but hard work as well.  But the result is a rugged 5-acre vineyard flowing up the steep slope that is reminiscent of vineyards you might see in parts of Europe.  Grapevines need to undergo intense growing conditions to produce grapes with an intensity of flavors and these vines on the dry windy hilltop certainly are pushed in their environment to achieve excellent results.  There is a significant bay influence with afternoon breezes to help reduce mildew problems, but generally these grapes face dry heat on the western facing slope with minimal watering.  But in this location, climate is not your only worry; the hillsides house many critters that enjoy a juicy grape or tasty grape leaf, including birds, wild turkey, deer and raccoons.  In fact Mark had to design a special electric fence to keep out some of the visitors!

The tasting room is open the first weekend of every month.  Mark, his wife and several friends will push back the barrels in the winery to make room for the tasting bar and displays.  Besides the tasting room tucked in behind the garage, there is a patio area outside where you can look up to the vineyards climbing up the hillside behind.  Also note that this is a dog-friendly winery, as you can imagine from the name.  The original St. Bernard has left us but Mark’s new Great Dane puppy has taken his place and soon will be the Big Dog.  While this writer was visiting, several visitors had brought their dogs along for the afternoon, picked up a glass of wine from the tasting bar and retired to the patio to enjoy the afternoon.  The attentive tasting room staff brought samples of current releases for them to try.

While Big Dog Vineyards is primarily famous for their Cabernet Sauvignon, they are expanding to other varietals which you can taste including a Zinfandel from Paso Robles.  While not yet released (will be released in March), you might also get to taste a barrel sample of the 2010 Chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountains.  Big Dog will also be releasing a 2010 Syrah from Dry Creek Valley and a 2010 Merlot from Santa Cruz Mountains.  But the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Estate Cabernet Franc are the highlights of the visit.  They have also released a dessert wine produced in a port style from the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2007 Estate Cabernet Franc is produced from the grapes growing behind the tasting room and delivers a nice complex of dark fruit including cherry and raspberry with a spiciness and black pepper quality that makes it wonderful for a summer BBQ or roasted meat.  The price is $29.50 per bottle and just recently this wine captured a Bronze medal from the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.  This is the second year that the Big Dog Cabernet Franc was an award winner in this competition.

The 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon won Gold at last year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and is a handcrafted wine aged for 3 years in American and French Oak delivering a great complexity of aromas and flavors of dark fruit, black cherry, licorice and a long finish.  The price is $28 per bottle

The 2007 Big Dog Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Dessert Wine picked up Silver at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and has a great balance of fruit and sweet, delivering a nice warm finish that you will love.  The price is $18.50 per 375 ml bottle.  Note that the 2007 Cabernet Franc Dessert Wine last year won Best of Class at the 2011 SF Chronicle Wine Competition so Big Dog does know how to make good dessert wines.

Visiting Big Dog Vineyards high atop the hillside is like visiting family.  Mark and his family and friends will welcome you to the tasting room and tell you about the story of the winery, how they hand pick the wines from the hillsides above the winery and the passion that goes into these hand crafted wines.  Take some time to view the many awards that these wines have already earned and taste the wines, surrounded by the American Oak barrels where the next vintage is waiting for you.  The tasting room is open the first weekend of every month so stop by.

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