Nineteenth century dreams of hardscrabble immigrants whose longing for home put the Golden State on the global wine map. Post-World War II corporatization that landed jug and boxed wines in the refrigerators of millions across America. Modern winemakers drawn to old vines and oddball grapes farmed by growers increasingly attune to sustainability.
These chapters in the ongoing saga of San Benito County directly reflect the long arc of California viticulture, a twisting tale of trials, trends, booms and busts whose pages continue to turn today. Underlying it all is the belief that San Benito’s location between the cooling breezes of the Monterey Bay to the west, the blaring sunshine of the San Joaquin Valley to the east and the eccentric soils unearthed by the San Andreas Fault present a world-class location for wine grapes.
That’s what the first people to make wine there bet on more than 150 years ago when they planted vines even before contemporaries who made Sonoma and Napa much more famous. That these lands south of Hollister and east of Salinas have not yet fallen to overdevelopment only sweetens the setting, even if that otherwise idyllic isolation provides plenty of challenges to widespread popularity.
I’ve known the region since childhood, golfing past rattlesnakes with my dad and exploring bat caves in the Pinnacles, long before it became a national park. My more recent visits, as WE’s reviewer for this part of California, were usually squeezed between appointments in Santa Cruz or Monterey. But this spring, with a steady streak of fascinating San Benito wines showing up in my blind tastings, I dedicated the better part of a week to getting better acquainted with the people driving this latest chapter of San Benito’s story.
As the green grasses of a wet winter faded into toasty yellow landscapes, I shook hands with dusty farmers who’ve tended their own vines for decades and clinked glasses with bigger city-based winemakers whose excitement about grapes like Cabernet Pfeffer, Négrette and Schiava was infectious. My visit culminated with a dinner at Eden Rift, the estate recreated seven years ago on land where a Frenchman named Théophile Vaché planted vines in 1849. Vaché’s dream would become a centerpiece of the 20th century jug-wine juggernaut Almaden Vineyards, and now Eden Rift is investing more than anyone else to elevate San Benito’s reputation for fine wine and hospitality.
Eden Rift’s founder Christian Pillsbury reminded the 20 of us at the table that this was where, in many ways, California wine began, and yet, like so many, he never knew that until very recently.
“It took me by surprise,” he said. “I’d never heard of the place, and I’ve been studying California wine my whole career.” When he described the experience as “being found by a place,” not the other way around, I looked around the table. Everyone was nodding.
That sense of wonder and opportunity is luring the next generation of winemakers to San Benito.
The descendant of Chinese immigrants who came to build California in the 1850s, Nat Wong left his career as an ornithologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium—yes, he wrangled penguins—to give the wine life a try five years ago. Though he worked for a Carmel Valley winery, he was struggling to find anyone to sell him fruit to launch his own label, Blade & Talon. He told me, “No one would give me the time of day except Ron Siletto.”
Revered as a saint of the region, Siletto— who was raised by Italian immigrants in Boston and died in 2020 at age 86— discovered San Benito while president of Almaden Vineyards. When that company sold in 1986, he stuck around, buying up properties and becoming a farmer. As large winery buyers got ever bigger through consolidation, Siletto cultivated boutique clients.
“Dad retained this eclectic customer base of a few growers,” John Siletto told me soon after his father died. That included Ken Volk and Bryan Harrington, who both worked with Siletto to celebrate old vines, cheerlead historic varieties like Cab Pfeffer and Négrette (historically known as Pinot St. George) and plant new ones, particularly Italian grapes like Frappato and Corvina that aligned with Ron’s roots.
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“When I met Ron, I was immediately attracted to his inquisitive spirit, and the fact that he saved these vines from oblivion was very endearing,” said Harrington. “We felt like brothers from that moment.”
This past January, Nat Wong became the general manager of Siletto Family Vineyards, overseeing four organically farmed properties whose 100 combined acres feature 30 different grape varieties. “For me, it’s all about the relationships,” said Wong, whose more than 35 clients include Ian Brand, Scott and Jenny Schultz at Jolie-Laide, Rajat Parr and Tank Garage Winery.
The latter’s South African-born winemaker Bertus van Zyl joined Wong and me for a tour of the four vineyards: Three of them— Tres Pinos, Calleri and Wheeler—lie close together along hills that surround a dusty creek, while the fourth, Siletto, is perched high on a windswept ridge looking back at it all. As we took in the view, I wondered why a rising star like Wong—who grew up in Danville, just on the edge of the East Bay’s steady sprawl—would want to relocate to the middle of nowhere. He was quick to reply: “This is the only place in California that reminds me of home.”
“I was born on the vineyard,” says Pat Wirz, his ancient tractor idling nearby as shredded, grease-streaked blue jeans barely hide his legs. “I started pruning vines at five years old with my dad. I probably was in his way.” A stout man of 70 years old whose fabulously bushy mustache is set against a buffed leather skin—“I am like the mountains,” he’d later quip—Wirz proudly reports that his grandson, Cody Wirz, is the fourth generation to be working this property.
The 60-acre Wirz Vineyard features a 1903—or “nineteen-three” in Pat speak— field blend block of Mourvèdre, Zinfandel and Cab Pfeffer (recently identified as Mourtaou, though some believe it’s Gros Verdot), among possibly Palomino and Mission. There are also six acres of Carignan and 45 acres of head-trained Riesling that Pat’s father started planting in the early 1960s.
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame— who’s developing his vanguard Popelouchum estate in nearby San Juan Bautista—built his Pacific Rim Riesling on these vines, and now much is consumed by Ryan Stirm, whose Rieslings are some of the most compelling wines I’ve tasted all year. Other clients include Big Basin, Ser and Birichino in Santa Cruz, Maidenstoen in San Luis Obispo and Kobza Wines in nearby Salinas, which produces a field blend of that old mixed block. Many of these can be found on the shelves of Crave Wine Company in downtown Hollister, which wine industry veterans Mike Kohne and Maura Cooper just opened in January to provide a retail showcase for the county’s producers.
When asked whether he hires farming companies to handle the vines at all, as most growers do, Wirz, who also ranches about 100 cattle on 1,800 surrounding acres, shook his head matter-of-factly, replying, “I’ve just taken care of it.”
Down the road, as longhorns and horses meandered by, Gillian Enz and her dad, Bob Enz, grilled up some sausages for lunch while discussing how he went from being a Tokyo- and New York-raised tunnel engineer to buying one of the oldest existing vineyards anywhere near here. “I didn’t know anything,” he said of becoming the farmer of what’s now known as the Enz Vineyard in 1967, “but I got my nose dirty real quick.” He’s still moving earth, too, in the form of a granite mine just past the historic ruins of Lime Kiln Valley, the once-thriving limestone-mining town that fueled the building of San Francisco and Santa Clara County.
After we tried some Zinfandels made by Hubba and Rexford from Gillian’s own vineyard as well as a surprisingly alive 1979 Zin from the old vines, Bob showed me his favorite bushes. “These are the oldest orange muscat vines in California,” said Enz, who believes they date back to 1886. “They still thrive here.” Like so many San Benito properties, the head-trained old vines of the Enz and Wirz vineyards don’t need watering to survive, yet another reason vintners like Ian Brand and Ken Volk worked so hard over the years to bring winemaker attention to the properties.
The 350-acre Gimelli Vineyards includes what’s likely the largest block of Cab Pfeffer in the world, about a half-dozen acres. Those vines, which date back to at least 1908, didn’t show any stress during the driest days of recent droughts, according to Ken Gimelli.
Gimelli bought the first of his now sprawling holdings in 1995, six years after his brother Joseph Gimelli started Pietra Santa Winery on the old Almaden property. (Eden Rift bought Pietra Santa in 2016.) The brothers, whose ancestors peddled fruit and flowers in San Jose, built their fortunes in waste management before heading south to reinvigorate old vineyards.
Ken is enthralled by his property’s history, which began more than 120 years ago as El Gabilan Vineyard. It provided many of the cuttings for the rest of the old San Benito planting, said Gimelli, as well as rootstock for the redevelopment of phylloxera-scourged France. He doesn’t have any children to inherit his legacy, but doesn’t plan to stop working anytime soon. He’s still plotting what to do with the 19th-century church bells that he’s got stowed in a 1906 barn.
While the region’s formerly thriving Blenheim apricot industry is mostly gone— you can get a peek at the San Benito County Historical Park—the grapes appear here to stay. Said Wong, who’s in San Benito for the long haul, “People here are proud of the land that they’ve farmed for generations.”
San Benito’s sustainability push is sharpest at Paicines Ranch, where owner Sallie Calhoun is turning her software fortune into a 7,600-acre model of regenerative farming. After buying the land in 2001, Calhoun found a regenerative leader in Kelly Mulville, whose life found direction at a young age in El Paso when he was given a hawk to raise.
“That experience of the bird made me interested in the natural world,” said Mulville. “Then I read Silent Spring and have been depressed ever since.”
Mulville raised chilies in West Texas, and then worked on an organic farm in Colorado, where he went wine tasting one day. “Within two years, I was putting in a vineyard,” he said. “Bouncing between livestock and crops and wine grapes allowed me to combine them all at once.”
At Paicines, he’s creating a vineyard that’s both enologically and ecologically in tune, opting to plant the 25-acre vineyard with grapes like Grenache, Assyrtiko and Verdelho that thrive in warming climates. “Let’s create something from the get-go that uses the intelligence of nature,” said Mulville, who lifted the trellis system nearly overhead in order to run about 1,700 sheep in the vineyard year-round. “They don’t cost money,” he said of the sheep, which are also sold for meat. “They make money.”
The native plant, insect and bird populations—which were hammered by conventional vineyard management on the same lands from 1965 to 1995—are booming, including a super-rare tri-colored blackbird that attracted birdwatchers from all over. Also flocking are winemakers like James Jelks of Florèz Wines, Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace, and Tara Gomez and Mireia Taribo of Camins 2 Dreams, eager to bottle the grapes that Mulville finished planting in 2020.
Megan Bell uses them in her Margins Wines, which she crafts in a former apple warehouse near Watsonville. “This works great for everybody, including the planet,” said Bell, who’s successfully encouraging other growers to adopt increasingly sustainable means.
Are customers willing to try grapes like Assyrtiko or Verdelho that they may only know from trips to Greece and Portugal? Bell said the next generation of wine lovers isn’t fazed, explaining, “They’re just interested in new things.”
Both Bell and Mulville joined us for dinner that night at Eden Rift, where we met Josh Hammerling, who makes vivacious bubbles for his eponymous brand in a Berkeley warehouse, and Tracey Rogers Brandt of Donkey & Goat, whose Cab Pfeffer, Négrette and Falanghina are downright thrilling. Familiar faces had gathered too: longtime Central Coast champion Ian Brand; somm-turned-vintner Chris Miller of Seabold Cellars; Calera winemaker and Hollister native Mike Waller, who was hired by the late Josh Jensen in 2007; and Riley Hubbard, who traveled north from Paso Robles to show her Hubba Wines.
On the table, alongside Paicines Ranch lamb and locally grown produce, were dozens of bottles, including some from DeRose, the former Almaden property next door, Bryan Harrington (also in attendance), and Ken Volk, who passed me some bottles at his home in San Luis Obispo on my drive north. We tasted and toasted the legacies, but the dinner felt far more about the future than the past, like we were all looking into the verge.
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The next morning, Christian Pillsbury toured me around Eden Rift, through the terraced blocks, past an area being ripped for more vines, and toward the mounds of white dust from an active limestone quarry to the south. “We’ve got young wood on top,” said Pillsbury of recent regrafts, “and a root system that’s sucking that limestone.”
Our last stop was the barely visible hole of a quicksilver mine hand-cut by homesteaders back in the 1800s, which was also where Jensen aged his first-ever barrel of Calera wine a half-century ago. We ducked in and wandered back, literally traveling through the dreams of San Benito history, some that died, others that thrived. Then we turned back toward the entrance, where a bright, piercing light guided us back into the present.
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Last Updated: November 7, 2023