The following is excerpted from an article that appeared in the Pinot File in May 2006. Click here for the original article.
Silver Mountain Winery
As winegrower Jerold O’Brien and I walked around his mountain top estate on a brisk and foggy March morning, I marveled at the tenacity he has shown in his lifetime in overcoming considerable adversity to achieve his dream of making fine wine. Jerold first learned about wine as a 19 year-old in 1959, when after enlisting in the Air Force, quickly learned that “adult beverages were mandatory.” He soon developed an appreciation for wine over beer and spirits. After becoming a fighter pilot, he traveled extensively and driven by his curiosity, sought out vineyards and wineries in many locations in an attempt to figure out the reasons that wines from disparate locations tasted differently.
Upon his discharge from the Air Force, he continued to fly commercially and relocated in 1970 to the Bay Area. He felt this was “the center of wine in the Western Hemisphere,” and it was here that he volunteered to work at multiple wineries and took classes in viticulture. Using profits he made from trading silver commodities, he bought the Silver Mountain property in 1973. High in the Santa Cruz mountains at 2,000 feet, the views of the Monterey Bay are spectacular from here. Jerold saw potential here, despite the fact that it was a run-down and abandoned orchard with no road or well.
He built a road, drilled a well, and built a barn on the property which he planned to convert to a winery in the future. His initial goal was to grow grapes. His wife and young son camped out in the barn for over a year. Without insulation, living here was truly roughing it. Eventually he completed a house, but his wife did not share his commitment to this venture and departed. Jerold has been single ever since.
In the mid 1970s, Jerold decided to start a winery. He obtained Pinot Noir cuttings from Joseph Swan and Chardonnay from Mount Eden and planted a nursery initially. He converted the barn on the property to a winery and became bonded in 1979. That first year he made 350 cases of Zinfandel from purchased grapes with the aid of Jerold’s chief mentor, Joseph Swan. Meanwhile, he also apprenticed with Richard Graff and Charly Meyers (Harbor Vineyard near Sacramento). In 1980, Richard Graff introduced him to John Meter, the vintner at Ventana who was a former Navy pilot. Because of their similar backgrounds, they developed a friendship, and Meter supplied him with Chardonnay grapes. The first ten years, wines at Silver Mountain were made primarily from purchased Chardonnay and Zinfandel grapes with some experimentation with Merlot and Pinot Noir.
From 1980 to 1982, Jerold planted an estate vineyard using cuttings from his own nursery. He decided to plant Chardonnay. Although Pinot Noir had shown potential in the mountains, he felt he lacked enough familiarity with it to be successful. As it turns out, five or six of the vines he transplanted from his nursery were Pinot Noir vines from Joseph Swan, and these are now being used to plant a small Pinot Noir vineyard on the property. This is a work in progress as gophers are proving to be a major challenge. Jerold thinks that his property, 2100 feet above the fog, may be too warm for Pinot Noir, but he is going to try anyway. All of the Silver Mountain estate vineyards are certified organic.
Originally, Jerold did not have enough money for a deer fence so he struggled to get his Chardonnay vineyard established. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake was centered two miles away which destroyed the original winery and house. All of the stored wine was lost. Five months later, he decided to rebuild. “It took me five years, but this time I built everything the way it should have been done the first time.” The new winery is semi-underground and has been utilized since 1995. (in the photo below the driveway leads to the winery under the cement pad - Monterey Bay is in the cloudy distance).
In the mid 1990s, Jerold had some luck with a meritage wine using purchased Cabernet and Merlot. Labeled Alloy, the addition of Petit Verdot beginning with the 2004 vintage has made this wine even better. He also has made excellent sparkling wine from Pinot Noir (the last vintage was 1996), which he only sells at the winery. He keeps talking about making some again, but the time involved makes it “a pain in the butt.”
The Pinot Noir program at Silver Mountain made a huge leap forward with the addition of consulting winemaker, Tony Craig (formerly winemaker at David Bruce - see feature on Sonnet). Jerold calls himself a “half-ass winemaker who has a lot of common sense and experience.” The combination of Tony’s superb palate for Pinot Noir and Jerold’s years of know-how around a winery has produced remarkably good Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs in the 2003 vintage. Tony works with Greg Stokes, the former vineyard manager at David Bruce for 20 years. Together they source all of the fruit and direct the farming.
Jerold’s friendship with David Bruce dates back to 1972. Bruce was very helpful and encouraging, but he told Jerold, “You’re a fool to get into the wine business, there is no money in it.” After all of these years, Jerold just smiles and shakes his head, “If you succeed once in a while, it is worth it.”
2003 Silver Mountain Vineyards Tondre’s Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 14.5% alc., $36. This vineyard was formerly an old sheep pasture. Tondre’s son, Joe, farms the vineyard which has several different Burgundy clones planted. The nose is complex with red and black fruits, licorice, and a hint of oak. There is a beautiful palate of Pinot fruits which are enhanced by some earthiness. A balanced wine that finishes clean and fresh. Double Gold San Francisco Chronicle 2006 Wine Competition.
2003 Silver Mountain Vineyards Amber Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 14.5% alc., $36. The aromatics feature cherries, raspberries and toast. The wine has attractive finesse with flavors of red fruits and mocha. It does not feature quite the punch or crisp acidity of the Tondre Vineyard wine, but it will start you smiling with any good food. Gold San Francisco Chronicle 2006 Wine Competition.
2003 Silver Mountain Miller Hill Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 14.5% alc., $36. Two gentleman from Europe organically and meticulously farm this vineyard at 1750 feet. It is les than a mile from Silver Mountain. Medium bodied with a gorgeous garnet robe. The nose is plush with red fruits and a brambly character. A wine of great elegance that finishes with a peek-a-boo dose of sexy fruit and spice that lingers and leaves you staring at the glass. Beautifully composed, balanced, and sleek. Two hours later it was still solid. Wowee! Demure and curvaceous.
The winery’s website is silvermtn.com. The phone is 408-353-2278. The wines may be purchased from the Tasting Room at Cannery Row in Monterey which is open daily (831-644-9609). The winery will be open for Santa Cruz Mountains Passport Weekend, April 15.