Planting the seeds for a wine country

On the steep, picturesque hills near La Honda, Rex Geitner is trying to help turn San Mateo County into a household name for wine lovers.

Geitner is the vice president of winemaking for Clos de la Tech, the private winery owned by Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers, who recently won the county’s approval for a major expansion of the wine-making operation.

Lured by the area’s cool climate, which offers exceptional conditions for certain grapes, Rodgers and Geitner are aiming to produce the best pinot noir in the world alongside a handful of other Peninsula wineries, including Thomas Fogarty Winery just down the road.

San Mateo County has great growth potential, as wineries have already shown that the local climate produces a quality product, said Geitner, who is also the current president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau. Wine grapes could be a new crop for struggling Peninsula farmers, he said.

“We’ll never see the acreage that Napa and Sonoma County have; there’s no need for that necessarily,” Geitner said. “But wonderful wine has been made in this county, and I think the best is yet to be seen.”

The county’s 135 acres of vineyards make it a miniscule player compared to the 45,000 acres in Napa County and 60,000 in Sonoma County. Still, that acreage has doubled from just 62 acres in 2003, according to San Mateo County.

Clos de la Tech is poised to continue that growth after winning a nine-year battle for approval to expand from 25 acres of vineyards to 62 acres. Nearby residents had voiced concern over potential erosion and damage to the local water supply, so Rodgers agreed to work with the county to set up monitoring of the watershed. However, some are still concerned that those details haven’t been finalized yet, said David Ehrhardt, president of the Cuesta La Honda Guild.

“Hopefully everyone will do their job, but I think we feel we have to keep an eye on things,” Ehrhardt said.

Woodside Vineyards and Rhys Vineyards also produce their own grapes in San Mateo County, while others — including La Nebbia near Half Moon Bay and Domenico in San Carlos — get their grapes from elsewhere in California and make the wine locally.

“To me there’s a ton of talent, but it’s not necessarily a very widely distributed wine sector,” La Nebbia owner Kendyl Kellogg said. “People are just overly familiar with Napa.”

Tommy Fogarty, whose father founded his Woodside winery in 1981, isn’t sure how nearby Clos de la Tech will impact his family’s business, though he says Fogarty’s wines “have done really well all on our own over the years.”

But Geitner said producing good wine in San Mateo County — whether it’s Thomas Fogarty, Woodside or any of the others — will benefit everyone.

“If they sell a good bottle of pinot noir, it gives the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation a reputation that it’s known for excellence, and if we sell one it’s good for them,” Geitner said. “So we see it as a reciprocal, beneficial relationship.”

Local wineries lack foot traffic

While winemakers say San Mateo County is producing high-quality wines, its appeal to tourists and wine tasters could use some work.

Industry experts say the county’s wineries face several hurdles to attracting foot traffic from the casual wine drinker, most notably that they are widely scattered from Pescadero to San Carlos.

Tommy Fogarty, whose father founded Thomas Fogarty Winery in Woodside in 1981, said his family does most of its business through a mail-order wine club, even though they have a public tasting room. Clos de la Tech nearby doesn’t offer public tastings at all.

Fogarty says Napa and Sonoma’s clustered wineries are set up better for tourists.

“The Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ve got to drive around on these small two-lane twisty roads and wineries aren’t doorstep to doorstep — and we like it that way,” Fogarty said.

Still, others depend on walk-in traffic. Kendyl Kellogg, who bought La Nebbia Winery in 2002, said most of her business is walk-in traffic from her location just off Highway 92 near Half Moon Bay.

“They’re doing that day trip down the coast to kind of cruise into Half Moon Bay,” Kellogg said of her visitors. “Our wine tasting is just sort of a bonus stop on this menagerie of places they stop into.”

— Shaun Bishop

By the case

A sampling of the current production of some local wineries:

Clos de la Tech: 2,500 cases

Thomas Fogarty Winery:
12,000 to 14,000 cases

La Nebbia Winery:
1,500 to 2,000 cases

Woodside Winery: 2,000 cases

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