Offer available through Sunday, 11/12/2023, or as inventory lasts.
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Hi everyone –
There are still wine regions left that most wine consumers don’t know much about and don’t seek out on wine lists and in wine shops.
Walk into any good wine shop and ask for Napa, Willamette, or Santa Barbara, and you’ll be promptly shown some great wines. The well-known regions dominate, while some top-quality and little-known regions fly under the radar.
Believe it or not, one of those areas is just a stone’s throw away from one of the country’s wealthiest areas, just south of San Francisco.
It’s time to learn all about Santa Cruz Mountains and an INCREDIBLE producer called Madson.
Santa Cruz Mountains 101
The SFO airport is on the south side of San Francisco. And I’m guessing that 99.99% of wine tourists jump into their rental car and head north through the city, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Sonoma and Napa. And I get it. Those are great destinations.
But if you head south from the airport, in a matter of minutes, you can be in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA having a glass of wine.
Santa Cruz AVA is located above Silicon Valley and San Jose on the ridge that separates the valley from the ocean. The San Andreas Fault runs through it. It’s one of the most fascinating and diverse wine regions in all of America. And yet few know about it.
Because it’s not easy to visit, for the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not made for casual driving. It’s not made for big vineyards. And it’s definitely not made for destination wineries lined up in a straight line ala Napa. Two of the best-known wineries, Ridge Monte Bello and Mount Eden, are just a stone’s throw from each other as the crow flies but over an hour apart by car as you drive down one winding hill and up the other.
The average vineyard size in Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is tiny. Most vineyards are here and there, scattered on the hillsides in people’s front and back yards. Those with the right exposure and soil types have been approached by wineries over the decades and offered payment or wine (or both) for a long-term lease. Who doesn’t want to live in a vineyard and have it be taken care of by others?
Burell School Vineyard and Winery, from SantaCruzMountains.com. Check out that view!
The view from the deck at Mount Eden, another top-notch stalwart of Santa Cruz Mountains and a personal favorite. We’ll do a Mount Eden offer in the coming months. Check out that fog!
Established in 1981, the AVA covers three counties and over 300,000 acres, yet very little wine comes from there. You’re not going to find acres of rolling hills with tractor-farmed vineyards. Everything here, by necessity, is done by hand, which automatically gives them a leg up in quality compared to others.
This AVA has nothing to do with political boundaries but rather a combination of elevation and fog to define the area. Vineyards start at approximately 400-foot elevation and run all the way to the top of the ridge at 2600 feet. Driving through the AVA is not for the faint of heart.
There are roughly 200 vineyards, farming approximately 1500 acres of vines. An incredible mix of grapes is to be found. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are prevalent, but the right hillsides make some of the state’s best Cabernets, Merlots, and Zinfandels. It’s an area of extremes and surprises.
Seeing a list of wineries, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize many names. A handful stand out (Ridge, David Bruce, Mount Eden, etc.). Most of the wineries are tiny to the extreme and can handily sell their entire production out of a tasting room or to a mailing list. This alone makes Santa Cruz Mountains AVA an exceptional place to visit.
The role of vineyard managers and insider connections
Because many of the landowners in the area are not farmers, they often hire vineyard consultants to run and manage things. What vines, rootstock, spacing, farming techniques, etc., are needed to make awesome grapes to command a premium price?
These vineyard managers hold the keys to the kingdom and have the insider’s knowledge to connect the dots between a land owner and a winemaker.
The viticulturists at Madson are also business partners in the venture: Ken Swegles & Abbey Chrystal.
Between the two of them, they manage over 100 vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, along with Santa Clara Valley. This is big time for a winery like Madson, giving them an insider’s connection to some of the cherished tiny vineyards of the area. (Abbey is also the farmer for Ascona Vineyard, in today’s offer.)
Quick background: Madson Wines
For lovers of zesty, fresh, and lithe Pinot Noir, this is a brand to watch intently.
—Matt Kettman, Wine Enthusiast, January 2021
Madson was founded in 2018 by Cole Thomas, who is exactly the kind of person we want to support through our offers. From the winery’s website:
Cole’s love for wine originates from his love for agriculture. Prior to his career in wine, he worked as an organic vegetable farmer, as an edible landscaper, and as manager of the Demeter Seed Library (a non-profit seed saving project). Cole found viticulture when he started working for Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. Cole moved to Victoria, Australia where he worked in vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula. Crafting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Shiraz at Paringa Estate Winery.
Cole returned to Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard for four years, as Assistant Winemaker applying and gaining new perspectives of vinification and tradition. Then, an opportunity arose to work in Central Otago, New Zealand for Prophet’s Rock and Amisfield Winery in 2017. It was in New Zealand, that Cole discovered many techniques for making natural wine. Cole returned to the Santa Cruz Mountains to launch Madson Wines in Spring 2018.https://www.madsonwines.com/story
His adherence to organic principles, minimal intervention winemaking, and regenerative agriculture as part of a holistic farming system has set him apart. This is no messing around winemaking, where small mistakes can amplify into big problems later. It’s risky, but it can also make for ****ing incredible wines.
These wines are crazy cool and crazy good.
First, a heads-up
Minnesota is a pretty special market for Madson. It’s second only to California in sales. That’s saying something about both the quality of the wines and the quality of their local distributor, who was early on the Madson bandwagon and did a good job of landing the wines in the right restaurants.
The following photos were sent to me by Ray O’Dell, the portfolio director for their local distributor (New France Wines), after they visited Cole at the winery earlier this week. In the bottom photo, on the right, is the local wine legend Tom Gill, who was the first wine writer for the Minneapolis Tribune back in the 1970s. That dude has more wine stories than the internet could hold!
However, word is getting out. There were a couple of recent tastings on the east coast (specifically in New York City), where top sommeliers got their first taste of these wines and kinda went nuts. There was very little Madson to be had before, but there will be even less in short order. I’m following the buzz out east carefully, and it’s great fun to hear about sommeliers clamoring for wines they can’t have, yet they are available here in this offer. Neener-neener.
The Madson “style”
If I were put in charge of crafting the mission statement for these wines, I’d use terms such as detailed, lithe, bright, precise, complex, and pure. Popping a bottle of Madson makes me sit up straighter, clear my head, and smell and taste with attention. The whites, across the board, remind me of the Burgundies of Chablis and Puligny. The reds, being whole cluster production, are bright and edgy, simultaneously packed with complex fruit and earthy aromas.
These are standout wines, for sure.
Madson Chardonnay 2021, Santa Cruz Mountains
290 cases produced.
From the winemaker: Barrel fermented in a cool cellar in neutral oak, topped, and remains in barrel for ~6 months. Then racked together to stainless steel tank for ~4 months before bottling. This cuvée is a celebration of Chardonnay in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is sourced from several small vineyards and amongst these, we highlight the old vine plantings at Arey Vineyard on the northeastern slopes, Ascona Vineyard perched along South Skyline, and Toyon Vineyard on the foggy coastal slopes. These sites each bring their unique mountain micro-climate signature to the blend, resulting in a wine that dances along the intersection of freshness and fruit. Aromatically, expect crisp Asian Pear, white pineapple and honeysuckle on a fresh sea breeze. There is a delicate chalkiness on the palate, with hints of lilikoi, cherimoya and lime zest.
91 points, Wine Enthusiast. “Subdued aromas of earth, wool, wet stone and light citrus show on the nose of this appellation blend. The palate is all about texture, with earthy, rocky elements and flavors of citrus pith and crisp pear clinging to the tight frame.”
Madson Pinot Noir 2021, Santa Cruz Mountains
546 cases produced.
This wine is predominately whole-cluster from a combination of small vineyards that he farms showing savory earth, mushroom, black cherry, and flowers. The wine shows its range with freshness, herbs, earth, and fruits that border on juicy and tart while revealing surprises in every return sip.
Dried sage, fruit leather, and porcini mushrooms abound in the glass with a little tart cranberry and wild strawberry along the edges. This wine has tons of appeal, with a moderate alcohol level that makes it just plain drinky.
91 points Wine Enthusiast: “Robust cherry and berry aromas meet with rugged meat scents on the nose of this appellation blend. There’s a leathery texture and flavor to the palate, where bright cherry and sagebrush elements converge toward the finish.”
Madson Pinot Noir, Ascona Vineyard 2021, Santa Cruz Mountains
120 cases produced.
Vineyard elevation: 2450 feet.
From the winery:
Located at ~2500 feet of elevation in the South Skyline region of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ascona Vineyard is farmed with organic practices. The soils are ancient marine sedimentary deposits of loosely consolidated sandstone and siltstone, with an average southwest exposure. During the day, Ascona is perched above the marine layer while fog and cool Pacific breezes prevail overnight. This strong diurnal temperature variation permits phenolic ripening and stem maturation, while preserving fresh natural acidity.
Upon harvest, we simply place the fruit in small open top fermenters as 100% whole clusters. We keep the fermenters cold for 3-5 days, before allowing them to warm up to room temperature and ferment spontaneously on native yeast. The ferments are tasted daily to assess the maceration and extraction. We pressed after ~18 days on skins to 25% new French oak barriques and bottle after ~9 months elevage.
On the nose, we are reminded of elderberry and wild blackberry, cinnamon, red cedar, a touch of orange peel and tamarind. On the palate, there is an exciting sinewy tension that portends even better things to come with bottle age.
Madson Syrah, Red Tail Vineyard 2021, Santa Cruz Mountains
48 cases produced.
Vineyard size: 3/4 of an acre. You read that right.
Only 17 bottles available.
If you’re at all into Syrah (and if you aren’t, we need to talk), you need to buy this wine. It’s a perfect example of the new wave of amazing Syrahs that are hitting the market, where power is no longer the goal but rather elegance and detail. Syrah has far more in common with Pinot Noir than most people realize, which explains why some of the big gun over-extracted monsters of the 1990s and 2000s failed to bring us joy.
From the winery:
This Syrah is incredibly unique and comes from the smallest vineyard that we work with. The vineyard only produces 2 barrels of wine per year. Steep, rugged, and far from any main roads, Red Tail Vineyard perches above a deep, forested ravine.There are no other vineyard plantings nearby. On the adjacent ridge line lies the Demonstration forest.
We ferment this Syrah 100% whole cluster using only indigenous yeast. Aged 18 months in barrel before bottling. The resulting wine is complex and structured with tons of length in the finish.
This wine leads with aromas of white pepper, mint, and cedarwood, and leaves you with a hint of dark berry. The palate shows sautéed mushrooms, dark chocolate, and barbecued ribs. Pairs well with red meats and ocean views.
These are very special wines. They represent everything we seek out: family ownership, land stewardship, a distinctive style without going off the rails, and a heck of a story.
The other thing I truly love about Madson wines is having a California wine I can pop for my “I don’t drink domestic wines” friends. These wines stop them in their tracks, and the reaction is always along of the lines of “Whoa. What is this? Let me see that bottle!”
And that’s one of my favorite reactions to see.
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education
Offer and special pricing are available through Sunday, or as inventory lasts