Santa Clara AVA : The French Connection
Rhone Valley In Our Roots
by Cindy Adams , Sommelier / Wine Educator at Calerrain Winery in Gilroy Photos by Tony Scotino and Besson Family Vineyards
If our Founding Wine Fathers were to visit the beautiful Santa Clara Valley American viticultural area ( AVA ) now , they would be amazed , and hopefully , pleased , at all of the changes that have taken place – changes that no one could have imagined even 50 years ago . Now , in addition to the traditional Italian and Bordeaux varietals that made up the “ Valley of Heart ’ s Delight ” so many years ago , they would find planted the wonderful varietals of the Rhone Valley – Viognier , Grenache , Syrah and Mourvèdre – just to name a few .
The Rhone Valley is an area in southwest France , along the Rhone River , that grows the “ big three ” red grapes – Grenache , Syrah and Mourvèdre . As is the practice in Old World countries , the French government determines which grapes can be grown in this region . In the Rhone Valley you will also find aromatic floral whites such as Viognier , Roussanne and Marsanne . Many other varietals grow in a sub-region known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape .
The “ Rhone explosion ” in the Santa Clara Valley began in the 1850s and can be largely credited to a gentleman named Charles LeFranc , who was the first to plant those “ big three ” red varietals of the Rhone in this area . Unfortunately , in the late 1800s the vine disease phylloxera , a plague-like root louse infestation , spread across California and virtually destroyed the existing vines . It would take many years before the Santa Clara Valley recovered and many more before Rhone varietals found their way back into the vineyards here .
The early 1900s saw an influx of European immigrants to the Santa Clara Valley . These hardworking people missed the wines of their home countries and the traditions of family and camaraderie that centered around food and drink . As they were able to purchase plots of land in this fertile valley , they planted their native grapes – Zinfandel , Sangiovese , Merlot and Cabernet . Throughout the 20th century these wines defined this lovely area .
One of the first Rhone pioneers in the Santa Clara Valley was George Besson , Sr ., whose vineyards remain to this day on Hecker Pass Road in Gilroy . In the 1930s , Besson farmed two of the largest concentrations of Grenache and Syrah in Northern California , along with Zinfandel and Carignane . When Randall Graham , founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard , went looking for Grenache
2 to make his legendary Le Cigare Volant , he contracted with Besson and harvested Grenache grapes there from 1984 to 1989 . Besson ’ s Grenache helped to establish Le Cigare Volant as one of the best-known wines in California .
Santa Clara Valley wine grapes were also used in the late 1960s by the late Dr . David Bruce . David Bruce Winery was bonded in 1964 in the Santa Cruz Mountains with the express purpose of producing Pinot Noir . However , when Dr . Bruce
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