Welcome to Griffin Hill! We're a very small winery and vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Each year, we make about 300 cases of wine. Our goal is to make wines that are interesting, food-friendly and inspiring. This is accomplished by hand-tending the vines and a patient, low-tech winemaking style that allows the flavor of the exquisite fruit grown in these hills to shine through. Our facility is located in one of the most famous, yet so small as to rarely get mentioned, wine-growing areas of the world. The Santa Cruz Mountains rise up between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. While we recognize that many (most?) of the hard-working people in Silicon Valley barely take note of these beautiful mountains, it's now our mission to bring the exquisite taste of the wines which represent and capture the flavor of these mountains to the people of Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz.
Michael Franti says "every flower got a right to be bloomin'." We believe we can farm this land and still care for it. We've learned that native plants and insects, when cared for, will naturally keep out insects that would harm our vines and they will outcompete invasive weed species. We just don't need widespread spraying of insecticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers.
In the photo, the new owners, Jeff and Claudia Griffin, back in April 2011, had just purchased the vineyard, which at that time was named Noble Hill. It was once a proud and respected, but now foreclosed-upon 4-acre vineyard and winery. The land and facilities were in a state of neglect but the design and materials in the original construction showed the love and dedication of its founder thirty years before. The vineyard was well-known among area winemakers as a source of very good wines but the current owner had allowed the vineyard to degrade. We were pretty sure that with our energy and dedication, we could make it produce that great fruit and wine again.
The vineyard was planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir by Russ and Barbara Schild in the early 1980's and named Noble Hill. They had cleared the land on a large 5-acre knoll on the west end of a 23-acre parcel in the redwoods while living in a small cottage on the land. The orientation of the vine rows in the larger blocks was North-South, which does nothing to mitigate the difficulty of working the steep land, but it does provide for morning and evening sun to the grapes and protects the grapes from hot summer mid-day sun. Russ and Barbara then built a large wine making facility into the side of the mountain on three levels to provide for gentle gravity flow for moving the wine instead of pumps. By building into the hill, they took advantage of the natural ability of the earth to provide even, cool temperatures throughout the year. Their wines were highly regarded.
Our purchase of the vineyard grew out of Claudia’s non-stop interest in food-producing plants. We began looking on the weekends for a small plot of land for a farm and orchard that would be our weekend getaway/project, but after some reflection, I told her that I wanted to try growing wine grapes. Mostly a beer drinker, I had earlier “discovered” wine in an "aha" moment with a Duckhorn Merlot at a family dinner. I know - Merlot, right?
By the time Noble Hill had come up for sale, we were getting to be experienced shoppers and we knew we wanted to buy it the first time we saw it. We had learned how to look past neglect and to quantify the restoration. The vineyard was among an invasion of small oak trees, Poison Oak, wild berries and several types of invasive thistle. The battle for Noble Hill was about to begin!
We began to meet other vineyard and winery owners and found that they knew Noble Hill. They all suggested a removal and replant of the entire vineyard. That would have been an enormous undertaking and would have flown in the face of our fix-it mentality, so we began to work with advisors on a plan for a revival. The glimmer of hope came from the University of California Extension Advisor who pointed out that our canker diseased vines could be cut down to the ground and a new sucker could be trained up to become a healthy and producing vine. This was possible without re-grafting since the Schilds had originally planted non-grafted rootstock. Our decision to renew vs. replace also resulted in better grape quality due to ungrafted original French rootstock and we would retain those deep roots that had kept these plants alive for years with no irrigation. A bonus was the satisfaction of bringing Russ and Barbara's precious vines back to health. Another, perhaps more important bonus was avoiding a dip in grape quality as old vines are the source of the highest quality wine grapes.
Our work on the vines and soil amending began paying off the first year with a real crop and each year it it got better. We found a buyer for the bulk of the grapes and they really liked the wine they were making from them. They gave us a contract each year for our entire crop, save the portion we were using in our personal winemaking. In late 2015, Jeff decided to part with his tech career and become a full-time farmer and professional winemaker, upgrade the winery and get permitted. He had been in sales for decades and now for the first time in his career he would be making and selling his own product.
A New Name for the Winery
The Noble Hill trademark had expired about the same time that we purchased the winery and another winery was successful in taking over the trademark. We had to find a new name. We settled on Griffin Hill Vineyards and applied to become a bonded winery.
Winemaker Background, Credits and Methods
Jeff has evolved into the Head Winemaker role, while Claudia, whose technical background is in organic chemistry got the team kicked off. Jeff's winemaking education, while including some formal education at UC Davis, independent study, and a lot of experimentation, has been largely the product of generous help and mentoring of other local winemakers we've met through the Viticultural Association of Santa Cruz Mountains, most notably, Scotty Salsbury of Spring Hollow Vineyard, Ed Muns of Muns Vineyard, Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Winery, Marty Mathis of Kathryn Kennedy and John Schumacher of Hallcrest Winery. Len Lehmann of Portola Winery stepped up to help Jeff with advice on the issues he would have on the business startup. Jeff also reads all of the books and industry publications he can get his hands on. His philosophy starts with soil health and ends with lots of personal time with each vine and its fruit. Meticulous management of the vine canopy allows all the flowers and grape clusters to receive sunlight to develop a moderate self-defense of the sun, which makes the grape skins maximize their anthocyanins and phenolics; which are the flavor precursors. We have evolved as we got feedback from people tasting our wine and have fine-tuned our harvest decisions for a level of ripeness that balances the sugars, acids and tannins appropriate for each varietal. Our practices in the winery reflect current research that validates the small batch winemaking mantras of gentle crush/press and simply guiding of the juice to become wine with the least intervention possible.
The Making of "the Griffin"
Graphics artist Michael Rowley of Vizcabulary worked with us to create our logo and label design. We heard about Michael from our friend Len Lehmann at Portola WInery, where he had created a beautiful label. Michael followed our lead and created a logo that exceeded our expectations and gave us a look that we're proud of. Later, Michael showed us how he had created to logo using a combination of clay modelling and digital imaging - see photo.