Cover Story - April 6, 2011

Skyline serendipity

Cool climate, 'lean' soil presented grape-growing challenges, but Fogarty Winery celebrates 30 years of making elegant wines that express Skyline's terroir

by Renee Batti

When Dr. Thomas Fogarty was looking for land to grow grapes more than three decades ago, there was little property to choose from in and near his hometown, Portola Valley. The acreage he ultimately bought on Skyline, above Portola Valley and near the Skylonda community of Woodside, "was the last of the (available) agricultural lands in town," he explains.

The renowned cardiovascular surgeon and inventor planted the hilly terrain in the late 1970s, intending to grow grapes to make his own wine. But after the vines were in, it became clear that Skyline's climate, soil and terrain were not the most hospitable if what you're looking for are ease of growing and abundance of fruit.

What might then have looked like an unwelcome challenge, however, revealed itself to be fortune's kiss, because the aspiring winegrower also discovered that the Skyline terroir — with its cool, marine-influenced climate and undernourished soil — was exceptionally well-suited for growing the grapes he was most determined to turn into great wine: pinot noir and chardonnay.

Serendipity? "A lot of things were serendipity," Dr. Fogarty said in a recent phone interview. "You can't take credit for everything."

Thirty-year partners

One of the things Dr. Fogarty can take credit for, though, is his choice of his first winemaker, Michael Martella, whose work at three wineries after earning a degree in food sciences/viticulture at Fresno State University provided broad, real-world experience in winemaking. He was hired in 1981, and as Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards celebrates its 30th season, Mr. Martella is able to declare to a group of tasters at a recent Woodside event: "I've been lucky enough to be there for every one of them."

Mr. Martella met his boss through a friend who had heard that Dr. Fogarty was looking for a winemaker for his new enterprise. "We hit it off ... and in my own mind, I was perfect for the job," Mr. Martella recalls.

He obviously was able to convince his potential employer of that, and three decades later, Dr. Fogarty says, "Based on the quality of the wine and his work ethic, he was."

Nathan Kandler was hired seven seasons ago as assistant winemaker, and has since been promoted to associate winemaker.

The wines

Most Fogarty wines are made with grapes grown on the Winery Estate property or the winery's second property, Gist Ranch, which is about 17 miles south of the estate. In addition to pinot noir and chardonnay, Fogarty bottles cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, merlot, gerwurztraminer, and a few dessert wines.

The winery sits at about 2,000 feet above sea level, although there's a broad range of elevation on the properties. Mr. Martella says there are a multitude of mircroclimates, even within specific vineyards, and the grapes ripen through a "cool, long growing season."

Although many of the wines have won praise — and many fans — pinot noir is Fogarty's flagship wine, according to Mr. Martella, who notes that the winery was the first to grow pinot noir vines on Skyline.

The soil of both properties "features a layer of low-vigor loam on top of sandstone, shale and marine deposits," according to the winery's website. Mr. Martella describes the soil as "thinner and less fertile — it's mountainous, lean soil."

All of these factors — the many microclimates, the "lean" soil and steep terrain, the cool climate — add up to the land's terroir, which is essential to express in the glass, Mr. Martella says.

Because of the cool climate, grapes mature slowly. "We have to work at attaining ripeness," Mr. Martella says. The range of mircroclimates has led to "microharvesting" practices, because grapes in any single vineyard ripen at different times.

Mr. Martella and vineyard manager Julio Deras walk the vineyards tasting the grapes during harvest season, picking them only when they taste ready. "We may pick only 12 rows of a vineyard at one time," coming back to taste and determine when to pick the remainder, depending on ripeness.

Although they pay attention to the Brix scale reading, which measures the sugar content of the grape and is used religiously by many viticulturists to determine when to harvest, Brix measurement is secondary. "There's not a magic number," Mr. Martella says. "We have a Brix ballpark we like to be in, but after that, we like to pick by flavor."

Over the years, California winemakers have increasingly harvested grapes when they're very ripe and have a high sugar content. This can make for some flavor-intense wines — some would call them "fruit bombs" — but, according to Mr. Martella, "it doesn't suit expressing the terroir." When the grape is too ripe, he adds, "the fruit expresses itself instead of the terroir."

The Fogarty winemaker also makes wine under his own label — Martella — buying grapes from growers he knows, including his brother. Those grapes come from sunnier climes, and the wine they become can be more fruit-forward as a result.

Fogarty wines, Mr. Martella says, "have a stronger expression of soil versus sun" — with more minerality, structure and complexity. They are characterized, he adds, "by finesse and elegance."

Over the 30 years of Fogarty's existence, knowledge of growing vines and making wine has expanded significantly, and Mr. Martella and Mr. Kandler, the associate winemaker, are ever on the alert for new information on winegrowing practices.

Next year, the Windy Hill Vineyard at the Winery Estate will be replanted, with a reorientation of the vines for better exposure. That vineyard has produced premium pinot noirs over the years, but it seemed the right time to make a change, Mr. Martella said.

Helping with the Windy Hill Vineyard replanting is Tommy Fogarty, Dr. Fogarty's son, who is a major player at the winery these days as overall manager, helping oversee the day-to-day operations.

Tommy Fogarty says he was only about 11 when the first vineyard was planted on the estate. "We learned a lot from our first planting," he says.

Regarding Windy Hill Vineyard, "My hope is that we'll take a great vineyard and make it even better."

Over the years, Fogarty Winery has also become a popular venue for tastings and private events, including weddings. Go to for information.


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