ONE STORMY NOVEMBER afternoon I drove the tortuous route up from Los Gatos, Calif., in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to the David Bruce Winery. There was no other traffic; tree limbs littered the road, and the gale blowing up from the Pacific Ocean plastered wet leaves against the windshield. It was not the sort of day one would expect to find enophiles crowding the counter in this obscure vinous outpost, yet two wine collectors from Southern California had risked the elements to meet Bruce and buy some of his older vintages. They were typical of Bruce's devoted -- some say slightly demented -- fans, seekers after huge wines with the stuffing to last a century.
That was the reputation of the David Bruce wines; concentrated monsters aimed at winning tastings by virtue of firepower alone. At that time, California winemakers thought power was the only way to impress the rest of the wine drinking world. Bruce was there in worn L.L. Bean shirt and spectacles. He poured several wines; some
were good, a couple absolutely awful.
I remember a '77 cabernet tannic
enough to cut with a knife and fork. I
bought a bottle of '79 pinot noir -- not a
good year for Bruce pinot -- and brought
it home, not expecting much. I forgot
about it for two years and recently tasted
it. Though woody and a bit deficient in
fruit, it had a long, rich finish.
Bruce planted his grapes in 1964 and
for several years thrived on experimental
vinification. He used a lot of skin contact
for added flavor and malolactic (secondary) fermentation for greater depth in chardonnay. The wines are still substantial and interesting, but recently they have undergone radical revision. There are few better symbols of California's shift away from overly oaked, cumbersome wines and toward those with finesse and apparent fruit than the new releases from David Bruce. Even the David Bruce label has taken on an air of elegance and restraint.
Grapes have been grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Monterey Bay since the middle of the 19th century. Although Bruce's plantings of chardonnay and pinot noir are only 20 years old, they still have more maturity than most California vineyards today, and it shows in the grapes' complexity. In 1982 he hired a new winemaker, Keith Hohlfeldt, a microbiologist and enologist with experience.
Total output is only 25,000 cases. The chardonnays include two made from Sonoma fruit and one "estate," meaning it was made only from grapes grown at the winery. The pinot noir is all estate, from 12 acres of grapes. Whole cluster fermentation is used to preserve freshness, and the '82 pinot reflects this. The '83 pinot noir is fuller, with better color and a hint of earth that characterizes some great burgundies. They both cost about $12.50. The '82 Sonoma chardonnay ($10) is lemony and still young; the estate chardonnay ($18) has a good varietal nose and body, a "round" wine with balance and hints of orange blossoms on the finish. An '83 barrel sample I tasted recently was even better.
Bruce also makes an elegant cabernet and merlot blend from North Coast grapes, for about $12. The style has gotten progressively lean and "forward," words that once had no bearing on this important California winery.