Following is the first in a three-part series on local wineries that make an easy day trip.
If you want to experience Napa Valley without the driving time, consider a day trip to one or more of the five wineries along the Los Gatos-Saratoga Wine Trail, one of Silicon Valley’s best-kept secrets. Some cellars also boast hiking trails and stables that stretch the available activities beyond wine tasting.
The route winds through 12 scenic miles, short enough to allow you to shop or eat lunch in one of the two downtowns or take a leisurely drive through the spectacular Santa Cruz Mountains and soak in the views.
To boost visibility, the five local wineries in the Santa Cruz Winegrowers Association have banded together, some offering two-for-one tastings and 10-percent-discount coupons at local hotels.
To find the trail, start in Los Gatos and head for the hills.
Turning stock options into wine
Despite its Italian name and Los Gatos location, Testarossa Winery is the homegrown brainchild of Los Altos residents Rob and Diana Jensen. “Testa rossa” is Italian for “redhead,” a nickname given in honor of Rob’s locks when he spent two summers studying Italian in the hilltown of Assisi.
Rob tends to be the visionary, according to his wife, who claims her role is to say, “Come on back to Earth.”
Like other legendary entrepreneurs, the Jensens started Testarossa in 1994, but not in a Sunnyvale garage – in their kitchen.
A typical Silicon Valley success story followed. By 2001, Rob had quit his day job in sales and marketing at Veritas after cashing $10,000 in stock options to buy more grape vines.
For 10 years, Testarossa has operated in California’s fourth oldest winery, the historical Novitiate Winery, built by the Jesuits in 1888. The somewhat dank surroundings still reek of old-world influence. Weddings and other events have become an important part of the business, said Diana, who loves her job because “it’s like working at your hobby.”
Considered one of the best small-lot wineries, Testarossa specializes in Pinot Noirs, although the Chardonnays have earned kudos and prizes. In 1998, Connoisseur’s Guide awarded Testarossa’s Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir 98 points out of 100, making it the highest-scoring Pinot in the magazine’s history.
The couple met as electrical engineering students at Santa Clara University, plunging into the high-tech startup world soon after graduation. They settled in Sunnyvale, where they indulged their wine-tasting and fine-dining hobbies. Soon, they discovered the Fermentation Frenzy shop on San Antonio Road, and began producing grapes and making their own wine.
Diana continued to work in customer support at Cypress Semiconductors, putting in long hours, and “this became a great weekend project,” she said.
Determined to make their own wine, the Jensens produced 5 gallons of Chardonnay in their Sunnyvale kitchen in the early 1990s. Their original grape press, once housed in their garage, sits in the winery tasting room as a reminder of that time. Most weekends, the winery draws crowds that make wine-tasting a waiting game.
The couple attended every viticulture and enology class they could find at UC Davis. They cultivated two-dozen vines in their backyard.
The Jensens began volunteering at Cinnabar Winery, becoming good friends with George Troquato, the legendary winemaker. Troquato tipped them off to a small local vineyard they could lease in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Diana had left her Cypress job when their first child, Nick, was born in 1993. Daughter Claire was born in 1996. Both attend St. Francis High School. The Jensens started a Pinot label with the name Niclaire in honor of their children. Expect to pay $75 per bottle for the 2008 Niclaire Pinot Noir.
For five years, the Jensens and several close friends restored the site, working relentlessly every weekend.
“It was an absolute disaster, horrible,” said Diana, who now runs the day-to-day operations. Her vintner husband overseas the production and wholesale staff.
The winery needed several improvements. She suggested funding the repairs by offering futures of their early vintage to 30 friends, who worked in the vineyards to assist with the 1994 vintage. Diana had a brainstorm. They would sell “future-futures” to 30 of their close friends for $100 each. In exchange, the friends would work in the vineyard and receive a free case of wine. The idea worked so well, the Jensens ran out of grapes to make the wine.
If you stop by the winery, try the 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, which scored 90 points out of 100 from the Wine Enthusiast. The new release sells for $39. The Testarossa winemaker is Bill Brousseau.
The next winery on the trail, scheduled for a write-up in May’s Food & Wine section, is Fleming-Jenkins, which consists mainly of a showroom in downtown Los Gatos, because the vineyards are on the owners’ private estate.
Testarossa Winery is located at 301-A College Ave., Los Gatos. Tasting room hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Cost is $10 per person for five wines, with fees applied to purchases. For more information, visit www.testarossa.com.