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Food & Wine

Cinnabar: Turning wine into gold

This is the third in a three-part series on the Los Gatos-Saratoga Wine Trail, which winds through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Cinnabar Winery tasting room in downtown Saratoga is our final stop on the trail. Previously, we visited Fleming Jenkins, owned by Olympian Peggy Fleming and her husband, Dr. Greg Jenkins, and Testarossa Winery, whose Los Altos owners, Rob and Diana Jensen, attribute much of what they know to Cinnabar winemaker George Troquato.


Picture a white-bearded alchemist kneeling in front of a glass flask filled with a mysterious liquid. The image inspired the late Tom Mudd to name his winery Cinnabar, a brilliant red mineral once thought to help turn metal into gold.

In the 14th century, alchemists used the mineral – a reddish-purple derivative of mercury – as a catalyst to turn base metals into silver or gold. For Mudd, this was the perfect metaphor for winemaking.

“I became a full-time winemaker – a modern-day alchemist – blending science with a touch of nature’s magic,” he said.

A Stanford graduate with a doctorate in civil engineering, Mudd nurtured his passion for winemaking while researching laser spectroscopy of aerosols at SRI International in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

He took viticulture and enology courses at UC Davis in his off hours and attended Woodside Vineyards harvest parties. When he was ready, the iconoclastic Mudd purchased 40 acres of land in the then-empty Santa Cruz Mountains instead of following the crowd to Napa and Sonoma.

Before long, Mudd quit his day job to run the Saratoga winery full time. By 2003, three buildings and a cave housed 15,000 cases of wine. Although Mudd died in 2007, his family still owns the winery. Suzanne Frontz, president and CEO, runs day-to-day operations.


Winemaker’s tasting tips

Winemaker George Troquato learned about the business from his father, with whom he established Troquato Vineyards in 1985. Mudd hired Troquato as his assistant in 1990, and ever since Troquato has balanced weather and soil conditions to create Cinnabar wines.

Climate conditions can drastically alter wine production. Troquato noted that the weather has remained cold, bringing the threat of mildew with it. While this could delay crops, Troquato takes a proactive approach.

“It’s a challenging year, but you have to decide how serious you want to get,” he said. “We will get very serious, not go into denial and say nothing’s wrong. The solution is to thin the crop way back, opting for quality instead of quantity.”

His recommendations for Cinnabar wines include the 2008 Mercury Rising, which earned high marks – 90 points – from the industry’s Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Black cherries and tobacco flavor the wine, which sells for $21 a bottle.

Troquato also suggests trying obscure wines, like the Petit Verdot, any of the Malbecs, the Late Harvest Valdiguié or the $25 bottle of Picpoul Blanc.

“(The Picpoul is) an exciting white wine, because it’s a Sauvignon Blanc without the grass taste, but with a hint of grapefruit,” he said.

The Picpoul makes for a great summer wine because of its “zesty flavor,” according to Troquato.

Cinnabar’s Mudd Room, an after-hours wine bar, hosts musical acts and wine tastings 5:30-7 p.m. Fridays during the summer. Accompanied by artisanal cheeses and breads, the tastings draw quite a crowd, Troquato said. The next event, scheduled Friday, features Terry Hiatt playing country/blues on the patio.

Wine tasting at Cinnabar costs $10 to sample six varietals. The tasting room, located at 14612 Big Basin Way in Saratoga, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Gift baskets, starting at $60, pair wines with appropriate gourmet foods.

For more information on Cinnabar Winery, call (408) 867-1012 or visit www.cinnabarwine.com.

For more information on the Los Gatos-Saratoga Wine Trail, visit www.lgswinetrail.com.

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