The pinch-me-brilliant wines of Rhys Vineyards.

A vineyard

In a warehouse near San Francisco last year, I had a eureka moment. It was there that I finally tasted the wines of Rhys Vineyards, which had been the object of rapturous praise. I instantly understand why: Not only were they the best New World pinot noirs I’d ever encountered, they were shockingly close in quality to the finest red Burgundies. I recently had another opportunity to sample the Rhys portfolio and was floored again. And it’s not just the pinots: Rhys also makes amazing syrahs and chardonnays. I can’t get these wines out of my head. Evidently, other people can’t, either: Rhys sells only via mailing list, and it is full. So why am I telling you about Rhys? For one thing, there is a waiting list, and they’re taking names. More importantly, I think Rhys is the most exciting story on the American wine scene in a long time, not least because of the speed with which it has succeeded: incredibly, it sold its first vintage just five years ago.

Rhys is a classic case of one man’s obsession run splendidly amok: Kevin Harvey, a tall, genial 46-year-old Silicon Valley software entrepreneur caught the wine bug in the early 1990s. It soon mutated into a Burgundy fixation, and in 1995 he decided to dabble in fantasy by planting some pinot noir vines—Burgundy’s signature red grape variety— in the backyard of his Woodside, Calif., home, set in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Imagine drilling for oil in your lawn and immediately hitting a gusher; that’s essentially what happened with Harvey. He vinified the grapes in his garage, and the wine turned out to be shockingly good (he insists he had no clue his lawn could cough up such quality; he says it was “pure serendipity”).  He had been thinking about starting a winery in Sonoma, but it now occurred to him that there might be gold in the mountains behind his house.

History suggested as much. The Santa Cruz range, separating San Francisco Bay from the Pacific, has an illustrious if sadly underappreciated viticultural heritage Legendary figures like Paul Masson and Martin Ray produced their wines in these rugged mountains. Most of Ray’s property, which he established in the 1940s, now belongs to the excellent Mount Eden Vineyards. The area is also home to Ridge Vineyards, whose flagship cabernet sauvignon, the Ridge Monte Bello, has been making wine enthusiasts swoon for decades. With a rich array of microclimates, the Santa Cruz appellation is unusually versatile, capable of bearing superb cabernets and outstanding pinot noirs and chardonnays, too. Yet, despite its impressive track record and proximity to San Francisco, it has long been overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma.

What most intrigued Harvey about his garage wine was its minerality, an attribute his favorite Burgundies had in abundance but which was rare to find in  California pinot noirs—or in any California wines, for that matter. From tasting a number of older Santa Cruz bottlings, Harvey concluded that the region could make the most mineral-driven wines in the entire New World. Minerality is a controversial topic. Oenophiles routinely invoke this term to describe aromas and flavors that seem, well, minerally (chalk, flint, wet stones, etc). But some scientists discourage its use because there is no solid evidence that minerals in the soil can so directly influence a wine’s taste. Harvey has little patience for the naysayers; he is convinced minerality is real, that it imparts freshness and nuance to wines and is an extra dimension that separates the great ones from the merely good, and that science will eventually catch up with what our palates are telling us.

Further exploration—and Harvey was nothing if not diligent—revealed that the steep inclines of the Santa Cruz range were carpeted with rocks and also had  very shallow, weathered soils. From his travels, Harvey had observed that many of Europe’s most acclaimed vineyards were situated on land just like that. Thin, poor soil is desirable because it forces vines to struggle for nutrients, which has the effect of limiting their output and yielding very concentrated fruit.  According to Harvey, it also causes the grapes to ripen relatively early, which keeps alcohol levels in check.  As for those rocks, it wasn’t just their prevalence that was notable; it was also their variety. The Santa Cruz appellation is bisected by the San Andreas Fault, which is where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates collide, and all that churning has created remarkable geological diversity. The hillsides are strewn with chert, shale, limestone, mudstone, and sandstone. Intuitively, at least, this combination of factors seemed to account for the piercing minerality that Harvey had found in his backyard cuvee and in those other Santa Cruz wines.

He began scouring the region for potential vineyards, and between 2001 and 2005 identified and developed four sites to go along with the one behind his house, which he had aptly christened Home Vineyard (there is now a sixth vineyard, located in the Anderson Valley north of Sonoma; it’s the only Rhys property outside the Bay Area). The vineyards ranged in elevation from 400-2300 feet, had cool microclimates, and also very distinct soils, which was a critical element in Harvey’s plans: He wanted to see if he could craft wines that somehow reflected these differences. His goal was to make Rhys a laboratory of terroir. The vineyards were farmed biodynamically, and the winemaking regimen, overseen by Jeff Brinkman, was uniform across all the vineyards—mostly whole-cluster fermentations, natural yeasts, limited use of new oak— in the belief that this would isolate and accentuate the soil expression.

The results have been pinch-me brilliant. The Rhys wines are hypnotically good—crisp, poised, succulent, with sensational minerality (sorry, scientists) and structure. Deceptively pale in color—the best pinots often are— they are also astonishingly low in alcohol: Some of them clock in under 13 percent. What makes the wines even more impressive is that they share all of these qualities yet are strikingly different from one another. Harvey’s experiment is succeeding: The Rhys wines truly are vins de terroir, with an individuality that seems clearly derived from the soil. Drinking the Skyline Vineyard pinot noir is like sucking lightly sweetened grape juice off a stone, and it is surely no coincidence that the vineyard lays on a bed of rocks. The Alpine Vineyard pinot has a chalky texture that is presumably linked to the soft shale in which the vines are planted. My favorite of the pinots, from the Horseshoe Vineyard, is so silky it seems almost weightless, yet it somehow manages to  paint every corner of the palate with enthralling cherry and spice flavors and zesty minerality. I think the Horseshoe site is Harvey’s greatest find; in addition to the pinot, it also produces the best American syrah I have tasted and an awesome chardonnay, too. I could go on, but you get the idea and I’m starting to gush. (For more gushing, you can read my full tasting notes.)

The pinots are the stars of the Rhys stable, and it is impossible to overstate what Harvey has achieved with them (although I’m trying). Known as the “heartbreak grape,” pinot noir is a notoriously capricious variety. Burgundy, where it has reigned since the late 14th century, seemed to be the only place it was capable of flourishing, and even there it could be maddeningly hit-or-miss. A lot of pinot has been planted in California, Oregon, and New Zealand, and some good wines have been made. Even so, Burgundy nuts like me were convinced that pinot was only truly at home in the limestone-rich soils of east-central France and that New World renderings were forever destined to be also-rans. Rhys has cracked the code, however, turning out delicious pinots that in their subtlety, elegance, and sense of place approach the very best red Burgundies. I think all they lack at this point is the same intensity and length of flavor, which will presumably come with vine age, and a demonstrated ability to gain complexity as they mature, and I am confident that will happen, too.

That Rhys is evoking these comparisons less than a decade after producing its first commercial vintage is mind-bending. After all, it took the Burgundians hundreds of years of trial and error to get where they are today. Sure, Harvey was driven, and while I didn’t inspect his financials, money clearly wasn’t an issue when it came to pursuing his ambitions. Even so, exceptional wines aren’t supposed to happen this fast, and certainly not with a grape as ornery as pinot noir. Harvey insists that he mostly just got lucky; to the extent that he is willing to claim any credit, he says that he simply had the good sense to learn from the Old World’s example—cool, rocky hillsides with shallow soils give the most compelling wines. That’s certainly true in Burgundy, and as Harvey puts it, “Burgundy has all the answers if you know to ask the right questions.”

Harvey and his colleagues no long work out of a warehouse; they have now moved into a custom-built winemaking facility in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Harvey continues to look for additional vineyards but says that finding sites that satisfy his criteria is not easy. It would be a good thing if he could, because Rhys’ output is small: It makes only about 5,000 cases annually, which helps explains why the mailing list filled up so rapidly. Here’s a bit of encouraging news, though: Harvey told me that people on the waiting list are going to be offered wine this autumn, from the estate’s Family Farm vineyard; some regrafted vines came back into production in 2009, which bumped up the size of the crop.  My advice? Pounce. You can contact Rhys at info@rhysvineyards.com.