AHLGREN VINEYARD - Bonded Winery 4764 - Santa Cruz, California


For a brief History of wine & winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains


No hype, no fad, not a trend. AHLGREN wines have earned a reputation for consistency of quality: fine balance, fullness and intensity of varietal flavor, firm structure, complex character and extended life.

Founded in 1976 and still located in the cellar beneath the rustic mountain home of Dexter and Valerie Ahlgren, AHLGREN VINEYARD is dedicated to limited production of fine premium wines: Semillon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, and Syrah. The Ahlgrens employ traditional, hands-on methods and premium grapes from carefully selected vineyards.

Just how does a reasonably sane professional suburban couple get into the business of winemaking? It is a question asked at virtually every wine tasting ever given by the Ahlgrens. Leaning back against a stack of barrels in the small cool cellar beneath their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a visitor gazes into the glass, smells the lovely wine and cannot help but wonder. Laughing, Dexter's answer inevitably comes back, "It is all Val's fault."

In the early 70's she became interested in fermentation, and right there under the kitchen table in the heart of Silicon Valley, things began to become transformed into ever more interesting beverages -- elderberries into elderberry wine, honey into sparkling mead, malt and hops into beer. Meanwhile, in the adjoining garage, other mysteries were exploding dangerously, and at times all entry was temporarily forbidden.

When Val's wines became intriguingly tasty, Dexter became intrigued, and it turned out he was the gifted winemaker in the family. Possessing that precious mix of acute senses of taste and smell, and blessed with common sense, Dexter demonstrated an intuitive and intelligent awareness of how to handle grapes and wine.

Soon the suburban garage had been emptied of its autos; converted into a winery-within-a-garage complete with insulation, cooling, and French barrels ready for the next grape harvest.

Zinfandel, it was to be, and two tons arrived in the driveway there on Cascade Drive in Sunnyvale to be crushed, fermented, pressed and barrel aged under the wondering gaze of patient suburban neighbors. A true Silicon Valley Garage startup!

Of course, things could not go on this way indefinitely, and the Ahlgrens began to contemplate the realities of the fact that, speaking of winemaking, things were definitely getting out of hand. There would have to be a move.

Val had left her teaching position at De Anza Community College to spend more time with her family, and soon after, Dexter decided to sell his share of his Silicon Valley civil engineering company to his partner and strike out on his own as a consultant. Now, they could live anywhere that a phone call could connect Dexter with his engineering clients. The search began for a vineyard site that could accommodate a small winery, and a home for the Ahlgrens within striking distance of Dexter's Santa Clara Valley engineering clients.

The land was discovered in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sym Van der Ryn, architect, was engaged, and in 1973 the great adventure of building their rustic, handmade house began, starting with redwood logs purchased from a neighboring property. The Ahlgrens milled the lumber with an Alaska mill and built their mountain home with the winery nestled into north side of the hill beneath the house.

Bonded at last in 1976, this small winery was dedicated to limited production of fine premium wines by traditional hands-on methods, and has successfully established a reputation for wines of consistently high quality and long life.

The Ahlgrens started off the New Year of 2000 with the appointment of daughter Beth Ahlgren to the position of Winemaker after Dexter suffered a stroke. Beth had returned to Ahlgren Vineyard on 9/9/99 from ten years in Portland, Maine, where she represented the winery in the fields of Public Relations and Marketing. Back at the winery, she took the job of Assistant Winemaker in time for Vintage '99 before moving up to Winemaker in 2000 making an incredible contribution during the months of Dexter's recovery.

After over a year as Winemaker, during which Dexter made a remarkable recovery from the January, 2000 stroke, Beth moved on to a career in Santa Cruz. Dexter resumed his role as winemaker, and is delighted to be back at it.

FROM "THE LOG", Ben Lomond, CA, Nov 11, 1977

Budding Winery Shows Promise

By Larry Mauter

For Val and Dexter Ahlgren, this is the season of grape-stained hands. Now is the time for processing area grapes from a "fruit of the vine" into tasty libations ready to consume following their aging periods.

The Ahlgren’s fledgling winery, located about seven miles north of Boulder Creek on Highway 9, was established by the couple with hopes someday the winery will support the family – making other income unnecessary.

A tour of Ahlgren’s hillside "chateau" rates as a refreshing alternative to large commercial wineries. Where automation has replaced hand labor in the large commercial wineries, the Ahlgren’s employ traditional wine making equipment and family labor to perfect their products.

Valerie explained the vineyard became "bonded" – cleared for tax purposes by the federal government – last year but that the winery is still "treated as a hobby" by the family. At this point, Valerie feels they may begin selling wines next June. We want to sell our wines not for "cash flow" but when the wines are ready, she remarked.

Ahlgrens became involved with wine making following a Canadian visit where Val chanced upon a store featuring wine making equipment. From that point, the situation steamrolled to when Val quit her teaching job at De Anza college to work with the winery. Husband Dexter followed. He asked his partners in a civil engineering firm in Santa Clara county to "buy him out". After gathering some necessary equipment, he began "engineering out of the house." This, according to Val, worked out so well they both realized they didn’t have to work in the "hub" anymore.

Escaping work, however, was not in the game plan as Val pointed out there is no end to the list of chores. She said "much of winemaking is washing equipment." That equipment includes heavy oak barrels used for aging the wine, two ratchet hand presses, and a crusher used to separate the grapes from stems. The press baskets, made of oak, and the crusher have been rebuilt for use at the Ahlgren vineyard – with the aid of knowledgeable friends. There’s even a special winery paint for the crusher so the equipment does not interfere with the true flavor of the grape, she disclosed.

Val was quick to acknowledge the value of the 18 member Association of Santa Cruz Vintners in aiding the Ahlgren operation.

Ahlgrens produced 900 gallons last year and winemaster Dexter feels they will double that production next year. He anticipates the need to produce 2,500 gallons annually to enable him to begin selling at retail outlets. Dexter described three methods, other than retail, to sell the vineyard product. Locally, mail order sales are a "very effective way of selling wine." He also mentioned the possibility of vineyard wine tastings or tastings in conjunction with the Mountain Vintners Association. A third possibility for sales would be establishment of a tasting room in Boulder Creek.

Although Dexter is to be considered the chief while inside the wine cellar, Val has authority in tending the young grape plants. This, according to Val, means Dexter is the one who operates the heavy mower used to mow grass. We elected not to plow but to mow the vineyard because of the steep hillside. The soil type here is one that would migrate downhill if plowed, explained Val. She said they cut the grass two or three times annually, and the Santa Cruz native added leaving the grass roots intact has given gophers something else to munch on rather than young grape plants. During the summer, Val kept busy with a 15 mile round trip to Boulder Creek to buy water for the young plants. Wells on their property have proved salty. Despite winter rainwater collections, additional water was needed for the winery, Val declared.

The rootstock planted in the Ahlgren’s vineyard is a native – Saint George – which is resistant to disease and shows "more vigor", Val said. Next year, Ahlgrens expect to graft on Chardonnay grapes to the root stock. From these, wine will be produced within five years. For now though, grapes are obtained from Monterey County and from the Hecker Pass region of Santa Clara County. Both agree their current grape sources are excellent, but Dexter pointed out they are still looking to other vineyards producing grapes making "the kind of wine we like."

The work taking place at the Ahlgren winery is a family effort, with daughter Kim and 8 ½ month old grand daughter Mette on hand to help with the wine-making chores. Val made no secret that she expects Mette to grow up to be a "wine snob" – being accustomed only to the best wines.

If the Ahlgren vineyard stays on the same track, Val’s expectations will quite likely be met – with the added bonus of becoming that self-sustaining family winery.

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