The drive away from the foggy coast across the Hecker Pass in Central California promises warm country roads lined with vineyards. We had been chilled by the Pacific breezes and earned to discard our fleeces and change into shorts and t-shirts and feel the heat of the California inland. Our travels did not disappoint. As we pitched over the top of low piedmont hills and dipped down out of the clouds, the sun began to penetrate the heavy air and dark clouds evaporated into wispy vapors revealing the straw-colored hills of Gilroy. By the time we came upon Hecker Pass Winery the sun was beating down through our sun roof and we were enjoying the California sun once more. The entrance to the winery appeared suddenly on the left with a rustic sign that indicated the winery had been in operation for many a year. There was no one around and we wondered if the establishment might even be closed on this late Sunday morning. We hesitated before driving through the gate, but we seemed drawn to continue up the drive toward the inviting, shady veranda.
Mario greeted us with a gentle smile from a glass paned door which swung onto a narrow unpainted plank porch. He disappeared again as quickly as he had appeared. However, somehow we felt encouraged to follow him into a sunlit room which stretched out to our right; a simple oak bar ran the length of the room and our host was standing at the bar about half way down.
He leaned up against the bar as if to have it help him stand. He had been up late the night before attending to a wedding party and he seemed tired this Sunday morning. His leathered skin made his pale blue eyes almost grey. The sun bleaches the eyes of those who spend day after day in the vineyards of California and Italy. His sparse graying hair was combed to the side in an unassuming style. His faded short sleeve shirt- very clean, not new, unstarched -fit loosely over his relaxed body of 60+ years. He wore sandals over his stockened feet minimizing the stress of standing on a hard wood floor. He was very comfortable with himself and his surroundings. We were being invited into his home; the intimacy was pronounced by the fact that we were the only guests present and we were all dressed casually and speaking in low voices, introducing ourselves and the trip we had been on to find him.
He beckoned us to step up to the bar as he placed two wine glasses in front of us and asked if we wanted to try some of his wine. We said we would like to do exactly that so he pulled a bottle from under the counter and poured a smooth Blanc de Blanc, which was fruity and refreshing. It created the pleasant beginning for a morning of tasting wines, an experience which introduced us to vintages which became bolder and more complex as the tasting advanced.
For the next hour we enjoyed the wines of Hecker Pass Vineyard and the personality of its owner, Mario Fortino. We talked about family values and history. We shared our joys and sorrows, conflicts and resolutions, defeats and accomplishments. In vino veritas! There was a melding of two families at a moment in time.
Mario’s history reckoned back to Italy and his grandfather’s vineyard where as a boy he was in charge of turning off the spigot when the wine barrel was full enough of the grape juice which would make the wine for their village. As he grew older his job became more complex, but he was always working in the vineyard with his family. When his father returned to California where he was born, Mario returned with him, a young man of 21, and ready to have more responsibility for the winery. His skills and ownership for the winery grew until his father turned over the running of the winery to Mario and his brother. Their effective management of the winery made it grow to the point that it was best to separate its many branches: the vineyard, the production of the wine, the marketing of the business, the distribution and sales, the management of the wedding events. There was plenty of work for the sons and their sons after them. The winery is certainly a family project! Mario seemed comfortable to tell his story and from time to time he would pull out another bottle of wine from under the counter, and he would begin a new episode of story. It was a lot like listening to the stories my uncles used to tell when I was a kid. As young entrepreneurs in South Philadelphia they pulled together as a family to ensure that everyone had a job to do, everyone made his contribution and everyone shared their success together.
We did talk about the kind of grapes he grew and how he created his wine. The words of wine tasting, bouquet, tannins, finish were all mingled with the stories of his boyhood and manhood which unfolded as part of the romance of the wine. These wines will pair wonderfully with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. They will enhance any gathering where family and friends have come together for a sharing of moments and memories. Their Carignane pairs wonderfully with wild mushroom risotto or meat-filled ravioli.
If you want to explore some of finest boutique wineries of CA, drive through Hecker Pass from route 101 to 156. As you climb out of the damp coastal fog into the sunlit groves of oak and redwood your spirits will lift and will be ready to experience the wines of the Santa Clara Valley. Hecker Pass is one of the first ones you will see as the road spills out of the hills and onto the rolling valleys beyond. Pull in through the opening of the split rail and be greeted from the back door by one of the most charming winery owners you will ever meet.
The Hecker Pass Winery represents a Family Tradition of 150 years in the art of wine making. Their wines include Granache Rose, Zinfandel, Chianti, Petite Sirah, and Burgundy. However, these are only a few of their vintages.
More recently, they have expanded their operation to include an event center, La Vigna, which hosts weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and receptions of all kinds. Continuing the tradition of keeping it in the family, Carlo, Mario’s son, manages this branch of the business.
To learn more about the winery visit their website: www.heckerpasswinery.com.