Nicholson Vineyards Winery: Where Tradition Meets Passion in the Santa Cruz Mountains

By Published On: December 20, 2023

Credit: Nicholson Vineyards Winery

With a deep passion for winemaking steeped in a legacy of eleven generations of farming, the Nicholson family has been producing wines since 1995 on their estate vineyards in California’s Santa Cruz County. Renowned for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they also source grapes from around the state to create specialty wines that reflect the diverse terroir of California.

Located amidst the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Nicholson Vineyards estate boasts a rich history, dating back to the 1860s when the land was part of a large grant controlled by four sisters. Once a thriving apple-growing region, the property now showcases vineyards planted where apple orchards once flourished. The estate’s elevation of nearly 700 feet provides optimal conditions for growing grapes, with cool mornings, sunny afternoons, and cool evenings that contribute to the complexity of the fruit. The sandy loam soil composition, typical for the sub-region, further enhances the suitability for grape cultivation.

Farming in the Santa Cruz Mountains presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. The property’s proximity to the coast enriches the vines, which can lead to moisture buildup and disease pressure. However, the cool fog also moderates the temperatures, creating an ideal environment for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Additionally, the elevation ensures ample sunshine for ripening the grapes, while the long, warm fall allows for extended hang time, developing complex flavors.

Credit: Nicholson Vineyards Winery

Nicholson Vineyards is guided by the expertise of winemaker Ellie Loustalot, whose extensive Central Coast winemaking experience and deep understanding of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation bring a detail-oriented approach to the cellar. Their winemaking philosophy emphasizes terroir-driven expression, allowing each varietal to showcase its natural characteristics, sense of place, and vintage. The resulting wines are predominantly fruit-forward, layered with complexity, often incorporating a touch of new oak to complement and enhance the wine rather than dominate it. 

Nicholson Vineyards bottles white wines within 6 months of harvest, while reds slumber for 12 to 16 months, meticulously monitoring each one for optimal bottling timing.  Striking the right balance between efficiency and ideal aging conditions can be challenging, but they remain committed to bottling based on their vision of each wine’s full potential.

The winery has two distinct Pinot Noir blocks, each producing wines with unique characteristics. The Brooks Block Pinot Noir, named after the family’s son, features Pommard and Dijon clones and is planted near the tasting room. Pommard, the oldest clone planted in the Santa Cruz Mountains, imparts a classic earthiness to the wine. In contrast, the Three Sisters Pinot Noir, named after the family’s daughters, is a smaller lot composed entirely of Dijon clones. It exhibits a lighter and fruitier profile, complemented by a beautiful floral aroma. Both wines embody elegance, albeit in different expressions.

Nicholson Vineyards believes that top-tier Santa Cruz Pinot Noirs are characterized by their vibrant red fruit character, true to the varietal, coupled with balanced minerality, structured acidity, and subtle tannins. The earthiness that often graces Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs is a highly prized attribute, adding complexity and depth to these exceptional wines.

Credit: Nicholson Vineyards Winery

Sourcing Zinfandel grapes from Crane/Sleeper Vineyard in Amador County, a third-generation family farm, Nicholson Vineyards produces a Zinfandel that exhibits a rich and flavorful character, showcasing notes of blackberry, sweet plum, black pepper, and savory baking spices. While the distance from their Santa Cruz County estate presents a logistical challenge, the exceptional quality of the grapes and the renowned reputation of the Amador region make the journey worthwhile for Nicholson Vineyards.

The Santa Cruz Mountains is an off the beaten path paradise for wine lovers, offering a diverse array of small, boutique wineries, each providing a unique experience. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of Monterey Bay from the redwood-forested mountains and relax on the beach with a bottle of their favorite Pinot Noir, all within a short drive. 

When visiting Nicholson Vineyards, guests can expect a warm and welcoming atmosphere, where hospitality is paramount. The winery offers a variety of tasting experiences, including wine tastings on the patio overlooking the vines and estate olive oil tastings in the heritage oak grove. 

The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative reporting.

Wine Recommendations

2021 Pinot Noir, 3 Sisters Block- The nose is a complex and seductive mix of ripe red berries, cherries, strawberries and subtle floral notes, with hints of spice and earth. The palate is silky and seamless, with a vibrant acidity that lifts and balances the rich, layered fruit. The tannins are well-integrated, supporting a long and graceful finish.

2021 Zinfandel- bold and spicy expression of Amador County terroir, with aromas of black pepper, and leather. The palate is rich, with flavors of black cherry, plum, and dark chocolate. The finish is long and warm.

2021 Chardonnay- flavors of melon, honey and lemon curd. The palate is nicely balanced between acidity and fruit, showing a creamy texture and a refreshing minerality. The finish is clean, crisp and graceful.

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .