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Peaceful Valley : A Little-Known Historic Wine Area Is Almost Hidden by the Diablo and Gavilan Mountain Ranges, Near San Juan Bautista


IT'S A REAL joy to tell you about the Enz Vineyards, virtually hidden in San Benito County, not far from Hollister and the restored Mission San Juan Bautista. If you're planning a drive north to San Francisco and can afford the leisure of a detour off that speedway 101, the mission, surrounded by antique shops and inviting small cafes, will more than reward you. From the town of San Juan Bautista, a country road winds upward through a long valley between the Diablo and Gavilan mountain ranges. The air is clear; the sky is blue. The pastel mountains in the distance seal off the world, and the near ones, green and rugged with granite and limestone crags, are the barrier to the Pacific. Cienega Road passes the abandoned Almaden winery, where weeds almost hide the gnarled old vines. We're traversing the San Andreas Fault, moving through a heartland of the vine with more than a century of significant history, now virtually unknown but prized by a

few and cherished for its pastoral tranquillity.

Monterey was still under the flag of Mexico when a French wine merchant, Theophile Vache, who had come from the Bordeaux region by way of Cape Horn in 1830, decided that he wanted to plant vines and make wines commercially. He planted his first vineyard right there in the Cienega Valley in 1852. A neighbor, William Palmtag, the mayor of Hollister, won medals for his wines in Europe. In 1908, Frederick Bioletti, celebrated professor of viticulture at the University of California, extolled the region for its limestone soil and rich, intense grapes. The San Benito wineries were closed during Prohibition.

A little farther up the road is a turnoff to Calera, John Jensen's Pinot Noir haven, where wines are made in a gravity-flow complex that once was a lime kiln. Finding that site was the realization of a lifetime goal, and Jensen's Chardonnays and Pinot

Noirs have bested the finest of Burgundy in blind tastings by assembled connoisseurs.

The winding road continues to rise, the valley closing to mountain meadows, and we arrive at the gate to the Enz Vineyards, an 875-acre estate with only 30 acres of vines presently bearing, most of them from gnarled old trunks planted in 1895 that are now more than six feet tall: Zinfandel, Orange Muscat and Pinot St. George.

Bob Enz is an engineer by profession; so was his father, and so is one of his three sons. He was born in Japan, where his

father was in charge of a large hydroelectric project and was imprisoned during the war. He was only 5 years old when his father and mother and he became a part of that famous prisoner exchange with the Japanese, repatriated to America on the SS Gripsholm. Years later, with four children, the graduate engineer and his bride, Susan, were living in Los Banos. Commuting to his job on the San Luis Dam and later the BART tunnels, he decided to look for a country home. His wife found this acreage in the Lime Kiln valley. "What are those bushes?" Enz asked when he first saw the old, untended vines planted in rows. That was in 1967.

He gave up his share in the construction firm, turned the old barn on the property into a winery, took courses in viticulture and enology at Davis and made his first wine in 1973--from those old vines.

In the small, neat lab of the winery, we began tasting the wines, starting with a White Zinfandel 1986 from those old vines. A row of wines in varying shades of pink stood on the windowsill, leading off into a discussion of pigments, engineering and chemistry that left this English major far behind in everything but visual appreciation. The delicate salmon color, very pale, as intriguing as silk, was pure delight; the taste--a hint of spice, dry and sinewy--was like no other white Zinfandel I'd ever tasted. Food- compatible, the wine, chilled, is a perfect aperitif, and the price is a bargain: $5.50.

There's not too much of the Enz Vineyard Lime Kiln Valley 1982 Zinfandel ($6.90), also from those vines planted in 1895, but it belongs in the category of fine, rare wine. Hints of persimmon in the nose, deep color, an escalation of taste sensations that goes on to berries, spice, nutmeg. It's very heady, reminiscent of the famous Mayacamas 1968 Late Harvest Zinfandel. Prudent wine lovers will buy all they can get.

Bob Enz makes a dry,

food-compatible wine of his ancient Orange Muscat yield ($6.90), and the 1985 edition is just stellar. Generous golden clusters, ready for harvest, were on the vines. As a wine maker, this engineer has transferred the berries' fruitiness into a lovely wine.

Space precludes appropriate odes to his Pinot St. George editions. There are but 270 cases of the 1980 Private Reserve ($9.90), endowed by the limestone soil with an aristocratic translucence and elegance that this mystery grape seldom has attained.

Once you find your source for Enz Vineyards wines, you'll want to sample them all, including the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. You will have a whole new regard for the wines of San Benito County, which deserves to retake its position of pre-eminence dating back more than a century.

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