The Joy of the Vines

Words by Jennifer Jory

Photos by Irene Searles

Discovering the Peninsula’s Wine Country

Strolling through rows of Pinot Noir vines, Portola Vineyards owner Len Lehmann stops to carefully wind tendrils back on their wires. “People on the Peninsula don’t realize they live in wine country and think they have to go to Sonoma and Napa,” he says. “This is the epicenter of historical fine winemaking in North America.” 

Len pauses to point out grape flowers and budding fruit on branches on his two-acre property tucked in its own valley within Portola Valley. “I feel we are here for a moment in these vines’ lives and it is a joy to be among them,” he explains. Along with his wife, Vivian, Len is committed to sharing that bliss—the unique terroir of the Peninsula foothills—with the local community. 

A longtime Peninsula resident, Len retired from a technology career to try his hand at agriculture and settled on growing and selling wine grapes in part to honor the winemaking heritage of the area. He didn’t originally set out to become a winemaker; however, a gift from Vivian changed their lives. “One year, my wife bought me a small press and destemmer for my birthday,” he laughs. “She probably regrets that now.” 

As Len tried his hand at winemaking, he enjoyed the connection with the land and discovered that his science mind as a former engineer translated well to the art. “In my previous career, I saw short life cycles with products and companies,” he notes. “I wanted to be attached to something with a little more staying power and work outdoors where I could be a part of the natural order of things.” 

Getting back to the land for Len also opened up a new world of connection among local winemakers in the Santa Cruz Mountains region. “It has been a very warm community of commercial winemakers in this region,” he says. “We gather around a table to celebrate the harvest together sometimes with nearly 30 bottles of fine wines and magnums. We taste each other’s unreleased wine in closed sessions and the winemakers will stand up and tell exactly how they made the wines. There are no trade secrets in this business.”

Len finds the community spirit and teamwork among local wine growers unlike anything he found in the tech industry. “It is a kind of mutual aid insurance program,” he says. “During the winemaking season when vintners are working 16-hour days and things are really tense, fine winemakers of this region found time to mentor me during my first few years. That is real generosity.” When Len asked fellow regional winemakers what happens when one of them is unable to work, they had a swift reply: “If you are injured or sick, the other winemakers will get together and make sure that vintage goes okay for the winery.”

The group of nearly 50 wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains works together to elevate the entire region and keep its historic wine-making tradition alive and competitive. Their efforts have paid off and the region’s wines are gaining recognition. Prince Harry and Megan Markel selected Saratoga winery Mt. Eden for their wedding, and a few years back, the best French wine experts chose Santa Cruz Mountain Ridge Winery red and white varieties over French wines at the prestigious Judgement of Paris. 

Portola Vineyards is a certified organic vineyard and sustainable on many levels including the practice of dry farming, which consists of not watering the vines at all during the growing season. “We just let the plants do what they need to do to find water,” he explains. “It’s astonishing to me to see how dry the ground is in June and July and the vines are vibrant green and not stressed at all.” Portola Vineyards avoids tillage to preserve organic matter and with grape vines lasting over 100 years, they make for a regenerative, ecological crop. “The roots will go down 25 feet looking for water,” he illustrates. “Our only nutritional input is one tablespoon of potassium per year.”

In addition to dry farming, Portola Vineyards employs a unique, natural technique called native fermentation, which is a distinguishing winemaking practice of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “We don’t add any yeast to the grape juice and instead rely on whatever yeast cells are floating around in the air or on the skins of grapes,” he describes. “It is like making sourdough bread and is a longer, cooler fermentation process and arguably it creates a more complex wine.”

As fall harvest approaches, Portola Vineyards’ neighbors and wine club members participate in picking and stomping the grapes each year. “A lot of the kids join in and crush grapes underfoot,” Len smiles. “We have set up this vineyard to share our enthusiasm with local folks.” Much like a “U-pick” farm, wine club members receive an undivided interest of fruit, which translates into the wine bottled from seven vines. The vineyard also offers instruction in viticulture, a unique advantage for those who want to learn more about the trade. “We constantly have a stream of locals and others in the community who work the vines,” Len observes. “Three of our club members have gotten so excited they have enrolled in the University of California at Davis winemaker’s certification program.”

Len initially planted his two acres in 2003 with Pinot Noir vines, and after many years, the fruits of his labor have garnered the attention of wine critics. Just last year, Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded Portola Vineyards a Gold Medal and 90 points for their 2015 Estate Pinot Noir. Earlier in 2018, handed Portola Vineyards 2013 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir a Gold Medal and 94 points. Wine experts have also awarded Portola Vineyards Cabernet and Chardonnay with high marks. In addition, the winery also produces Rosé and a Port wine infused with walnuts. 

California wine growers always navigate natural elements and weather, but recent high temperatures and smoke have proved challenging for the industry. “It was a tough year,” Len affirms. Portola Vineyards produced about one-third of their normal production last year and local vintners continue to brace for rolling blackouts and more trying circumstances. “We were harvesting at 100-degree temps on harvest day, then PG&E cut power,” he recalls. “We were fortunate to harvest early and we produced a lot of Rosé wine, which looks promising right now.”

Despite recent challenges, Portola Vineyards continues with its tradition of community-focused events. Before the harvest every summer, the winery hosts a series of evening jazz concerts with ticket prices at a fraction of the cost of other summer music venues. The line-up includes  Grammy Award-winning musicians and several San Francisco Jazz Festival headliners. Ticket sales begin every April and sell out quickly for the popular events where guests picnic under the stars and taste newly released wines from the vineyard.

While Len offers up grape-growing and winemaking instruction, his wife Vivian expands the community offerings in ways that reflect her own talents—including cooking classes. “My wife grew up in Istanbul and makes fantastic stuffed grape leaves,” Len proudly boasts. “Guests learn how to pick leaves right off the vine and blanch, stuff and roll them.” Additional Portola Vineyards quarterly events for members include yoga in the vineyard led by Vivian and Pizza and Pinot Day when members enjoy flights of Pinot Noir and hot pizza right from an outdoor pizza oven.

With fall harvest just ahead, Len looks forward to the crush and doing his part in keeping the ancient art of winemaking alive on the Peninsula. “Leland Stanford was a big wine grower,” Len relays. “The old red barn on the Stanford campus was the original 19th-century wine building and there was a vineyard on campus.” He pauses before providing a deeper perspective on the importance of his craft. “Winemaking has been around for over 5,500 years. The reason Portola Vineyards endures is to enjoy our heritage of fine wine growing in this area and learn how we have co-evolved with these vines.”