By Cynthia Bournellis
It is often said, “The couple who plays together, stays together.” But, what about the couple who not only plays together but also works and lives together? For William Wood and Noël Relyea, the relevancy in doing nearly everything together is that is enables self-sufficiency. “The fun for us is being able to handle all aspects of our lives,” says Relyea.
A major aspect of their lives is their shared love of red wine, which encouraged them to establish R&W Vineyards, a boutique winery located on Montebello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above the city of Cupertino, Calif. At an elevation of 1,895 feet, the winery produces 300 cases a year of hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
Red wine is not the only element that binds them together. Both have Ph.D.s in biochemistry from Cornell University. Wood is retired from Genentech and Relyea, whose former employers include DuPont, now works part time for a medical diagnostics company. The couple didn’t know one another while attending Cornell. After graduation, Relyea found employment on the East Coast, eventually moving to California in 1994. Wood had been living in the “Golden State” since 1982. Their paths finally crossed in 1997 when they met on an Ivy League singles website.
Through a running club Relyea met Jim Bordoni, owner of the then Bordoni Vineyards in Vallejo. She started working as a volunteer during harvest, eventually taking wine appreciation classes. “I thought that this [harvest] was great fun, and when I met Bill he joined me,” she says. ”It [soon] registered that ‘jeez, this is what we could do’.”
The couple married in 2003, and in the autumn of that year purchased a modest-sized house on 3.5 acres on Montebello Ridge. In 2005, with guidance from Ron Mosley, a local viticulturist and enologist, they planted half an acre of estate grapes: mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Wood jokes about how the hand-picked grapes (harvested by volunteers) travel only a few feet from the vineyard to the winery for processing. “There’s no freeway wine here,” he laughs, comparing their so-called commute to long hauls to and from the Mount Veeder appellation in Napa where they source grapes for their Mount Veeder Cab – the first of their varietals to grace consumer palates, followed by the Syrah and, most recently, the 2011 Merlot.
These three wines are on the menu of The House of William & Merry, a redone farmhouse in Hockessin, Delaware that serves high-end, farm-to-table cuisine. Co-owned and co-operated by Relyea’s daughter Merry Catanuto,the restaurant goes through a case of Syrah a week. This comes as a pleasant surprise, considering that Syrah typically doesn’t sell well in Delaware, according to Catanuto. “People don’t understand Syrah’s flavor profile and assume that it will be more like an Australian Shiraz – bold, spicy and in your face. Their[R&W] Syrah has some of those characteristics, but it isn’t as intense and can also be drunk without food,” she explains, emphasizing that diners like the Syrah because it pairs nicely with food as well.The Mount Veeder Cab is also popular because the appellation is recognized among Delawareans.Sales of both wines rival those of well-established California labels on the menu such as Larkmead Vineyards and Camus Vineyards.
Showing some modesty, Relyea attributes the success of their wines at the restaurant to the family connection, but Catanuto isn’t shy about this point: “To say that our family runs a winery serves as a good talking point with customers.” She explains that at first, some diners are skeptical of the wine because they think it’s made in the basement of a “mom and pop” operation. Once they taste it, however, their tune quickly changes.
Despite the varietal, Cabernet is king in the Relyea-Wood household. They like big, fruit-flavored Cabs and thus are optimistic about the 2012 harvest, which was warmer than the two previous years. Getting mountain grapes to ripen more can be challenging; however, the cooler mountain temperatures allow the grapes to ripen longer, developing full, rich flavors. Sporting an almost devilish grin, Wood explains that the Mount Veeder grapes ripen until they “golf-ball” (wrinkle), “with just the slightest little pucker on them.”
Given the couple’s professional backgrounds, one might assume that chemistry guides much of their winemaking decisions. “We do apply chemistry, but we don’t use it that much,” says Wood. However, keeping the yeast happy is imperative. “We feed our yeast and treat them very well,” smiles Wood, recalling some lessons he learned from his father who was a microbiologist. Nonetheless, Wood did make the mistake once – just once – of forgetting to feed the yeast, resulting in a stuck fermentation.
One might also assume that working and living together would pose some issues. Aside from a difference of opinion early on over how much space to give the cellar versus the stock room, the couple’s interests vary enough that between the two of them, they fill in the empty spaces. Of the two, Wood is more meticulous, says Relyea. “[For example], he makes sure to treat the grape must and wine gently.” Wood punches down the must cap three times a day during fermentation.
Wood also works in the vineyard more during spring, as Relyea is highly allergic to grasses.Oddly enough, her allergies don’t affect her palate. She is the expert taster in the family. Wood prepares the blind tasting trials, and Relyea does the sampling. While her husband does partake, Relyea is the first one to identify and reject any faults in the wines. “It’s remarkable what she can pick up,” says Wood with amazement.
Their teamwork is seen in every aspect of the business. Even the artwork for the wine bottles was a dual effort. For instance, Wood’s passion for astronomy was the inspiration for the constellation and telescope embossed on the back of each bottle.The accompanying quote from Leonardo da Vinci was Relyea’s find: “The discovery of a good wine is increasingly better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.”
Wood, when he has time, enjoys taking pictures of galaxies through an observatory he had built atop the “barn,” a custom-designed entertainment facility adjacent to the winery.And, what could me more relaxing than sipping wine under the stars – wine that does not come with a hefty price tag.“Our goal is to make a $70 bottle of wine and sell it for $40,” says Wood, explaining that consumers tend to associate price with quality.Under $40, the 2009 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly headed in that direction. The finish is long and the wine shows a fair amount of powerful fruit, backed by soft tannins.
The “barn” at R&W Vineyards is a custom-built, 1000-square-foot entertainment space, where public tastings are also held. Expansive windows give way to spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Cynthia Bournellis.The barn may just be the highlight of the winery. It is a 1,000-square-foot, two-story post-and-beam structure constructed from Douglas fir. Designed for entertaining large groups, the barn (it also serves as an intimate tasting room) boasts a cathedral ceiling and river-rock fireplace. Each year, Wood and Relyeahost a sit-down dinner thereto thank their harvest volunteers. At the last party held in March, the couple generouslyshared a collection of Bordoni library wines – a wedding gift from the winemaker – going back 20-plus years.
If you visit R&W for a tasting and after a few sips of wine start seeing “…men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,” don’t worry. The wine hasn’t been spiked, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit isn’t blaring from the overhead speakers, and you haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole and into the bizarre world in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The giant chessboard is real, and is made of tile inset into the stone patio. Light-weight plastic oversized chess pieces are weighted down with sand in their base. The chessboard was inspired by Wood, whose father taught him how to play the game.
The view from the patio, which also boasts a swimming pool, is breathtaking. The eye can see nearly four Bay Area counties: Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Alameda, including landmarks such as the San Mateo Bridge and Moffett Field. The view just falls short of the San Francisco and Oakland skylines.
Seeing is believing: Having spent some time with Wood and Relyea, I’d say that they are the epitome of “the couple who plays together stays together.” But, with all this work, when do they have time to play? Between wine making duties, they enjoy running. They also volunteer for the Stevens Creek Volunteer Fire Department. When harvest here is done, they travel the Southern Hemisphere, and have been to Patagonia, the Great Barrier Reefand Australia.Most recently, they were in Spain, hiking and running along the Costa Brava – hopefully, they had time to enjoy the local wines under the Iberian stars.
Just released to local retailers are the 2009 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet (The Wine Vaultin South San Francisco), the 2010 Estate Cabernet (Parkside Grille in Portola Valley), and the 2010 Mount Veeder Cabernet and 2011 Merlot (both at The Wine Room in down town Palo Alto).
R&W Vineyards is open by appointment only and is located at 15060 Montebello Road, Cupertino, California 95014. To schedule a tasting, call408-872-1540or email email@example.com. Visit the website atwww.rwvineyards.com for a list of current vintages or to make a purchase.