Embedded in the mountains above Cupertino, through winding roads and tall trees that change colors with seasons, lies the home of Bill Wood and Noël Relyea. Their three-acre plot of land isn’t just home to a spacious house and their playfully spunky black Labrador, Bear. Lying on the opposite side of a breathtaking view of the valley are rows of twisting leaves with luscious grapes hanging upon them. The contrast of panoramas, the grape vines with rolling hills speckled with trees and other neighboring vineyards at one end and the seemingly endless abyss of nature mixed with city magnificence on the other, begs you to question which view is more beautiful. What started out as a hobby and a small inkling of interest brought on by a family friend soon turned into a partly recreational business headed by the married duo, Wood and Relyea. The couple, who both have PhDs in biochemistry, are now owners of R & W Vineyards which makes 300 cases of wine every season, a considerably large amount for a conservatively sized vineyard. As Relyea puts it, “we apply the kind of processes and knowledge that bigger vineyards could and yet we’re very small.”
Wood and Relyea took me on a tour of their entire operation on a beautiful September day just after the grape-picking portion of the wine-making process. After first being introduced to Bear, their people-loving pet who Relyea says “sells just as much wine as we do,” we walked inside a gate leading to the rows of grape vines that Wood grows himself. “It really is the difference between farming and making wine,” he says as he explains they grow one of four of the grape batches they use to make their 300 cases of wine. Although some wineries do grow their own grapes, many buy grapes from growers. In recent years, Wood has been more interested about growing his grapes and delving into the farming portion of wine-making. Their small on-site vineyard covers about a half-acre with rows of red grapes which are 80 percent Shiraz, ten percent merlot and ten percent cabernet. “We like red wine so that’s what we make,” says Wood.
R & W Vineyards has grown considerably since their first harvest completed in 2008 with only 37 cases of wine. The couple now makes 300 cases and sells their wine to roughly 10 different locations on the peninsula, including Flight Food and Wine in Cupertino and to Relyea’s daughter’s restaurant, House of William and Merry, in Delaware. “We’ve always had a lot of interest in wine,” says Wood, Relyea laughs and adds, “consumption anyway.”
A lot of time, patience and effort goes into making and selling wines. The grapes are picked, de-stemmed, fermented, barreled and bottled for extended amounts of time before they can be sold to vendors. The entire process takes years to finish. What makes R & W Vineyards special is Wood and Relyea’s expertise and passion in creating high quality wine on their small-scale vineyard. First, Relyea explains, “we look for people to purchase grapes from that are agreeable to the way we want to do things,” she explains that this includes things like collecting the grapes in buckets rather than macro bins so they aren’t “mushed up,” and taking precise measurements to determine when the grapes are at their finest before picking them. During the de-stemming process Wood and Relyea use advanced machinery and volunteers to de-stem the grapes and separate them from miscellaneous grape gunk to “make the grapes as clean as possible to help the flavor,” says Wood. During the fermentation process they let the grape skins sit on the wine-liquid in a process called extended maceration that Wood estimates 20 to 30 percent of other winemakers do. One of the most important things to mention which makes R & W wines unique is that they don’t pump the grapes during the fermentation process like many other wine-makers do, “we don’t do any pumping of the grape must, we strictly use gravity or pressure from an inert gas,” says Relyea. After fermentation, the wine is put into 1000 dollar French oak barrels for a minimum of two years before it is bottled for six months before it is finally suitable for selling. Wood sets up a series of blind taste trials for Releya so the couple may size up their wine to some of their favorite brands to determine a fair price for each case of wine. They have sold bottles of wine from 15 to 40 dollars a bottle, depending on the year and the quality of the harvest. The couple’s first harvests were better than harvests from 2009 and 2010 but they expect this year’s harvest to be of higher quality like those from their first harvests.
Wood and Relyea encourage people interested in their wine and what they do to sign up for their email list online to find out about events and to schedule wine tastings and tours of their home and vineyard. A release party to welcome the newest harvest is normally scheduled during the spring.