Nine times, Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson have had their wines in the Wine Spectator top 100. Say the name aloud, though, and most people will not recognize it—this in spite of the fact that it’s one of the most famous names in California, and winemakers as iconic as Richard Graff of Chalnone and Merry Edwards both spent time there. When asked about their wines, Elyse founder Ray Coursen is very direct: “Theirs is the best Chardonnay made in America.”
Mt. Eden Vineyards, and its sister site Domaine Eden, are in the Edna Valley, a small-ish AVA in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The winery was originally founded by the legendary Paul Masson, and after Prohibition, Martin Ray purchased what was then known as the Paul Masson Champagne Company. The name changed to Mt. Eden in 1972, and Jeffrey Patterson started as the assistant winemaker in 1981.
“We’ve been doing this for 40 years,” Ellie Patterson said. “There has always been a thread of minerality and Old World-ness in the wines, and that goes back to Paul Masson. Napa was settled by Italians, but this area was primarily French. When Paul arrived, he had cuttings from his friend Louis Latour, so the clonal selections here are completely different than in other parts of California.”
Chardonnay (or Pinot Noir) is more than just Chardonnay. There are different “family lines,” called clones, with names like Dijon and Wente having almost household name familiarity, at least among wine nerds. Each clonal selection has different characteristics. Combine different yeast strains and different soil and climate, and Chardonnay can look and taste very different from vineyard to vineyard.
“We are only 15 miles from the ocean here,” Patterson said, “so we have near-constant cool breeze, which means it takes longer for grapes to ripen. We don’t get Napa’s over-ripe characteristics except in rare years.”
It’s a nearly perfect place to craft American wines with Burgundy sensibility. In spite of all this, and despite the prices being a third to a half of what you’d expect to pay for comparable Napa or Sonoma wines, Mt. Eden remains relatively unknown. “It’s odd,” Patterson said. “We’re farmers, and so we farm our land, and Jeffrey spends time making wine. There was never really much time for ‘getting the word out.’ Jeffrey used to say we’d let the wines speak for themselves, but maybe that wasn’t a good idea.” She laughs.
We are talking about a vineyard that is home to the longest, continuously farmed Pinot Noir in North America, a place that’s been home to iconic winemaker names, a winery that produces wines of such quality other winemakers point to them as a gold standard. And we’ve had them in Oklahoma for a few years. Still, the name isn’t in everyone’s mouth, nor are they abundant on wine lists, though LaVeryl Lower has Estate Chardonnay by the glass at The Metro, and you’ll find one on Kyle Fleischfresser’s list at The Hutch. Boulevard Steakhouse and Mahogany have it by the bottle, and that’s about it for restaurant presence. If you need a relatively unknown wine to become well known, it requires people taste it and like it. For Mt. Eden, the problem is always the former, not the latter. Once you taste it, you’re converted.
The market seems to be shifting in Mt. Eden’s favor, finally. George’s Liquors downtown has bottles, as does Freeman’s, Buthion Fine Food and Wine, Edmond Wine Shop, and Spirit Shop. For now, it’s a hard sell, but maybe the word gets out and a winery that is deserving of far more fame than it’s yet achieved will finally see people recognize what’s been true all along: Mt. Eden is one of the best things in California, and seems capable of competing with the best of Burgundy, too.