WINEMAKER Mica Raas is a rebel-outsider. A tall 29-year-old with close-cropped dark brown hair, Raas has a single-minded focus: to restore the Santa Cruz Mountains wine appellation to greatness.
He rejects what he says is the cliquish, old boy network of many Santa Cruz Mountains winemaking. He often finds himself unable to buy grapes from local growers because he doesn’t belong to the right club. He calls the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Association, the region’s member-based promotional arm, ineffectual.
But by working together to promote the region he thinks the appellation can achieve greatness.
“The Santa Cruz Mountains in my opinion is one of the most underdeveloped and underappreciated wine regions in America,” he says.
Ridge Vineyards and Mount Eden Vineyards established the region’s ability to make world-class wines nearly four decades ago. The area continues to make fine wine, but none that have captured the world’s attention like those two famed wineries, he says. Part of the problem he says is the region has done a poor job of promoting itself to a wine-drinking world that stops at Napa and Sonoma when it thinks about great California wine.
He believes instead of working together to share knowledge, publicity and grapes, it’s often every winemaker for himself: “As a region we need to look within ourselves and see what we need to do to get back up on that totem pole.”
Raas went to school at Sonoma State University, where he discovered his love for winemaking, a passion he likens to a disease.
“You either have it or you don’t,” he quips.
His affliction took him to several wineries around the state, from the Sonoma Port Works to a “custom crush” house that made wine for scores of big-name brands like Charles “Two Buck Chuck” Shaw. The experience exposed him to all sides of winemaking, from small-batch, artisanal production wines to industrial sugar and acid-flavored wines made to mask crappy grapes.
“I found out what I like to make is single vineyard designated wines,” he says. “I don’t want to make something that is repeatable. Even if it is the same vineyards, it’s not the same every year.”
He established Mica Cellars four years ago to showcase what a single vineyard can do. It’s a tiny winery, just 405 cases. He sources grapes from this area and beyond, but in the future he plans to make his wine from all Santa Cruz Mountains fruit.
His 2010 Smith Road Pinot Noir, a meaty, but well-balanced wine made from grapes grown in Corralitos, picked up 91 points from the Beverage Tasting Institute, making it the second-highest score given to a Santa Cruz Mountains pinot noir (Windy Oaks Winery took the top score). He also makes a charbono, a unique, but highly drinkable red wine made with an obscure Italian varietal. For easy quafffability, my favorite was his 2009 CFM, a delicious blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
If he’s the Santa Cruz Mountains’ rebel outsider, his Winemakers Studio in Watsonville is his rebel base. The industrial-looking winery near the Airport sits between a bike factory and auto repair shops and occupies a warehouse with cement slab floors that hold the chill of the morning all day. His runt-sized boxer Tule runs about and chews on stray bits of wood. He calls it “an above-ground cave,” a rather ideal setting for making and cellaring wine. It’s unglamorous, but still attracts visitors for tastings from as far away as Los Gatos.
But Raas says he’s not after the glory alone. The Winemakers Studio is a collective. He shares it with three other wineries. A mead producer is planning to move in as well. He envisions the place as an incubator for new winemaker talent. The idea is to offer a supportive (and affordable) environment for a new generation of winemakers who can learn from each other and create wines to match or beat those of better-known winegrowing areas.
“I’m trying to bring in all the upstarts who have a dream,” he says. “This is how a region becomes successful.”