Meet a Local Who Makes Her Own Wine
Home Winemaker Cathy Bentley-Smith
Cathy Bentley-Smith lives smack dab in the middle of the Corralitos Wine Trail. It's a befitting location for someone who lives, breathes, and well, drinks wine.
She works in Tasting Room Sales for Silver Mountain Vineyards, and can be found pouring wine at the Surf City Tasting Room in Santa Cruz. Visitors who stop by for a tasting are sure to hear her admiration and respect for Jerold O'Brian, Silver Mountain founder and winemaker.
"Jerold is the man," said Bentley-Smith. "He's been making wine a long time and is a good winemaker."
What makes Silver Mountain unique, according to Bentley-Smith is Jerold's hands-on approach. "He's in the vineyard, he's winemaking, he goes to events himself," she said. "He's the face of Silver Mountain and he loves wine."
Silver Mountain Vineyards overlooking Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay. Photo credit: Mary Lindsay
Bentley-Smith first met Jerold when she served on the Capitola Soquel Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors about 8 years ago, and began running into him at various chamber events. At that time, she also owned a cute, beachside coffee shop in the village, next door to Armida Winery Tasting Room. This proximity would soon spark a lifelong interest in wine. "My shop was next to a wine tasting room and I got to know them," she said. "One of my coffee customers was a wine club member there and invited me to wine taste. 'I don't even know if I like wine,' I told him. And that was 10 years ago."
After hearing the wine steward describe the wines, Bentley-Smith inquired about her knowledge and learned about wine classes. That's when she enrolled in wine education classes at Cabrillo College, a recently reinstated program that is part of the culinary curriculum.
"To those interested in winemaking, I would say take a class at Cabrillo," advised Bentley-Smith. "They are really good about bringing local winemakers and wine industry people as guest speakers. You will not only learn basics, you will also meet a great network of people."
And meet people she did. In fact, she met nine other passionate wine enthusiasts and eventually formed a home winemaking group/Co-Op, known as Back Door Cellars. "We've gotten to be such good friends," she says of her fellow winemakers, whom she affectionately calls "the winos."
They began making wine in 2009, a year after meeting and taking a Cabrillo winemaking class meant for thirty students. "The instructor, Sal Godinez, wanted the class to experience the whole winemaking process, to go to the vineyard, do the harvest and make a barrel."
It turns out that Cabrillo accidentally over-enrolled the class by thirty students, making it impossible for Godinez to carry out his plan. Instead, the class was based on lecture and the creation of a virtual, or pretend, winery business. "A few of us wanted to forget the fake business and actually make wine, so we asked Sal for help outside of class," said Bentley-Smith. "He was so generous with his time, helping us source grapes, purchase equipment and tasting our wine."
Back Door Cellars produced four wines that year. One barrel had to be drained and dumped; another was recalled, reprocessed and rebottled. The remaining two, however, went on to win gold, silver and bronze awards at the Santa Cruz County Fair's Amateur Winemaking Competition in 2010. "Our surviving Zin won a double gold that year- our first year!" exclaimed Bentley-Smith.
Over the past five years, Back Door Cellars has become increasingly serious and organized about home winemaking, making anywhere from four to six tons a year. "We have nineteen wines in barrel and pinot fermenting right now," Bentley-Smith said. She adds, "We are ten very dedicated people who are completely insane about it. Thank goodness for unlimited texting. It makes it easier to communicate the latest grape news, like when grapes are ready two days earlier than expected. We can coordinate who's available to pick. It's complete chaos…organized chaos, but it's exciting."
That excitement is what feeds Bentley-Smith's passion for both her career and hobby. "It's a bottomless pit of education," she said of her love of winemaking. "I will never ever learn all there is to know. It's exciting and new all the time. You make mistakes, learn what works and eventually enjoy a long-delayed gratification."
Silver Mountain Vineyard is part of Surf City Vintners, a collective of micro-boutique wineries on the Westside of Santa Cruz. "It's a great location because everyone gets along really well and helps promote each other," said Bentley-Smith. "We are all interested in making great wine, selling great wine, and creating experiences for people."
You can experience Silver Mountain by visiting its winery and estate vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains or the tasting room at Surf City Vintners.
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