Not all of the wineries in San Benito County have vineyards. However, for some winemakers like Mike Berntsen of WildEye Winery in San Juan Bautista, not having a vineyard is more liberating than it is inconvenient.
“I’ll make a couple of different varietals,” he said. “And the next year, I won’t make those again—I will do something different until we have sold through the first wines. So if there is a chardonnay on our website, it is the only chardonnay we are selling. So we get to create new wines as they are needed and as they sell out.”
Berntsen has been studying winemaking since the 1990s, graduating from Fresno State University, and has worked with some of the country’s biggest producers.
“I worked for Constellation for five years when they were battling Gallo for No. 1,” he said. “We made a lot of wines for other companies, like Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Blackstone, even a winery in Australia where we ran a million-gallon operation there. So I took full advantage of the chance to check out the great wineries down there.”
Berntsen started WildEye in 2009 and spent two years getting wine ready for market but, in the end, found he was not prepared to strike out on his own. He went back to corporate wineries for another five years until he decided to commit to his own winery again.
When I started, it was a great idea but the wrong time,” he said. “I was kind of making wine for myself on the weekends, but, in 2016, I decided I would either be all-in on my project or resign myself to working for other people. But with 17 years in the business and all the tools I needed as a winemaker, I thought, ‘I’ve got this down. I can do it.’”
He did a hard restart on the business, selling off all of his inventory. Then, he started working with vineyards in Cienega Valley, buying fruit rather than growing it himself.
“I don’t own ground,” he said. “It is so much easier to lease ground and have a farmer grow it. I go to the vineyards and say, ‘I only need x amount—is that too small or too big?’ And most of the people I am dealing with are used to dealing with people on the small size. But this year, I am looking at 16 tons of white grapes on top of my reds. And that is a huge amount for a small guy, so I partner with a lot of different vineyards.”
This process allows Berntsen to select his wines from every local region, including the Cienega Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Gilroy.
“Our biggest wine this year is a Lodi red,” he said. “It was exactly what I wanted from this one particular vineyard. Picking and choosing vineyards lets me produce the kinds of wine I like to drink. And I can go into it knowing a price point for the wine and finding the best grapes to use for that price point.”
Berntsen works out of his home, where he has installed the barrels and steel tanks needed to make the wine, and the wines are bottled locally.
“My basic philosophy is, ‘Don’t screw it up,’” he said. “If you start with good fruit, the job is just keeping it on track to where you want it to be, making small adjustments to create a wine that is clean and bright and fruity. I want to show the fruit the way it came out of the vineyard without blowing you away with 20% alcohol. I try to showcase the varietal and not showcase oak or sugar or things like that.”
WildEye is a small production winery with limited distribution, but Berntsen likes it that way.
“I try to match my production to sales,” he said. “I am busy enough as a one-man show. We sell some proprietary wines through the California Wine Club, and we do wine shows and festivals. We have our email list, and we sell through Diaz Liquors, Windmill Market, and others. But I don’t have a big marketing team. And I do not live or die by competitions. I would rather be excellent in smaller markets, and I think it has been paying off.”
Before moving to this area, Berntsen raised and raced cross-country endurance horses in the Bay Area. Berntsen named his winery after Pizzazz, a horse that had one blue eye.
“We would walk into camps, and people would say, ‘You’re the ones with the blue-eyed horse,’” he said. “One time, someone called out, ‘How is that wild-eyed horse of yours doing?’ We decided to use that as a name and had artwork drawn up. The label is unique, and it resonates with people. That to me is a huge thing—the label has color and vibrancy, and we back it up with quality.”
The Wines of WildEye Winery
2020 Viognier (price not set) “I called Al DeRose and told him I wanted a Central Coast Viognier,” Berntsen said. “So I got two tons of dry-farmed grapes, which was perfect for what I needed.” It’s a summer release wine that will mostly go to his email list customers. The wine has not been bottled yet, and we tasted it right out of the barrel. The beautiful aroma is pure grape and would suggest the wine would start sharply, but it doesn’t. The flavor is bright and not overly acidic. The aftertaste lingers and immediately tempts you to sip more. Berntsen suggests serving it with Asian foods and curry, and I think it would pair well with spicy Thai Basil Chicken.
2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($30) “This is more like what a chardonnay is in Burgundy,” Berntsen said. “It is a less ripe, less fruity style wine.” Wine Enthusiast rated this at 92 points last May. It’s not a buttery, oaky chardonnay but is done in a clean, crisp style, with hints of lemon citrus and an excellent, level finish. The aroma is more earthy than fruity, and the flavor rolls effortlessly around your mouth as you drink it. There are friendly hints of the notes you find in heavier chardonnays, but they are subtle and underplayed, just making an appearance and then disappearing. This wine was recently served at a benefit dinner at San Juan Oaks for Emmaus House, paired with Alaskan salmon, and I think any fish would be a fine choice to accompany it.
2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($35) “This is not an over-the-top, over-extracted wine, but Burgundian in style,” Berntsen said. “It is fresh fruit, but not over-ripe fruit.” The heatwave of 2017 made choosing the time to pick the grapes very difficult. He decided to pick them earlier than some other winemakers thought best, and it worked to preserve the freshness that the heat was poised to destroy. The aroma packs a lot of fruitiness, but the wine itself carries the fruit much more subtly. It’s not a dark pinot but more supple, with hints of strawberry and a little touch of zinfandel. Berntsen recommends Baby Back Ribs with a Kansas City dry rub, though a heavy BBQ sauce would murder this wine. Anything grilled would do well—stuffed portobello mushrooms would be ideal.
2020 Lodi Red Blend ($25) The blend includes Petit Verdot, Carignan, and Petit Syrah, some from older vines. It will be available to the mailing list and on the website starting in October. My initial response to this wine was a simple “Wow!” The aroma grabs your attention, but the wine is smooth from the first sip, almost like there is no introduction to the wine as it hits your mouth. It’s just suddenly there, with perfect tannins and a finish that is as elegant as the start. This blend is one I will be watching for myself, just to have as an evening sipping wine—it’s a finer wine than blends I have had at twice the price.
2019 Sonoma County Cabernet (price not set) This wine is a work in progress, not ready for bottling until around October. Berntsen blended a glass of this cabernet for me on the fly from two barrels at the winery. He used several different barrels from American and French sources in an experiment to see which he liked the best, so at least five types of oak influence this wine. I am a little hesitant to put a lot of weight on a review of this wine, as it was not the finished product, but Berntsen said all that was left to do was filter it and bottle it. The aroma is huge and very decidedly that of a classic cabernet. It has hints of cherry and oak with a little tartness from the acidity. The wine I had would stand up to anything you want to serve it with—Berntsen mentioned smoked meats and I would not be afraid to serve it with sauced BBQ or garlic dishes. It’s definitely a wine I will be checking out once it’s available.
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