Much has changed in the Santa Clara Valley since the pandemic. Brands have come and gone, but Fernwood Cellars, at the end of Redwood Retreat Road, has stayed the course, even through rocky times. Owners Matt and Tiffany Oetinger are in it for the long haul: their roots go deep here on this land, where Matt’s family has been for five generations.
Redwood Retreat dates back to 1863, when a pair of immigrants from Nova Scotia, Annis and Charles Sanders, claimed a 96-acre parcel as part of the Homestead Act of 1862, in this heavily forested area of Santa Clara County. Sanders built a 20-room hotel and popular resort along a creek that drew many visitors from the city of San Francisco. They were charmed by the big trees and the warm summer weather: a delightful contrast to the foggy climes of the City by the Bay.
The resort operated until the Great Depression forced its closure. The third generation to inherit the property had health issues and used the place only as a getaway. Vagrants destroyed the remaining structures by fire in the 1960s. The fourth generation to inherit the land, Linda Pond, the only child of Gen 3, built a home at Redwood Retreat and also restored some of the resort property, including the Sanders’ original homestead. Linda married Lew Oetinger, with whom she had a son, Matt. She planted vineyards and installed an irrigation system.
Matt, a UC Davis Biology major, became vineyard manager at Clos LaChance Winery in Morgan Hill, but eventually put all his energies into Fernwood Cellars, where he built the present day winery building and tasting room.
“We’re in a state of non-stop evolution,” said Oetinger, winegrower and co-proprietor of Fernwood Cellars, who operates the business along with his wife, Tiffany. “Covid did a real number on us. You can’t just hit the ‘Return to Normal’ button!”
He says that the pent-up demand of the general public to return to events is right back where it used to be, which is gratifying and reassuring. Events often comprise a significant portion of a small winery’s revenue stream, and that was completely cut off during the Covid-mandated closures.
However, he admits the tasting room portion of the equation is still evolving.
“The issue here in Santa Clara Valley is one of tremendous, almost chaotic growth,” he said. “When I started, there were 12 of us. Now there are 50. People are opening up garage doors and saying, ‘hey, we are a winery!’ So many options seriously dilute the tasting pool.”
And not everyone will survive, because it takes more than luck to make it in the wine business.
“When Silicon Valleyites build their ‘passion project’ for a winery, they come with a substantial amount of money in the bank: they can operate at a loss,” Oetinger said. “But for people like us, winemaking is what we do for a living: it’s not a hobby. We can’t run in the red, because we can’t pay the mortgage. We lean on our events, including weddings.”
Oetinger also relies on his business installing vines for backyard vineyard projects, and has been doing it for more than 15 years. He’s installed as few as 100 vines up to 80 acres.
“Currently we manage 26 vineyards,” Oetinger said. “The largest is probably Vanumanutagi, which is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Gruner Veltliner and Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Asked if he’s seeing a shift in the varietals people are putting in these days, he said, “Most people are still driven by what they like to drink, so mostly Bordeaux or Burgundy varietals.”
As for wineries to whom he is selling fruit, L&M Vineyards and Storrs are current clients, to whom he has sold Ancient Vine Carignane, Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot.
“Mostly wineries are simply looking for lots that fit their style/vision,” Oetinger said. “Managing so many vineyards allows me to vinify what I want for my program, and sell the rest.”
The majority of Fernwood Cellars wines come from the Estate vineyard and Vanumanutagi, along with a handful from the Los Altos Hills area. Presently, you’ll find 2021 Estate Chardonnay, 2019 Round Rocks (Rhone Blend), 2019 Estate Syrah, 2020 Malbec and 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon on the tasting list.
Fernwood Cellars, 7137 Redwood Retreat Road in Gilroy, is open the first and third weekends of each month, through March. Tastings are held in the original tasting room adjacent to the barrel room and crush pad, across from the Grove area. Tastings on weekends are from noon to 4:45pm, with the last pour at 4:30pm. No reservations are required, but parties larger than six are asked to contact [email protected] or 408.848.0611 at least one week in advance, to make arrangements.
Fernwood Cellars will host the following events:
• Lobster Boil: June 3-4
• Reserve Dinner in the Vineyard with Le Papillon: July 8
• Dinner in the Grove: Aug. 26
• Harvest Dinner in the Vineyard with California Inspirations: Sept. 9