original article appeared in the May 9, 2017 edition of the Tri-City Voice
Tri-City residents interested in exploring wine country need look no further than their own backyard. Located in the foothills above Milpitas, Big Dog Vineyards is a family-owned boutique winery that offers all the charm of a small French estate (castle not included).
The trip takes a mere 10 minutes as you follow Calaveras Road up into the hills, where it winds its way through lush green hills and pastures, past horse stables and groves of oak trees. Big Dog Vineyards sits nestled near the top, with a dramatic view of the entire bay, and backed by acres of open land that belong to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as part of the Calaveras Reservoir water system.The trip takes a mere 10 minutes as you follow Calaveras Road up into the hills, where it winds its way through lush green hills and pastures, past horse stables and groves of oak trees. Big Dog Vineyards sits nestled near the top, with a dramatic view of the entire bay, and backed by acres of open land that belong to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as part of the Calaveras Reservoir water system.
Owners Mark and Sandra Capalongan bought the property in 1996. Says Mark (who works in the tech sector during the week), “We came from a little patio home in Fremont. Suddenly we had 50 acres and we’re thinking ‘what are we going to do?’ It’s hard to mow 50 acres.” The property also came with a horse stable and an old abandoned house that was falling apart.
That first year, while they renovated the house, they decided to plant a 5-acre patch of grapes on an adjacent hill. Says Mark, ”We had no intention when we bought the property of planting a vineyard. It was just a happy accident. I was kind of talked into it by some friends who are also winemakers in the area.” A soils and weather analysis (known as the terroir to vintners) by UC Davis confirmed that the area was ripe for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Their first harvest came in 2001. Originally thinking he would sell off the grapes to other wineries, Capalongan began having too much fun, so he decided they would start making their own wine. They became bonded in 2005, and in 2009 they built a tasting room and patio next to the house and opened to the public. Now they are open every weekend, featuring up to ten different wines for tasting at any given time. They also host special Friday night events throughout the year, as well as a summer concert series featuring local bands, food, and dancing.
The past 20 years has certainly been an adventure in winemaking for Capalongan, as well as a study in patience. “From the time you put a vine in the ground to selling a bottle, it takes about 10 years, so you need to be in it for the long term. And it’s a pretty steep learning curve. The first year wasn’t my best year, but the second year wasn’t bad. You learn something every year, and use that knowledge the following year. There’s nothing like an estate vineyard to understand all the nuances of your grapes, and to be able to match that to the winemaking.”
Big Dog Vineyard has won several awards for their bold, expressive wines, including Best of Class at the 2011 San Francisco Wine Competition, touted as the largest competition of American wines in the world. Not bad for a winery that only produces about 1,200 cases of wine per year. Says Capalongan, “We’re about as small as you can be while still being commercial.”
All of their wine is pressed, aged and sold on premises, from their own Cabernet grapes, as well as a variety of other grapes bought from local vineyards. They also have a wine club that accounts for about half of their business, as well as a few accounts at local restaurants. Says Anna Muthig, Manager at Big Dog Vineyards, “Right now we’re selling faster than we’re making wine. So we’re trying to find more grapes so we can make more wine – that’s priority number one.”
Big Dog Vineyards is the only estate winery in the East Bay foothills and is a source of pride with locals. Says Muthig, “We joke about making a Calaveras Wine Trail T-shirt and it would be just us. It would show this long road with one star in the middle.” Capalongan smiles in agreement. “We’ll always be this little gem in the hills.”
Big Dog Vineyards is open from 12pm to 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays during the year. Summer hours (June, July, August) are Saturday and Sunday from 12pm to 5pm and Friday from 5pm to 9pm.
Or you can call for an appointment.
See their website for a calendar of events: www.bigdogvineyards.com
(669) 244 – 3645
(669) BIG – DOG5
4545 FELTER ROAD
MILPITAS, CA 95035