Cottage Creek, owned by Denise and Sam Russell, is one of those places where you can truly feel connected to the grape source, even if most of the wines come from Oregon.
Denise, a beautician who’s owned a hair salon for 36 years, and husband, Sam, owner of an HVAC business, are both Morgan Hill natives.
“We both work really hard and we both love wine,” Denise said. “On our days off, we would take off, go wine tasting and focus on each other. We dreamed a lot about having our own winery someday.”
In 2014, the couple took their first step toward winery ownership, buying property on Watsonville Road, which is right on the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail.
“There was a small 1,000-square-foot house on the property that our realtor told us was a teardown,” Denise said. “But we are creative: we see beauty in things that are not. We gutted it and redid it and lived in it for two years before we planted grapes and built the house we live in now.”
The vineyard was planted by Nick Dorcich, who installed one acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, in 2016.
At that point, they remodeled the cottage and turned it into a short-term rental. They thought it would be nice to have a bottle of wine in the room for their guests, along with a pass to taste at local wineries. Thus was born their first wine, a 2015 Syrah, sourced from Spencer Schultze of Windy Oaks, with whom they’d become close.
“We love his Pinot Noirs. We’d always go over there and enjoy his wines,” Denise said. “He let us taste wine and we bought his Syrah to make a wine for our cottage. People loved it! They’d come over to the house and ask how they could get more of it. This was such an inspiration for us. I named it Primero, which means ‘first’ in Spanish.”
It was clear they were on to something. But, how to scale up?
“We went looking for a winemaker who could do what we wanted,” Denise said. “We found Chris Graves through Wine Business Monthly magazine, and he became our winemaker. We stumbled across him, actually. He’s super open to making wine the way we wanted it to taste. I feel it was meant to be. There was an immediate connection.”
Graves, who was an award-winning winemaker in Livermore for many years, moved to Oregon in 2014 and works at Naumes Custom Crush in Jackson, Ore. He’s a quiet, confident talent who can turn grapes into pretty much whatever a client wants.
Denise and Sam especially loved Rhones, but as they tasted samples Graves sent them, their palates expanded. Said Denise, “I love Rhone varietals for sure. I’m a big fan of Grenache. I love all wines—I am not prejudiced. The biggest thing I have learned is that I like things that are really good. Chris introduced us to dry Riesling. I never thought I’d like it, but I love it. We call it ‘Discovery.’”
Their first vintage together was 2018. Except for the estate Cabernet, which came online in 2020, all the other grapes are sourced by Graves, mostly from Oregon.
“Chris is the master and can get grapes from wherever he thinks will work for us,” Denise said. “I didn’t know how this was going to go. He was sending us samples. I think he hit it out of the park: the wines are amazing. My husband did all the blends. We want to be involved. We had so much fun during the lockdown—you should have seen us—it was a total labor of love.”
She admits the pandemic really played a big role in pushing the couple to open their winery a bit ahead of schedule.
“We released everything in 2020,” she said. “It got expedited because of Covid. There are 40 people in my hair salon, and we closed for eight months. So, I had time to really get into the wine part of it. I spent a lot of time with Chris on Zoom.”
They are currently serving a GSM Rosé, a Sauvignon Blanc, two Chardonnays—one oaked and one stainless—two Grenache-based blends, a Cabernet/Syrah blend, a Syrah, a Pinot Noir and a Pacific Northwest Riesling.
Cottage Creek is open the first and third weekend of each month, with 20 tables that can accommodate 80 people sitting down.
“We love being a boutique winery,” Denise said. “We want to have a high-end product. I come from the beauty industry, where it’s all about the experience.”
All their tasting is outdoors, so it may prove challenging if it actually rains this season.
But they’ll figure it out: they’re survivors, and dreamers.
Cottage Creek Vineyards is located at 12537 Watsonville Road in Morgan Hill. For information, call 408.201.3311.