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Historical Wineries in Gilroy - Hecker Pass Winery & Fernwood Cellars

When you think about Gilroy, I’m sure the first thing you think of is garlic, right? Well, did you also know that there are over 34 wineries along the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail in Gilroy alone? Gilroy is a hidden gem in California and is well known in California for our incredible wineries! When you travel through the California Bay Area, make sure to plan a stop in Gilroy to visit the wineries. In this blog post, you’ll read all about Hecker Pass Winery and Fernwood Cellars. Buckle up history buffs!

Photo by Hecker Pass Winery.

Hecker Pass Winery has its roots in over 150 years of winemaking history and experience. The family tradition of winemaking began in the early 1800’s in Calabria, Italy, in the small town of Cosenza. 

Back in 1911, Mario Sr.’s grandfather got stuck in a coal mine in America for three days, and promised himself that if he made it out alive, he would return to Italy to do what he loved—making wine. In 1912, he purchased home and land, then planted a vineyard. In 1938, Mario Sr., was born. With his accordion, his Moto Guzzi motorcycle, and a bag, Mario Sr. crossed the seas on a ship to America in 1959.

Photo from Wineries of Santa Clara Valley by Bev Stenehjem.

Having learned the art started by his great-grandfather, third-generation winemaker Mario Sr. brought his family’s passion and old-world heritage to California in 1959. He chose southern Santa Clara Valley for its rich soil composition and hot summer days followed by cool nights. The terrain and climate make this area ideal for producing rich, premium, full-bodied wines, like those of his Italian heritage.

Photo from Wineries of Santa Clara Valley by Bev Stenehjem.

From 1959 to 1971, he worked every job at local wineries in an effort to better understand the American wine business. In 1970, Mario and his wife purchased land in southern Santa Clara Valley to start a winery. In 1972, Mario and his wife opened the business of their dreams, and Hecker Pass Winery was established. To the present day, Hecker Pass Winery has won over 150 awards and medals in state and national level wine competitions. 

The passion for creating fine Italian wines with character, along with innovative ideas for the future, is carried forward as the fourth and fifth generations work side by side in continuing the legacy. This is old-world wine for the next generation. 

Fernwood Cellars

Photo by Fernwood Cellars.

Let’s start from the beginning, in 1863. Charles and Annis Sanders were first-generation natives of Nova Scotia and had adventured out West during the Gold Rush with the hope of striking gold. Without finding much gold, Charles and Annis moved to Gilroy, where they were allotted 98 acres in accordance with the United States Homestead Act of 1862. It is here that Charles would establish what is widely known today as Redwood Retreat. In 1891, Charles built a 20-room Victorian hotel called Redwood Retreat.

Photo by Fernwood Cellars.

The grounds at Redwood Retreat included lawn tennis courts, bocce ball, and the first outdoor swimming pool in Santa Clara County (only the second in California!). Vineyards, apple and prune orchards, and a large row crop vegetable garden supplied the family and hotel guests. The Gilroy Gazette claimed Redwood Retreat to be “one of the best places for rest and meditation in the state.”

From 1910 to 1929, Annis “Gypsy” Sanders, the youngest child of Charles and Annis, operated the resort until the Great Depression forced them to close their doors. Soon after, the family decided to move off of the land. Gypsy retained ownership but closed the lodge and cabins indefinitely. Charles Pond was the only child of Gypsy and her husband Brayton Pond. He and his new wife, Elsie Malek, moved to Redwood Retreat shortly after their marriage. The buildings eventually fell into disrepair and in the 1960’s, trespassers burned down the five cabins that remained in The Grove.

This lodge-style building was surrounded by a dozen cabins along the creek.
Built after the fire in 1908, it could hold gatherings of 30-40 vacationing guests.
Photo from Wineries of Santa Clara Valley by Bev Stenehjem.

In 1991, Linda Pond-Oetinger, the only child of Charles and Elsie, built a three-generation home at Redwood Retreat with her mother after Charles’ passing. Linda restored the old lodge and two remaining cabins nearby, including the Sanders’ homestead family home. Linda is credited with planting the vineyards and establishing a water system to irrigate the vines.

One of the main attractions that still remains at Fernwood Cellars is the beautiful creek.
The water runs through the area where events are now held.
Photo from Wineries of Santa Clara Valley by Bev Stenehjem.

In 1999, Matt Oetinger, the only child of Linda Pond and Lew Oetinger, established Fernwood Cellars and built the winery on Redwood Retreat land. He would become the fifth generation of this pioneering family to work and improve the land through a successful agri-business. After graduating from U.C. Davis with a major in Biology, Matt became Vineyard Manager at Clos La Chance Winery in Morgan Hill. He would continue to pursue his love for wine making and eventually dedicate 100% of his time and passion toward the evolution of Fernwood Cellars.

Photo by Fernwood Cellars.

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This concludes our stories on some of Gilroy’s oldest wineries. If you didn’t read them already, we have two separate posts on Solis Winery, Guglielmo Winery, Kirigin Cellars and Fortino Winery.  We hope you feel inspired to visit Gilroy’s wineries and see just how incredible they are in person. Whether you’re looking for a wedding venue in Gilroy, going wine tasting with friends, or taking your loved one on a date…Gilroy’s wineries are your place to be.

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