Shafts of sunlight suddenly pierce through fog. Redwood forests cling to 3,800-foot high slopes. From the ridgetops, views swing from the blue Pacific in the west to burgeoning Silicon Valley towards the east. On the clearest of days, observers might discern the spires of San Francisco and its sparkling Bay in the north.
Add in hidden glens and meadows, wildcats and coyotes, silvery streams hurtling down gorges, and wildflowers that bloom after heavy winter rains. Residents range from eccentrics living in yurts hidden in the woods, to hippies who never left the Sixties, to high-tech moguls ensconced in the occasional mega-mansion.
And, from a wine point of view, pay homage to vineyards that grow some of the best wines in California.
The Santa Cruz Mountains take in 100 miles of coast ranges that extend from south of San Francisco down through San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. They finally end in the Salinas Valley, where the Santa Lucia Mountains take over.
Wine production in the region dates to the 1800s, started by the same Franciscan missionaries who developed viticulture throughout California and gave Santa Cruz— “the Holy Cross”—its name. The tradition continued at the end of the 19th century, when the Jesuits founded their Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos, famous for sweet, fortified Black Muscat dessert wine. Their old winery building, now renovated, houses the well-known Testarossa brand.
Rich History, New Promise
In the early 1900s, one of the greatest wines in California came from Paul Masson; in 1936, the brand was purchased by Martin Ray, whose Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs showed the region’s promise. In 1960, the launch of Ridge Vineyard—still going strong—brought the Santa Cruz Mountains to the wine world’s attention.
Ridge’s forte was Cabernet Sauvignon, and specifically their Monte Bello Vineyard bottling. The vineyard lies on the warmer, eastern side of the mountains, where Cabernet thrives. The western slopes, cooler and damper, provide a natural home to dense, age-worthy Pinot Noirs. Chardonnay, that vinous chameleon, thrives everywhere.
Among the top Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, in addition to Ridge, are Clos LaChance, Kathryn Kennedy, Thomas Fogarty, Mount Eden and Byington. Last but not least, there’s Bonny Doon,whose proprietor, Randall Grahm, was an early advocate of Rhône varieties in California, and remains to this day one of the state’s most colorful and legendary vintners.
The local winery association lists about 70 members, but many are very small, backyard-vineyard brands that seldom if ever see the public market. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains is one of the biggest appellations in California, actual vineyard acreage is scant. Plantings are limited because of the same suburbanization that wiped out the fruit and nut orchards of the Santa Clara Valley—an area now called Silicon Valley.
The Beach Vibe
Santa Cruz also is the name of the county as well as the seaside city that boasts a campus of the University of California. Located 60 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz maintains a reputation for alternative lifestyles, occasionally punctuated by local political turf battles. With its boardwalk and beach attractions, the city lures in hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially in summer. Thanks to its unique southerly exposure, the town beckons as one of the warmest spots along the Northern California coast. A must for travelers is Surf City Vintners, where a dozen local wineries have turned a warehouse space into a popular destination.
The town is experiencing a restaurant revival. Leading the pack: Lalli, with its Silk Road-South Asian-inspired fare; Soif Wine Bar, with an exquisite California-fusion menu; and La Posta, offering traditional Italian food.