Amix of blue-collar surfers, aging hippies, college kids and high-tech escapees, Santa Cruz doesn’t fit the stereotype of sunny, seaside California.
Even the surrounding wine country, officially known as the Santa Cruz Mountains, refuses convenient definition. It stretches through three counties, nearly all the way from San Francisco south to Salinas, straddling a wild, redwood-pocked ridgeline that includes both warm, inland slopes and cool, coastal faces.
When grown and crafted with proper care, wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains can compete with the best bottles in the world.
The region can be broken up into roughly three districts, each with its own character and beautiful natural surroundings. Get to know these areas—and the people who define them—without leaving home.
The Beauregards are considered the royals of Santa Cruz wine because viticulturist Jim Beauregard planted so much of the appellation. His son, Ryan Beauregard, who runs Beauregard Vineyards, recently acquired Bald Mountain, a 32-acre Chardonnay vineyard that Jim planted on “moonrock” sandstone in 1990.
“Americans move around so much,” says Ryan, whose tasting room and winery is nearby in Bonny Doon. “It feels really good to be rooted.”
Dean McHenry, the founding chancellor of University of California, Santa Cruz, is another pioneer. He planted Pinot Noir in the 1970s, which his son, Henry McHenry, turned into McHenry Vineyard wines.
Today, Henry’s daughter Annie McHenry, her husband, Brandon Blanchard, and her cousin Ian McHenry are in charge.
“We’re basically doing what he taught us,” says Blanchard of his father-in-law. The McHenry label reflects the skyscraping tree line that looms over the small vineyard.
“I like to feature the Summit region,” says Dan Lokteff, owner/winemaker of Wrights Station Vineyard & Winery, a winery, tasting room and roughly six-acre vineyard. Its focus is Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a few other grapes like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grown atop the mountains.
A statistician, Lokteff worked for ecommerce and credit card companies. In 2009, his winemaking hobby turned professional with the purchase of this property, which sits 1,800 feet above sea level. Over the last decade, he’s worked to dial in the vineyards, first planted in 1983.
Perched at the top of ladders, up a tree on top of a ridge that overlooks the Monterey Bay, Lago Lomita’s treehouse is the region’s most coveted Airbnb destination. It’s a frequent site for marriage proposals.
“I built this just to get away from my kids,” says Robin Porter with a laugh. She lives with her husband, Mark, in a 19th-century abode on the ground, a short walk away. Views include five vineyard blocks that surround a mountaintop rain pond. “Fog comes up to the front gate, so you get that cooling effect, but without the mildew pressure,” she says.
Santa Cruz’s urban winemaking scene is centered around Swift Street, on the city’s westernmost edge. That’s where Joe Miller turned his attention to commercial wine with Rexford Winery in 2008, after four decades of teaching astrophysics and wine appreciation at University of California, Santa Cruz.
With his son, Sam, Miller’s focus is to find good vineyards and encourage the owners to farm well. “I cultivate growers, not grapes,” says Joe.
Across the street is Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, run by Jeff Emery. After apprenticing for a quarter-century under Ken Burnap, who founded the business in the mid-1970s, Emery took the reins in 2004. He crafts single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Iberian-focused wines and more under the Quinta Cruz brand.
“I tread the knife edge of approachability without losing cellarability,” says Emery.
Barry Jackson has worked as a sparkling wine consultant for about 20 Central Coast producers as well as his own Equinox label.
“I succumbed to the romance knowing better all the while,” says Jackson, whose first grapes came in three days before the massive 1989 earthquake that rocked the Bay Area. He also makes Bartolo, a still-wine brand focused on Fiano and Merlot.
After more than a decade in craft-beer brewing and work in organic foods, Sean Venus bought lambic stills from Spain to start Venus Spirits in 2014. He turned his attention to seasonal gins, agave spirits, barrel-rested aquavits and other liquors.
“The excitement of waiting for something in a barrel to ferment is exciting for me,” says Venus.
Downtown is booming with other interesting businesses, too. The grand-daddy is Soif, a longtime bottle shop and wine bar that’s grown to offer seasonal meals with locally farmed ingredients.
“Very few people have done what we do successfully for this long,” says manager Jon Bates. “We’ve never sold out.”
Opened in May 2019, Bad Animal’s formula is utterly unique.
“We are a used bookstore that’s focused on the humanities and a full restaurant with seasonal fare and a natural wine bar,” says Sarah Shields, the general manager, wine expert and former Brooklyn, New York, resident. The focus is on low-intervention, small production wines.
“It’s meant to be a playful list. I never buy more than a case of wine at a time.”
Wood-fired cooking by French-inspired Atlanta cooks isn’t exactly the traditional Santa Cruz diet, but Chef Jeffrey Wall proved otherwise by opening Alderwood in December 2018. As the smell of smoke wafts past the large chef’s table, diners can watch the fast-moving, flame-licked kitchen for hours. “We want long hang outs, where people can sip on their cocktails and snack their way through dinner,” said manager Michael Falco.
“Rustic, seasonal Spanish food is our jam,” said Elan Emerson of her electric restaurant Barceloneta, which she and husband, Bret Emerson, opened in October 2019 after a decade of running Contigo in San Francisco. The cuisine and all-Spanish wine list, with plenty of Sherry and vermouth, won immediate fans, including legends like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. “Santa Cruz is ready for new restaurants,” she said.
The small town of Soquel’s wine culture is powered by the Bargetto family. John Bargetto runs Bargetto Winery, whose winemaking and tasting facilities are in town. His cousin, Peter Bargetto, is the force behind Soquel Vineyards, set on a hilltop ranch originally purchased by their grandfather in 1919. Its tasting room boasts views for days.
Also in town, the aptly named Home restaurant occupies a former house on the edge of a residential neighborhood. There, Brad Briske serves Italian-influenced, nose-to-tail Californian cuisine, made with produce that’s grown in the backyard garden.
“It’s a really good mix of what was started in 1980 and what we’ve added along the way,” says Briske.
There are three tasting rooms in the nearby village of Aptos. Armitage Wines sources much of its Pinot Noir from the old Alfred Hitchcock estate above nearby Scotts Valley, where the famous director wrote The Birds in between tending to vines.
Ser Winery is run by Bonny Doon Vineyards veteran Nicole Walsh, who makes sparkling Riesling, dry Orange Muscat and peppery Cabernet Pfeffer from century-old vines. Lastly, Sante Arcangeli Family Wines is the show-case of John Benedetti, who cofounded Capitola’s beloved Sante Adarius Rustic Ales before he turned to single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Cantine Winepub is a wine/beer bar and small plates restaurant that was opened by Keiki and Jason McKay in 2014.
“We opened Cantine to create a comfortable place to hang out with family and friends where wine and beer is approachable and fun, not pretentious or complicated,” says Keiki.
Though Manresa’s chef-owner David Kinch has lived in Santa Cruz for 22 years, his first restaurant on this side of the mountains is Mentone, a colorful and casual concept focused on the cuisine of the Riviera, from Genoa to Nice. “No more gastronomic restaurants for me!” said Kinch, whose menu includes “simple” pizza and pasta as well as chickpea crepes, carbonated spritz slushies and an “unapologetically rich” cioppino. “It’s the definition of connoisseurship,” he explained of his dive into this cuisine. “The more you learn, the more you love it.”
A short drive away is Persephone, opened in October 2016 by the sister/brother team of Chef Cori Goudge-Ayer (formerly of Acquerello in San Francisco) and sommelier Alexander Potter, who oversees a 300-plus bottle list. Their grandparents own the building, dad’s love of wine inspired the kids and and mom’s art is all over the walls, but the food rises far above family fare: the parmesan budino pudding and truffle-topped tortiglioni are just a taste of the expertise.
A bit south toward Watsonville, you’ll find the legacy of Dan Lester, who died in 2014. His world travels are evidenced in the collection of animal heads, dugout canoes, nautical equipment and much more strewn throughout the Lester Estate Wines tasting room.
“We’re fulfilling his bucket list, which was to have a tasting room and winery on his property,” says Lester’s son-in-law Steve Johnson. They also host safari tours around the 210-acre property, which overlooks of the fog-shrouded Pleasant Valley to the redwood-ringed meadow, where deer are known to roam.
Nearby is the famed Corralitos Market & Sausage Company, where more than 30 styles of smoked and fresh links have been known to fill winemaker and cyclist bellies all day long.
Wine Enthusiast encourages readers to be safe and follow federal and local regulations as it pertains to travel and social engagement. We’ll continue to report on the coronavirus pandemic as it pertains to the world of wine, as well as offer stories and resources for your wine-travel needs for when it is clear to get back out and about.