California is home to many renowned wine regions, some well-equipped to handle tourists, others less so. For some regions it’s a question of terrain, for others location, but that shouldn’t keep intrepid travelers from making an extra effort to visit these regions—particularly when they produce world class wines like those of the Santa Cruz Mountains, writes Gregory Dal Piaz.
A lot of people may not be familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, though it’s located only about an hour south of San Francisco, making it an easy day trip for visitors to that glorious city. One reason for the relative anonymity might be that it’s a large AVA with relatively few wineries, meaning a fair amount of travel, often via narrow country roads that wind through hills (which if you ask me is just another reason to visit).
Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
I’ve just returned from spending several days in the region, on both the eastern and western side of the appellation, and I want to share some of the details of my trip. I’ll be writing up tasting notes and a more in-depth and geeky look at the region over the coming days, but today I wanted to look at some of the options for travel to the region.
Sandwiched roughly between San Jose and Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a rather long, slender swathe of land with vineyards roughly between 400 and 2100 feet above sea level, which explains all the hill country driving involved. There are attractive wineries worth visiting on both sides of the AVA, but for a casual visit, sticking to the east side might make more sense, and might also warrant a night or two in San Jose.
Staying in San Jose
Truth be told, I’d never been to San Jose before and had few expectations. But what I found was an attractive downtown, full of the kind of vibrant life a college brings to its hometown. I was based out of the Four Points hotel, right in the middle of the city and almost adjacent to the university campus. And it was a super convenient location, with a light rail running right outside my door, easy on and off the freeway just a few blocks away, and ample entertainment options available by foot. In truth, one of the best features of the hotel was the fact that they have a relatively unassuming courtyard outside with twin bocce courts available for use. Yes, weird, but I love me some bocce.
A Quick Food Find
I’m sure San Jose has its fair share of great dining options, but since this was a very busy few days of work for me, I was looking for simpler options and I found at least one worth noting. It’s the Original Gravity Public House, a glorified bar in some ways but one that serves a killer selection of craft brews on tap, perfect for cleansing the palate after a busy day’s tasting. The menu is “limited” to a great selection of sausages, a food near and dear to my heart. The sausages were excellent, and you can even get duck fat fries. All in all, a pretty cool little menu and a casual vibe makes this place a real après-tasting winner.
Tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains
I visited several wineries on the eastern side of the appellation. Though not all are open to the public, it’s worth noting two that are and should not be missed.
I spent several hours at Ridge and will follow up with more details in a later article. Suffice it to say, Ridge continues to be a benchmark producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, not only for the Santa Cruz Mountains, or California for that matter, but globally. Their Monte Bello is one of the country’s true first growths and it remains relatively affordable. The estate Cabernet is a great option for someone interested in learning about the house style, or drinking great Cabernet for that matter, at a much more manageable price. If you’re in the area, make it your business to stop by.
While perhaps not the best known nor the most historic winery of the region, Thomas Fogarty is my other top pick for the wine enthusiast. Like Ridge, there are amazing views to be had here, and there are also great wines, albeit Pinot, Chardonnay, and dare I say it Nebbiolo based. In some ways, these wines are perhaps more typical and representative of the region, with several small vineyards carefully carved from the mountainous estate that each produce distinct wines—thanks to winemaking that seems intent on letting the land speak. Again, you’ll have to wait a few days for a full report on the wines, but they simply should not be missed.
More Santa Cruz Tasting
One of the great things about visiting Santa Cruz is the number of tasting rooms right in town. While I love visiting the vineyards, sometimes it’s just easier to walk around from tasting room to tasting room, sampling many wines from a region.
My two favorite stops on this trip were local winery tasting rooms. The first shares a parking lot with several other wineries.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards
SCMV is one of the historic wineries in the region, and while they have undergone several significant changes of late, they are still making wines that capture the spirit of the region. Be forewarned, these are not your average California wines; they are complex, even if that means they are sometimes earthy or herbal. They are also structured for aging, making them tough in their youth at times. But in the end they are really fascinating wines—engaging, compelling and worth spending time with.
Storrs is a happy tasting room; the wines are happy and the staff is laid back and welcoming. With wines from both the local AVA as well as other well-known vineyards, this is not as purely a Santa Cruz experience (as one might find at some other tasting rooms) but the wines make for a worthy visit. They can be somewhat large-scaled at times, but they are filled with bright fruit—both SCMV and Storrs make great Santa Cruz Petite Sirahs that were standouts of my tastings. It’s worth buying a bottle of each and finding someplace to chill out and barbecue in true Santa Cruz style.
Santa Cruz Culture
While the eastern side of the AVA might be dominated by Silicon Valley and rugged pioneers, nothing says Santa Cruz like the laid back (can I say it?) hippie atmosphere of the place. In season, this seaside resort town is a day’s worth of fun, with an amusement park and dining on the pier. But there is more than meets the eye. The heart of town, somewhat removed from the shoreline, is a delightful place full of cafés and restaurants, well worth an hour or two to take it all in. Make sure to stop into Zoccoli’s Delicatessen, a Santa Cruz institution and the place to grab great sandwiches for the road—or to eat under an umbrella at a sidewalk table!