The Santa Cruz mountains may not have the mystique and popularity of Napa Valley or Sonoma, but the unique ocean/mountain climate here produces some great wines without the fuss and crowds that you can find elsewhere.
And, of course, getting there is half the fun. We loved breathing in the 79-degree mountain air with scents of pine, as we navigated the endless wild twists and hairpin turns up the mountain roads.
There are more than 70 wineries in the region, most family-run small-to-medium operations. In our short time here we were able to hit four of them while driving by several more.
First on our self-guided tour was Testarossa. This is the oldest continuously running winery in the Santa Cruz mountains and the Bay Area. The property used to belong to Jesuit monks who still live nearby but no longer do the wine work. The ambiance still reflects this influence with a higher-end feel. Tasting fee was $10 and the 2006 reserve Pinot Noir was the best, though none of the 5 pours were sources from grapes on the estate.
Next up was Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyard, which had more the feel of an old fashioned dude ranch. Half of the property is a horse stable, so we saw kids breaking young horses, doing stunts on bareback, and walking horses all around. Inside the main cabin was the tasting room. For $5 each we got 5 pours, mostly estate grapes. They had Chardonnay and Pinot and Cabernet Franc, which was the best.
The next day we went to Savannah-Chenelle Vineyards, which has one of the most beautiful properties of any winery. Romantic and rustic, the wine tasting included estate and non-estate grapes, including an unusual un-oaked Chardonnay, which was nice and fruity. But the Pinot Noir was delicious — even for me, since I usually prefer the drier Cab. The property is sprawling with a Villa on top of a hill, clearly marked varietals of grapes on the hillsides and areas for a quiet picnic. Views of the mountains and valley below are fantastic. Tasting fee was $10 for six good-size pours.
Finally, the best for last…the Mountain Winery is not only a vineyard but also a quaint outdoor amphitheater where we saw (and met backstage) the Barenaked Ladies, and also Blues Traveler. Perched high on a mountaintop, breathtaking views of the Bay Area from San Fran to San Jose made it easy to see why the locals were “tailgating” in the parking lot with actual crystal glasses, vintage wines, olive trays and cheese boards. Truly a unique sight to behold. And the locally sourced Cabernet reserve capped off a great experience.
So next time you’re seeking out wine country, don’t overlook the Santa Cruz mountains. They don’t produce large quantities here, but the rich flavors make this area unique.