Given that we’re based just a stone’s throw south of San Francisco, people typically think that the closest wine regions to us are Napa Valley and Sonoma. While that might be right on some level, the Santa Cruz Mountains are certainly closer as the crow flies and when you count some of their tasting rooms at the foot of the mountains, we have easier access to these wines than any others.
Given that proximity and the lack of understanding about the Santa Cruz Mountain wine region, we thought this short guide would be helpful for our readers.
Let’s start at the beginning. The Santa Cruz Mountains, not unexpectedly is located on the coast, just outside of the beautiful college town of Santa Cruz. It has a couple of advantages when it comes to growing grapes. First, it is a warmer section of the northern California coast than most. In fact, depending on who you ask, some growers do consider Santa Cruz more Central Coast, than North Coast. Secondly, their location gives them unprecedented access to the city of San Francisco and the city of San Jose. For a year my wife and I lived in the city of Half Moon Bay, a short 40 mile jaunt up the coast from Santa Cruz and during the picking months of September through November, we frequently saw trucks carrying grapes from the Santa Cruz Mountains cross almost in front of our home. Of course, those grapes were headed elsewhere, but it speaks to the marketing potential of this wine region because within an hour you could have wine sitting in any number of tech companies in Silicon Valley, or at any home of the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula, one of the most exclusive in the country.
When wine lovers first learn about the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA, they learn about two wineries.
First, they learn about Ridge. For good reason. Ridge is an institution both in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but also within the California wine scene. Back in the 1970’s when California pushed its way into the wine elite, Ridge was there for the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976. In fact Ridge finished 5th of the 10 wines which were included in the competition for their Monte Bello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which sits along their tasting room high in the Santa Cruz Mountain mountains. When most wine drinkers hear about the Judgment of Paris, they hear about how Napa Valley defeated Bordeaux. The story is a bit more complicated though, the Monte Bello Vineyard is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, that’s part of the story that is conveniently left out, it was a wide swatch of California wine growing regions which were considered at least the equal to Bordeaux, not only the ultra exclusive Napa Valley vineyards that we all see in wine stores across the world on a daily basis. More recently Ridge has expanded and now crafts a full range of wines, but the Monte Bello is still their most sought after offering. It offers an interesting combination of depth and in fact some finesse, which we don’t often see with other mountain fruit.
Secondly wine drinkers hear about the cult Pinot Noir producer Rhys. It’s quickly becoming the most sought after Pinot Noir producer in the new world and really is among the only Pinot producers in California that can realistically say there is a waiting list to receive its wines. Owned by venture capitalist Ken Harvey, who has been featured prominently on Forbes Midas List for close to a decade (that’s a Forbes list of folks able to take new companies to IPO and have them perform well)
Two Other World Class Wineries That Should Receive More Attention:
Mount Eden: In the 3+ years we’ve been in business, I don’t think we’ve ever run into an estate which had the same winemaker in place since the early 1980’s. Mount Eden has experienced unprecedented growth under the winemaking of Jeffrey Patterson. The Pinot Noir estate vineyard goes back even further, all the way to 1945. Mount Eden is perhaps the pantheon of the non interventionist Pinot Noir in America, natural yeast, open top fermentation in a true Bugundian style. The results are both dramatic as well as surprising given what we’ve all heard about how different wine from California is from France. Perhaps winemaker choices and vineyard select deserve more mention than some of the innate differences of the fruit, after all most people describe these as old world wines at first taste.
Sonnet: Admittedly one of my favorite producers, Sonnet Wine Cellars is known as a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer, but they also make a range of cool climate Syrah and Bordeaux blends. At this point, I’m sure there is much left to say about Sonnet and the quality of the Pinot being produced by the estate that hasn’t already been said. These are cool climate, racy and intense Pinot Noir’s that would be truly at home among the top Burgundian producers, although the difference in price points might make you blush.
What’s Old is New Again:
One of the common threads that you see in California wine are wineries which have existed since the 19th century, but only recently were purchased and rehabilitated by new ownership groups. That’s an interesting juxtaposition in that you have wineries inexorability linked to the land for well over a century, but under new and motivated ownership.
Hallcrest Vineyards: With a family history dating to the 19th century and an onsite wine history dating to the mid 1940’s, Hallcrest is one of the more historic vineyards in California. That being said, the current owner (John Schumacher) bought the site in the late 1980’s and it was only then that the estate was given the respect and attention that it needs and deserves. The results are a range of wines including Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel and more. Among the youngest people to ever open their own winery, Schumacher has brought plenty of modern winemaking and frankly, modern marketing to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Always a big winner in terms of wine competition medals, it seems only a matter of time before Hallcrest takes its place among the more respected names in mountain wine.
Heart O’ The Mountain: Established by Pierre Conwell in 1881, the estate was revived after being purchased by Bob and Judy Bassfield in the late 1970’s. Stop us, if any of this sounds familiar. The results are an impressive Pinot Noir house. When I say they focus on Pinot Noir, I mean that completely. All they grow are Pinot grapes, which gives them a plethora of choices for varietal specific Pinot Noir, in addition to a Rose which always comes highly recommended. If you’re someone who enjoys Pinot and is willing to test your palate, Heart O’ The Mountain is a virtual must visit. You’ll be able to try and distinguish individual clones of Pinot Noir from each other or try and judge the differences from one vineyard block to another. It’s a fun process for most wine lovers and one which Heart O’ The Mountain is uniquely suited to provide. Plus, the Pinot Noir is good and fairly priced for the quality.
Sometimes You’re Simply New:
La Honda: We originally ran into their vineyard, certainly by mistake. Most parent’s have seen the scene, a 1 year old with an ear infection unwilling or unable to fall asleep for nap. Enter the car, a guaranteed fix. What I ran into while driving my son was a group of vines outside of the town of Woodside high among the Santa Cruz Mountains. It turns out those vines are used to produce the wine for La Honda, an urban warehouse winery based in Redwood City (about 5 miles up the road from Palo Alto and Stanford University). Personally, I find La Honda to be interesting largely due to their Exponent Red wine blend. It’s a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese blend that simply isn’t made anywhere else. It’s complex to be sure, but there is a level of finesse that comes from the grapes place and the use of the Sangiovese, one of the lightest red wine grapes available. Multiple 90+ point scores from major wine critics have put La Honda and their winemaker Colin McNany on the wine map. As far as urban warehouse wineries go, this is still a unique project given its location and the relative ease it is likely see in marketing to Silicon Valley, which seems to be a bit of home base for the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries.
Loma Prieta: Loma Prieta is worthy of a mention here for a few reasons. To start, the winery boasts one of the most ridiculously gorgeous views that you’ll find anywhere. Looking out over the mountain to the ocean beyond is what many picture when they think of mountain wineries in California and it’s worth a trip to be sure. That being said, the wine produced at Loma Prieta is worthy of a mention as well. The winery does a really nice job at offering visitors a wide range of choices when it comes to the wines they produce. Few wineries in California attempt everything from a sparkling wine, through Bordeaux varietals, Rhone varietals and end at a Port styled dessert wine. They also make a Pinotage, which I especially like both in terms of its construction, but also their willingness to try something eclectic and unique for the Santa Cruz Mountains. That willingness to experiment I think says that they are going to continue to improve the quality of their wines over the coming years despite already being worth a visit the next time you’re in the area.
House Family Winery: Very rarely do we run into wineries that utilize 100% estate grapes any more. Bulk grapes and bulk wine are simply too cheap for most to turn away from. That’s where we have taken a liking to House Family Winery which sits high atop the eastern (and therefore warmer) ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains above the town of Saratoga. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are all grown on their estate vineyard and then falls into the more than capable hands of Jeffrey Patterson. We didn’t mention Mount Eden’s winemaker because we knew Patterson would show up later on, he’s making a bit of a name for himself as one of the go to winemakers for Santa Cruz Mountain wineries.