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Santa Cruz Mountains for wine lovers

Defined by the unique landscape that shapes the refined character of its wines, the Santa Cruz Mountains is considered one of California's top AVAs. Brooke Herron explores the region and the best places to eat, drink and explore.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established in 1981. It can be somewhat confusing as the area includes vineyards both inside and outside of Santa Cruz County and is uniquely defined by elevation and topography.

Breaking this region of remote and rugged mountains down into the simplest of terms, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA spans three counties – San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara – and encompasses approximately 130,000ha. It is comprised of six sub-regions: Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills (above Santa Cruz), Ben Lomond Mountain, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley, with the appellation following the fog line and extending down to 240m in the east to the San Francisco Bay and 120m to the west to Monterey Bay.

There are close to 300 vineyards spread out over just 526ha in the AVA, planted predominantly to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Santa Cruz AVA is one of the largest in California in terms of total area. While this means there are a small number of wineries spread out over a large region, most wineries are actually located within 25 minutes’ drive from Capitola. Nearby Corralitos is a great place for visitors to base themselves, due to its proximity to the coast, unique rural yet coastal feel, and eclectic mix of small, estate vineyards.

Santa Cruz Mountains map

Santa Cruz Mountains: A brief history

The grape-growing history of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains dates back to the early 1800s when Catholic missionaries first planted vineyards. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that commercial fine-wine production really took root, with a boom in the Californian wine industry causing a dramatic increase in both vineyard plantings and the number of vintners.

Among the pioneers who played a pivotal role in Santa Cruz Mountains were Paul Masson and Charles LeFranc, who planted some of the region’s first vineyards from cuttings they transported from Burgundy.

Local wineries collected a number of accolades and awards at national and international competitions before Prohibition in 1920 shut down production.

It was many decades before producers in Santa Cruz Mountains began planting quality varieties again, adopting modern winemaking practices with an eye towards regaining a reputation as one of California’s premier wine-growing areas.


Santa Cruz Mountains wineries to visit:

Mindego Ridge

Situated West of the San Andreas in the northwest corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, just 13km from the Pacific, Mindego Ridge sits at mountain elevation (more than 300m above sea level). An ‘if not now then when’ project for owners Stacy and Dave Gollnick, Mindego Ridge represents the dream they hoped to pursue ‘one day’, before deciding in 2008 (when land prices were the best they’d ever be), that one day should be sooner than later.

In 2013, Dave and Stacey partnered with renowned winemaker, Ehren Jordan, who works with the unique mountain site’s fruit to craft small-lot wines with minimal intervention and produce site-inspired Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Tastings at Mindego Ridge’s hilltop vineyard estate are available by reservation only, and are led by Dave or Stacy personally. If guests are interested – and Dave has the time – he may treat them to a ride through the vineyard.

Insider tip: There aren’t many restaurants in the immediate area, so it’s recommended to pick up lunch at a nearby market: Loma Mar, Robert’s Market (Woodside), Loma Mar market, or New Leaf Market (Half Moon Bay) depending on which direction you’re coming from.

  • Address: 9645 Alpine Rd, La Honda, CA
  • Open: Weekends, by reservation only, 10am-4pm.

Mount Eden

Perched 610m above the Santa Clara Valley on a mountain top, and accessed down an undeveloped 3km dirt road, Mount Eden offers gorgeous views of The Bay and Silicon Valley in an idyllic vine-draped setting reminiscent of a countryside French estate. The main building, where most customer tastings are hosted (outdoors on the wrap around patio) was built initially as the original owner/winemakers’ residence and was modelled after a Burgundian château. The building still serves as a residence to current winemaker Jeffrey Patterson.

Founded in 1943 by Martin Ray, perhaps the earliest and most fervent advocate for the Santa Cruz mountains as a fine wine producing region, Mount Eden is now helmed by Richard Patterson, who came on board as winemaker in the 1980s and is now a majority shareholder. His children assist him in the running of the estate, which only started accepting visitors in 2018.

Among other accomplishments that have set this historic winery apart over the decades, one of their most recent claims to fame is having one of the only New World wines (a Pinot Noir from their nearby Domaine Eden estate) purportedly served at the 2018 Royal Wedding reception of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Unlike other wineries in the area, Mount Eden currently only offers weekday tastings (by appointment), and is not open on weekends, though the winery recommends subscribing to their email list to get updates on when they will start taking weekend bookings again. Tastings are held primarily outdoors, on the lovely wraparound veranda.

  • Address: 22020 Mount Eden Rd, Saratoga, CA
  • Open: Monday through Friday by appointment only.

Nicholson Vineyards

Situated in the Corralitos foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Pleasant Valley just 1.5km west of the San Andreas fault line and 10 minutes’ drive from the coast, Nicholson Vineyards’ idyllic setting seems to perfectly fit the area’s name.

This boutique winery and farm, owned and operated by 11th generation Californians Marguerite and Brian Nicholsen, comprises only 10.6ha, with 1.6ha of planted vineyards and a little over 1ha planted with Tuscan olive trees. The winery makes only 2,000 cases of wine a year, using both their own grapes and fruit purchased from select vineyards in other regions.

The winery hosts outdoor tastings in their French bistro-style patio area overlooking vineyards and olive groves. Tasting flights offer white and red wine selections, including Nicholson Vineyards’ estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as a sample of the estate’s olive oil.

Reservations are highly recommended and available for a 90-minute tasting. The winery features local food trucks on Saturdays and live music on Sundays.

  • Address: 2800 Pleasant Valley Rd, Aptos, CA
  • Open: Saturdays 11am-5pm; Sundays 1pm-5pm by reservation.

Alfaro Family Vineyards

Founded by local restaurateur and bakery owner Richard Alfaro and his wife Mary Kay in 1997, Alfaro Family Vineyards is a former apple farm turned family-owned vineyard tucked into the hills south of Santa Cruz. The picturesque 30ha farm is planted with 23ha of hillside vineyards, many planted in rough, hard to reach, high elevation sites.

Like most wineries in the appellation, Alfaro focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but the winery also grows and produces Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Grüner Veltliner. In addition to their estate vineyards, Alfaro also works with Pinot Noir from renowned Santa Lucia Highland vineyard sites such as Rosella’s Vineyard.

Richard and his son Ryan are on site every day but are typically busy managing the vineyards and cellar, so they only open up the Alfaro tasting room on weekends.

  • Address: 420 Hames Road, Watsonville, CA
  • Open: Open for tastings Saturdays and Sundays, 12pm-5pm. Reservations are not required but are recommended. Open for drop-in sales daily if the gate is open or by appointment.

Lester Estate Wines at Deer Park Ranch

This sprawling, forested, 85ha mountain estate and ranch were purchased by Dan Lester and his wife Pat in 1995, with the intent of both building their dream ranch and home on the property as well as working to improve and preserve the natural beauty and biodiversity of the unique site.

The couple planted vineyards here in 1998 after realising the potential of the site for growing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. The estate focuses expressly on growing and making wines from a single plot of land. This is best exhibited in the three unique versions of their estate Pinot Noir, crafted by three different winemakers in an effort to truly express the potential of the site.

Most of Lester Estate’s wines are sold directly to their wine club members, but a limited quantity are available to guests who make reservations to visit the estate for a tasting and tour. Seated 75-minute tastings are offered outdoors and by reservation only for groups of between two and eight guests at the estate’s Tasting Barn.

  • Address: 2000 Pleasant Valley Rd, Aptos, CA
  • Open: Saturdays.

Sante Arcangeli Family Wines

Located Aptos Village, a burgeoning enclave of locally owned businesses and ‘makers’ in the centre of Aptos, Sante Archangeli is situated just across from the expansive New Leaf Community Market, a specialty grocery store focused on natural and local products, and alongside other newly opened winery tasting rooms that include cult favourite or boutique Santa Cruz wineries such as Ser and Armitage.

Owned and operated by winemaker and third generation Santa Cruz native John Benedetti, Sante Arcangeli Family Wines focuses on crafting balanced and site expressive Pinot Noir and Chardonnays sourced from mountain vineyards, with minimal intervention or use of new oak. Arcangeli’s Split Rail Pinot Noir, in particular, regularly receives critical praise.

  • Aptos address: 154 Aptos Village Way Unit C-1, Aptos, CA
  • Pescadero address: (at Harley Farms): 79 North St, Pescadero, CA 94060
  • Open: Fridays through Sundays, 12pm-5pm in Aptos and 11am-5pm in Pescadero. Reservations encouraged. To schedule in advance, email: tastingroom@santewinery.com

Santa Cruz Mountains: where to eat and drink

Vinocruz

Fine-dining meets casual wine bar. Vinocruz has the feel of a hidden gem that hasn’t yet been discovered. Featuring a cosy and quaint indoor dining space as well as an outdoor patio with heaters, this restaurant and wine bar boasts creative and tastefully presented tapas-sized plates that incorporate high quality local or seasonal ingredients as well as one of the most extensive selections of local wines in Aptos. They also offer a nice selection of flatbreads.

Their seasonal small plate menu includes items such as grass-fed bison meatballs or bison tartare, artisan beet and cheese pepita salad, catch-of-the-day fish tacos, salads incorporating fresh, locally grown produce.

  • Address: 4901 Soquel Dr, Soquel, CA
  • Open: 2pm-8pm Monday to Friday and 12pm-8pm Saturday and Sunday.

The View at Chaminade Resort and Spa

For those staying at The Chaminade, a resort and spa tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains just minutes from downtown Santa Cruz, The View offers alfresco dining on their expansive terrace or indoor dining with panoramic views of Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay. The menu includes a blend of seasonally focused dishes that incorporate as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, with classic comfort food too. The restaurant also offers an award winning Sunday brunch from 10am to 1.30pm on Sundays, and a farm-to-table dinner series featuring dishes made with locally sourced ingredients and local wines.

  • Address: One Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Open: Daily 7am-9pm

Cantine Winepub

An upscale local watering hole offering a grazing menu of small plates and an excellent selection of wines by the glass (international as well as local) and bottle as well as rotating wine and beer selections available on tap. The indoor seating area features chic boutique-style armchairs and small tables, with a handful of seats at the bar and a charming outdoor deck.

Expect friendly service, fun and unexpected special selections on tap, and a mostly local clientele.

  • Address: 8050 Soquel Dr, Aptos, CA
  • Open: 3pm-late Tuesday through Thursday; 2pm-late on Friday and Saturday; 2pm-10pm on Sundays.

Home

Housed in a charming old cottage with an expansive lawn and rear garden space with outdoor seating, Home is known for locally sourcing their meat (and doing their own head-to-tail butchery) and seafood as well as their commitment to sustainability. The restaurant, helmed by Chef and owner Brad Briske, is a local Aptos foodie favourite. Dishes are seasonally inspired and incorporate as many local ingredients as possible, including veggies from the restaurant’s own garden and farm fresh eggs from their chickens.  The wine list is extensive and features a large selection of local wines. Expect a warm welcome, fine dining level hospitality and service, and farm-to-table, fresh, flavourful dishes.

  • Address: 3101 N Main St, Soquel, CA 95073
  • Open: Thursday to Sunday 4pm-8pm

Cat and Cloud Coffee

For expertly crafted espresso beverages or single-origin coffee served by warm and professional staff, Cat and Cloud is a great choice.

With three locations in Eastside, Westside, and downtown Santa Cruz as well as nearby Aptos, this beloved local chain is always busy – in a pleasant way – with a mix of older patrons reading the paper, neighbourhood regulars accompanied by their dogs, surfers, and hipsters alike. A go-to spot for a much needed caffeine injection, Cat and Cloud also offers a small assortment of fresh baked goods and a limited menu including items like avocado toast or wholegrain oatmeal.

  • Address: 3600 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Open: 7am-3pm daily

Santa Cruz County: Things to do

Featuring both beaches and mountains, Santa Cruz County offers visitors a wealth of choice when it comes to planning the perfect trip itinerary.

From surfing and boogie boarding to kayaking on the bay or hiking one of the hundreds of trails encompassed within its 14 state parks, Santa Cruz has always been a mecca for outdoor lovers.

The region is also chock-full of local artisan food and craft beverage makers and free spirited artists, and therefore hosts an array of food, libation, and art focused festivals and events annually.

A few of Santa Cruz Mountain’s top attractions and highlighted annual events are the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, The Capitola Art and Wine festival, Wharf to Wharf Race, Big Basin State Park, Natural Bridges State Beach (for tidepooling), and Twin Lakes State Beach (for surfing or long walks on the beach).


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