Where do "world-class" and "wacky" both apply to the local wines? In the Santa Cruz Mountains, where less-traveled roads lead to passionate producers, spectacular scenery, and delicious vintages.
Bonny Doon vineyard's Randall Grahm makes some superb wines, including an internationally acclaimed Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style red concocted from grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsault. He has also made wine with fruit, wine with honey, and right now he's experimenting with rocks in wine—an intuitive stab at added complexity.
The Santa Cruz Mountains' biggest and arguably most innovative wine producer wouldn't let a little thing like losing all his grapes (disease wiped out his 28 acres in 1994) cramp his signature style. So although the 200,000 cases scheduled for distribution last year were made from grapes imported from outside the region, the fruit still received what Grahm insists is a distinctively local stamp. "There's a long tradition of eccentricity here," he says. "People with vision who've pursued their own path. At Bonny Doon, our winemaking is pretty eclectic and we take chances. We work with varieties that are unpopular or unknown. There's no question whether I could do what I do in the Napa Valley—I think they would run me out of town on a rail."
"Eclectic" applies not just to Bonny Doon but to the entire Santa Cruz Mountains, designated an American Viticultural Area in 1981. The region is a bit of a puzzle. Making sense of it involves journeying into the sublime (some of the wines), the mystifying (but where are they?), and the absurd (fine wines made with no locally grown grapes yet infused with Santa Cruz Mountains spirit). Add the peculiar fact that many of the popular guides to California wine country make no mention of this area, and you begin to see why the Santa Cruz mountain roads are less traveled.
The wine-producing history of the region dates back to the 1860s—a time when some of California's best wines came from the region's east-facing slopes, called the Chaîne d'Or (chain of gold). But as happened throughout the state, Prohibition wiped out the burgeoning wine industry for years. Wine began to flow again in the 1940s, and currently the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers' Association boasts 48 member wineries. Most are small, family-owned operations, many of them making wines that could be described as intense, individualistic, and risk taking, which sometimes adds up to international caliber vintages. "The Santa Cruz Mountains are a magical and complex district with a wonderful history," says Bruce Cass, editor of The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America. "Quality can be, and has frequently been in the past, magnificent."
Though chardonnay accounts for about a third of the acreage and the area is best known for its pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, nearly two dozen grape varieties are cultivated, mainly on rugged hillside plots. A minuscule 1,000 acres are under grapes, so most winemakers (like Grahm) make at least some of their wines from fruit grown outside the appellation.
To spend time here is to be awestruck by scenic twisting roads that climb up and up through redwood forests to lofty winery sites. Traveling, for example, from David Bruce Winery toward Skyline Boulevard en route to Saratoga's Cooper-Garrod Vineyards means driving in dappled shade at not much more than a snail's pace along a narrow road. Similarly, the lane shrinks to one track with hairpin bends when you climb on Montebello Road to Ridge Vineyards. Expect further delays if you meet a confused squirrel trying to decide why he started to cross the road in the first place.
Many of the wineries that are regularly open to visitors welcome picnickers keen to enjoy the ambience and the views. And if you stop at Big Basin or Castle Rock State Park, you can also work in a good hike. At times, traveling through these mountains feels like an alpine journey, which makes it difficult to believe that the rugged grape-growing pockets are generally 10 to 45 minutes from quintessential Santa Cruz with its surfers, boardwalk, and wharf. But the coast and the vines never meet—the viticultural area excludes elevations below 400 feet.
The altitude is evident at Ridge Vineyards, high above Cupertino, with sweeping views east across a Lego-scale Santa Clara Valley to Mount Hamilton. Ridge gained notice in 2000 when its winemaker, Paul Draper, followed in the footsteps of Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff to become the third Californian ever named Man of the Year by the British wine magazine Decanter. And it's obvious, both in Draper's classic estate Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon and his descriptions of local territory, that he knows his craft.
"Geographically, the Santa Cruz Mountains really begin on Nob Hill and Russian Hill in San Francisco," he explains. "But since you can't grow grapes in such a cool place, our appellation starts just south of Highway 92. The altitude [as high as 2,700 feet] places most of the vineyards above the summer fog level so that, with California's long, benign fall weather, the fruit ripens fully—but at lower alcohol levels than in warmer climates like the Napa Valley. The 400-foot minimum elevation excludes the deeper, richer soils. The result is that our yields are generally among the lowest in California and consequently the wines tend to be more intense."
Vivid flavor stands out at David Bruce Winery, a meandering ride up Bear Creek Road off Highway 17. The winery established itself producing chardonnay but, according to Ken Foster (cowinemaker with Tony Craig), is expanding to "a highly structured pinot noir with a lot of fruit intensity, a lot of background spice flavor." Foster echoes Draper's analysis of local growing conditions, saying, "The soils are lean. The vines tend not to produce much fruit and this has an effect on flavor."
Wide temperature swings and rocky, steep terrain make the Santa Cruz Mountains all about specific and very focused sites. Pockets of soil even within the same vineyard can be quite different from one another. "The inland side of the summit is going to be warmer than the west side," Foster says. "So you will find more cabernet planted on the eastern slopes and more pinot noir and chardonnay on the sea side."
Haphazard geography also governs a visitor's experience. The appellation has no clearly marked wine routes, so any tasting trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains includes plotting, planning, consulting maps, figuring out a personalized itinerary, and timing stops to fit in with sometimes limited tasting hours. Alternatively, on four Passport Saturdays during the year, the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers' Association will issue a $20 "passport" along with directions for a self-guided tour to taste wines from 24 participating wineries, many of which are normally closed to the public. Each time you visit a different winery, your passport is stamped. When the passport is full, you get a prize. "But the doing is the pleasure—not getting it done," stresses June Smith of Roudon-Smith Winery in Scotts Valley where, on Passport Saturdays, you can taste Roudon-Smith's distinctive chardonnay as well as wines from Pelican Ranch Winery and Vinh-Rebhahn Vineyards.
Not all wineries pour "at home," so Passport Saturdays double up as a way to get to know places such as the Historic Sand Rock Farm, a gracious 1910 home in a rural setting near Aptos. Lynn Sheehan, a former San Francisco chef who made her name at restaurants such as Rubicon and Mecca, has transformed the property into a country-style bed-and-breakfast worth a stay anytime. On Passport Saturdays, the inn offers tastings of local wines, including Trout Gulch, David Bruce, and Burrell School Vineyards.
And the passport experience can introduce you to new wineries—for example, Vann and Christine Slatter's Hunter Hill, the vino novello of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Two panoramic miles up Glen Haven Road from the antique shops of Soquel, the property has been in Christine's family for more than a century. Production is a family affair with sons, daughters-in-law, five grandkids, and Christine's mother all turning up to help. The Slatters are growing merlot, syrah, zinfandel, and pinot noir—which ferment in their cellar barrels to the strains of classical music.
Such mingling of culture and viticulture is also a tenet at Grahm's Bonny Doon, where several of the wine bottles sport works of art in the form of fabulously wacky labels by artist Ralph Steadman. (Remember the illustrations in Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?) Steadman's images deliver a statement that could easily be applied to the entire Santa Cruz Mountains region: "We don't take ourselves so seriously here," Grahm says.
This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.