The Santa Cruz Mountains overlook Silicon Valley. It is a region that is marked by its altitude and distinguished wines. The AVA produces some of California’s best wines, yet it is one of California’s hidden gems. A taste of their exciting Chardonnays, elegant Pinot Noirs and structured Cabernet Sauvignons leave you wondering why you are not drinking more wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is a region boasting varied and unique terroir with a passionate group of winemakers that produce only the highest quality wines.
One of California’s oldest growing wine regions, the Santa Cruz Mountains has been making wines since the 1870s. It is a region of intensity and elegance that is diverse and unique. It is the only appellation in California that produces world-class Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon all on a grand scale. This AVA is the first California appellation defined by its high-altitude vineyards and unique location at the convergence of coastal mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the San Francisco Bay
The wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains are captivating and delicious and the region has spectacular stories and history. Some of California’s most prestigious wine estates are located in this AVA which is scenic like a postcard. Small vineyards are surrounded by Redwood trees and native chaparral, growing atop an ancient seabed that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
From a latitude perspective, the region sits on the Mediterranean band. This means they have drenching hours of sunshine. You see that in the extraordinary pleasure and expression of the fruit flavors in the wines, yet due to their exposition between all the influences and elevation, they remain a cool climate region as Santa Cruz is above the fog line. These growing conditions give the wines a distinct regional identity, characterized by fresh flavors, bright fruit, and minerality. The wines have dry earth components with freshness and longevity that come from the soils.
Jeffrey Patterson, winemaker and co-owner at Mount Eden Vineyards says, “The wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains are typically lower in alcohol, and age extremely well. They have all the components to cellar the wines – structure, moderate ripeness and balance, that will give decades of pleasure in the cellar. They are wines of integrity and small production.”
Predominately a region that boasts no corporate ownership, most of the wineries are independent, family-owned, single vineyards where there is no conventional wisdom of other regions. Santa Cruz Mountains is a rural region defined by charming small towns and an independent spirit that welcomes those with a taste for the extraordinary.
I had the opportunity to taste 12 spectacular wines with some of the “Mavericks” of Santa Cruz Mountain. It was a unique experience to taste and discover the region’s elegant wines from small producers who specialize in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines share distinct aromas and flavor profiles derived from mineral-rich soils, elevated mountainside vineyards, and the cooling marine effect from nearby bays and the open ocean. What made this regional tasting memorable was the history and stories shared by the distinguished winemakers.
Chardonnays From The Santa Cruz Mountains
Rob & Recha Bergstrom launched their winery Sander & Hem in 2018 after being inspired by the deep history of pioneering viticulture in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In particular, they believe Chardonnay, above all other varieties, is able to capture the wide breadth of expressions and great heights possible from the rugged and geologically diverse sites with wildly varying microclimates of the region.
Rob Bergstrom started making wines from some great sites in the region and aims to make wines that highlight the site versus the winemakers. He aims to paint a mosaic of the Santa Cruz Mountains by producing wines from some of the most legendary sites in the region.
The Bruzzone Vineyard is a special site, located four miles from Santa Cruz, where it sits very close to the ocean. There is a brilliant fog over this site in the evenings, which burns off late in the mornings. The cool climate and marine influence of this terroir deliver a wine that has chalky, saline, citrus notes and lots of structure. The wine is full of life and energy with delicious tension and minerality. The Bruzzone Vineyard site is pushing the edge of its limits and creating very interesting results with this fantastic Chardonnay with great precision and structure.
Thomas Fogarty Winery was established in 1981. The vineyards were planted in 1978 by Thomas Fogarty and Michael Martella. They worked closely with other cool climate pioneers of the region like Paul Draper, Jeffrey Patterson and David Bruce. Today the Thomas Fogarty Winery is one of the most notable and celebrated estate wine producers in California.
Tom Fogarty, Jr says, “the location and vineyards play a huge role in the wine.” The Fogarty vineyards are dry farmed, and over the years the Langley Hill Chardonnay has increased in intensity and the phenolic components have become more pronounced. The site occupies a steep hillside, offering numerous exposures and soil depths. This complex arrangement leads to multiple picks spread over weeks.
The vineyard’s fractured sandstone over Lambert shale yields Chardonnay that is steely and structured with persistent citrus and mineral flavors. The wine has sunkissed California aromatics, but it has great texture and acidity on the palate. This is a standout Chardonnay, a wine that elevates the region.
Jeffery Patterson is an esteemed steward of the Santa Cruz Mountain wine region. Since 1981 Jeffrey Patterson has guided the winemaking and grape growing at Mount Eden. His emphasis is on wine growing rather than winemaking. His obsession is with gentleness and naturalness in the handling of the grapes and wines is his ongoing passion. Mount Eden Winery is recognized as one of the original “boutique” California winery properties, focusing on small lots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Jeffrey shares the historic story of Mount Eden Winery, starting with Paul Masson. Mount Eden was started in 1945 by founder Martin Ray, who learned his craft from Paul Masson. Paul Masson immigrated from Burgundy in 1878. In the early 1900s, Masson purchased 573 acres in Saratoga, California, which he named La Cresta. He set about to plant 60 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with cuttings from Burgundy, probably from the vineyards of his friend, Louis Latour. Paul proved to be a successful winemaker, but then prohibition stalled his business.
Martin Ray, who grew up near Masson’s property, often watched the vineyard workers tending the vines. Over time, he met Paul and a casual friendship grew. Paul had great affection for Martin, as he had no sons of his own, and allowed him to work in the cellar and learn the art of making fine wine. This was pivotal to Mount Eden’s evolution. Martin purchased the first parcel of the mountaintop, now the site of Mount Eden Vineyards, in 1943 and proceeded to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines with cuttings from Paul Masson’s La Cresta vineyard.
Martin Ray was a maverick in every sense: Small production, involvement in every aspect of wine growing, lofty prices, and lengthy dinner parties featuring his wines with the finest Burgundies available. He named his wine estate Martin Ray. Fast forward to the 1970s, Mount Eden was formed in 1972 and was acquired from Martin Ray, and today they are celebrating their 50th anniversary.
The 2018 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Chardonnay has longevity. It is all about the site, which is a windswept high elevation vineyard that sees the sun from daybreak to sunset. Mount Eden Chardonnay is magical, it is fresh, delicious and interesting. Jeffrey says, “the magic is not in the cellar, the magic comes from the vineyard’s site. The site is at a 2000 feet elevation with eroded shale soils, low yields, and no irrigation.” The old vines were planted by Jeffery in the ’80s and ’90s. Longevity is the main objectivity for Jeffrey, it is a mark of greatness, just like a Gand Cru Burgundy. There is an awesome structure in this wine. The wine is captivating and delicious and the winery has spectacular stories and history.
Pinor Noirs From The Santa Cruz Mountains
Pinot Noir is a difficult grape. It is hard in the vineyards but a dream in the cellars. It is a wine that is all about the vineyard site and the talent of the farmer. California Pinot Noirs can often be fruit bombs, but Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs are different, they are soil-based and are complex like old-world Pinots. They have low alcohol, good tension, bright acid and freshness, Jeffrey proudly says, “The beauty of being a Santa Cruz Mountain winemaker is the wines are different. They are not similar to any other region in California or the world, and I am very proud of that.”
Due to the soils in the vineyard, the Estate Pinot Noir is elegant. Its transparent style is more Burgundian than Californian, emphasizing wild strawberry, earth, blueberry and dill varietal characters. Cellaring the wine for five to twelve years will pay handsome rewards.
Jeff Brinkman is bringing a new generation of cool stories to the Santa Cruz Mountains. He brings a fresh perspective, stating that microclimate and distance from the ocean are important. Jeff reminds us, “In California, elevation is a proxy for shallow soils, meaning things planted in the valley are on alluvial soils by definition. If you want to find shallow soils on decomposed bedrock you have to go up in elevation.”
What you find in the Santa Cruz Mountains are marine sedimentary soils, shale, limestone, and sandstone, but what is interesting is that it changes over small distances. The Santa Cruz Mountains are about the micro terroir. Rhys vineyards have been carefully selected to highlight the unique conditions found in these geologically diverse mountains. Each of their six sites is located on unique and completely different geology.
The wines produced at Horseshoe Ranch are uniquely mineral-driven, precise and focused. Lots of savory herbs, black cherries, rocks and tobacco notes on the palate. The fine tannins are perfectly focused. The wine offers an almost palpable tension that greatly rewards aging.
Dave Gollnick is the owner and farmer of Mindego Ridge. He is 100% focused on farming and takes his fruits to Saint Helena where Ehren Jordan makes the wines. Mindego Ridge is a small 10-acre Santa Cruz Mountain vineyard perched on a south-facing, shale-laced slope 8 miles from the Pacific.
At Mindego Ridge, their mission is to produce 100% estate-grown, single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that authentically express the marine-influenced mountain terroir that is Dave’s home. These cool climate wines are crafted in small lots with minimal intervention. The wine is fantastic, grippy and full-bodied with savory and earthy elements. Mindego Ridge Pinot Noir is an impressively delicious wine.
John Benedetti, owner/winemaker of Sante Arcangeli expresses that Chrysanthemum Pinot Noir is his year-long art project and is his homage to the people that host him at their winery facility. This esteemed Pinot Noir is made in the memory of Sumiko Haneta, the matriarch of the family that has given the winery facility a home. For more than 50 years, the winery building was a packing warehouse for ‘Mums grown with painstaking attention to detail by Sumiko’s daughter and son-in-law. John produces his Chrysanthemum Pinot Noir with the same attention to detail as Sumiko.
Made from Lester, Saveria, Split Rail and Dalardi vineyards, Chrysanthemum’s signature is that it sees extended sur lie aging, for 18 months total. The lees contribute to the texture and the mouthfeel, lending a creamy back note to the wine. It has nice red fruit characters, great texture and depth. John says this wine is a labor of love and he only makes seven barrels of this wine. So grab yours now.
Bradley Brown started the first estate vineyards in 2000 making handcrafted wines from ocean-influenced mountain vineyards. The wines are inspired by nature as he believes that each minimal-intervention bottling should emphatically and clearly express the characteristics of each vintage, vineyard and varietal.
They farm organically and practice minimal intervention winemaking to produce wines that transparently and authentically express site and variety. Bradley utilizes traditional tools like whole-cluster fermentation rather than relying upon modern additions like commercial yeasts, and the use of SO2 is extremely sparing.
The Old Corral Pinot is sourced from our Certified Organic Estate Vineyard. Three separate hillside blocks are used to produce this wine. Bright and expansive on the palate with fine-grained tannins and ample extract to carry the berry flavors long and with length. The purity of fruit is stunning.
Alfaro Vineyards are located south of Santa Cruz in Corralitos. Corralitos is on the southernmost part of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they sit about 3 miles from the ocean. This site was planted in 1999, situated on sandy loam and gravel, so water permeates through the soil pretty quickly so a deep root structure is needed in the area. Vineyards are south-facing slopes at 650 feet above sea level, with lots of lovely sunshine
The wine comes from the family estate vineyards and is deep ruby in color, medium-bodied with an explosion of fruit on the nose, chock-full of bright cherry, raspberry and spice flavors on the palate. The wine is extremely complex and well-balanced.
Cabernet Sauvignons From The Santa Cruz Mountains
Where most of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs are grown near the coast, the Cabernet Sauvignons are from the interiors of the appellations along the Santa Clara Valley grown mostly on high elevations where climate and soil have a significant impact.
Ridge Vineyard’s story goes back to the 19th century when it was Monte Bello Winery. John Olney, head winemaker at Ridge Vineyards describes the picturesque vineyards that are perched at the top of the mountain at 2600 feet elevation where the current winery remains today. The vineyards flourished throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s until prohibition came into play and subsequently most of the vineyards were abandoned.
In 1962 several Stamford students discovered the winery and started making wines. The vines were in disarray and so in the late ’70s the vines were being replanted and new plantings started to cover the mountain. During the replanting, they noticed varied differences in terroir and found at the very top of the Ridge, you could see the pacific, and if you look to the east you see Silicon Valley. At the top of the mountain, there is a microclimate, a coolness from the Pacific that acts like an air conditioner. The vineyards at the top are very cool and give more austere wines, and as you go down the mountain the wines are rounder with more generous fruit.
Today at Ridge Vineyards they make two primary reds from the Monte Bello Vineyards, an estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is produced from the lower mountain, yet it has great acidity and structure. One of the unique things about Santa Cruz Mountain is that it is an AVA that is defined by the mountains and so that dictates the types and quality of the wines. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is elegant with nice depth and complexity. Savory, with a mix of red fruit, cinnamon and mint. Its velvety texture and supple tannins make this wine extremely appealing.
Tommy Faugherty, owner of Lexington Wine Co. produces wines born from high-elevation mountain vineyards in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA. It is his goal to offer wines that are singularly distinctive and representative of the remote and beautiful land that they farm. Cabernet Sauvignon has amazing purity of fruit in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Lexington Gist Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied and expresses dark fruits, spice, sage and tobacco.
The vineyard site was densely planted in 2000 at elevations reaching 2400 feet above sea level, 17 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The heavily fractured, Vaqueros Sandstone soils and unique mountain micro-climate produce singular, deeply concentrated wines that demonstrate the power and elegance of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. The Gist Vineyard is farmed to organic principles with an emphasis on “Living Soils” and bio-diversity. deep dark fruit and rich fruit expression.
The wine is subtle and elegant, which you don’t find in other parts of California. A wine with vibrant fruit, energy, complexity, and depth.
Owner Ted Glennon came to Monterey in 2011 to open a restaurant called 1833 and later founded Vocal Vineyards in 2012. Vöcal is about the natural tension in the vineyard between grape and ground, the sun and rain, and the hand of man. Ted explains that each contribution is important.
The Bates Ranch Vineyards are influenced by Monterey Bay. A deep sea trench is a feature of the geological event that shaped the Salinas valley and the Santa Cruz Mtn Range, resulting in cold upwelling of water – fog and wind are abundant in a region statistically a desert due to low average rainfall. Wonderful conditions for agriculture in the flats of the valley floor, and brilliant for viticulture in the bench land and mountain sites of the coastal ranges; this is the voice behind Vöcal.
Bates Ranch is on the southwest extreme of the AVA. This Cabernet sees no new oak barrels because the vines are the 65-year-old vine. The idea behind Vocal wines is real transparency and focus on the site and purity of fruit. The wine expresses red and blue fruits and is very elegant, chiseled and spicy, a gorgeous Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has bright acidity and is strikingly elegant with its extra aging in the bottle. This is a very special Cabernet, Ted explains, “Old vine Cabernet Sauvignon is not something you hear about often, Cabernet after 20+ years have issues, and most farmers replant. so this is a unique wine. I don’t want to cover it up with wood.” Only 160 cases are produced a year, a special, rare and unique wine.
*** Photos Courtesy of Santa Cruz Mountain AVA ***