Winding into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you expect the towering redwoods and the misty ocean views. But wineries? It’s surprising but true: the Santa Cruz wine region boasts more than 70 wineries, producing a wide range of varietals from its mineral-y soils. One of the state’s first AVAs, the under-the-radar wine region is best known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Microclimates abound, with warm sunny days, nights brushed with fog, and almost everything in between.
Wine experts note that the rugged region practically forces character into wine. On the often-foggy slopes, the grapes ripen slowly. Marine air cools the vines at night, keeping acids intact (a good thing). Flavors mature in the grapes before sugar levels spike too high, allowing lower alcohol levels in the end. These are lively, interesting, arresting wines. Mountain soils here are often thin and stony, and this is a good thing too: Vines that struggle in poor soil produce fewer, better grapes, with more concentrated flavor.
A must-see example of the region’s remote, low-key wineries is Ridge Vineyards, perched on a steep slope on the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge first hit the wine scene with a flourish at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting (the subject of the 2008 film Bottle Shock); a Ridge Cabernet was ranked by the world's top tasters above some classic Bordeaux. Ridge wines are still considered top shelf. Bring a picnic, buy a bottle, and relax with a stellar view east across the Silicon Valley. Locate other vineyards and tasting rooms such a Lester Estate Wines, Beauregard Vineyards, and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard with this map, or seek out some of the spots recommended by locals.
In-town tasting options are another way to sample local wines. Stop by Storrs Winery, located in a former mill, to sample Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir, or Stockwell Cellars on the city’s west side, where the cavernous setting can also accommodate live music and a gallery for local artists. At Capitola’s Pelican Ranch, enjoys tastes of Burgundy- and Rhone-style varietals.