Santa Cruz Mountains, California, USA

Posted on 07-03-2017

Author: Christopher Sawyer

Date: 4/27/2015

Although it was one of the first appellations granted on the West Coast on December 4, 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains are still a land of mystery to most wine lovers. Located on the mountain range between Silicon Valley and San Jose in 
Although it was one of the first appellations granted on the West Coast on December 4, 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains are still a land of mystery to most wine lovers. Located on the mountain range between Silicon Valley and San Jose in the South Bay, and the coastal city of Santa Cruz, the region is known for its rugged landscape, dazzling rock formations, and dense forests. Because of these factors, the sparse vineyards are in many cases, hidden from view.
On the map, the appellation stretches from the coast city of Half Moon Bay in the north to Watsonville and Mount Madonna in the south. There are five dynamic sub-regions within those borders:
The highest point runs above the fog line along Skyline Blvd/Hwy 35 at the top of the mountain range. Often referred to as the “Chain d’Or” (Chain of Gold), this high-elevation area is known for shallow soils consisting of sandstone, shale, gravel and bedrock; warm daytime temperatures, moderate nighttime temperatures, and powerful maritime winds in the late afternoon. These conditions make it a fantastic area to grow premium Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a small amount of Rhone grape varieties.
The second zone is on the eastern side of the mountains, which start at an elevation of 800 feet, overlooking Stanford University, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay. Surrounded by various segments of dense shrubs and forest, the vineyards in this area are more protected from heavy winds by the mountains and receive plenty of heat thanks to the direct exposure of the sun rising in the east. At the western end of this region, some of the first Bordeaux varieties in California were planted at the La Questa Vineyard near the town of Woodside in the 1880s. Today, this tradition continues with an emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and special varietals planted by Ridge Vineyards, Mount Eden, Kathryn Kennedy and other top producers with special vineyards on the rugged slopes above the cities of Woodside, Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Los Gatos.
The third sub-region is on the western slopes with a patchwork of vineyards that face the Pacific Ocean above the charming city of Santa Cruz. At a minimum elevation of 400 feet or higher, most of these vineyards are surrounded by regional, state and national forests. Vine Hill, the first vineyard on the Santa Cruz Mountains, was planted in this zone by George Jarvis in the 1860s. Before phylloxera spread in the 1890s, there were over 1,500 acres of vineyards planted around the small towns of Felton, Ben Lomond, and Boulder Creek. Today there are less acres planted, but a stronger emphasis on Burgundian and Rhone-style wines.
At the western point of the appellation is Bonny Doon, an isolated area accessible from Felton or Highway 1. Although grapes have been grown in this area since the 1870s, its rebirth started when University of California professors began mapping out the great potential of growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes in this small coastal region during the 1960s. Winemaker Randall Graham and his father Alan followed this vision and started the original Bonny Doon winery in 1983. After vineyards in the region were devastated by Pierce’s Disease, Graham went on to make a name for his brand by working with Rhone and Italian varietals with fruit grown outside the appellation. But since the Beauregards purchased the property, the family has established a reputation for its brand by planting exciting new vineyards focused on Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Syrah in this cool-climate area.  
At the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the sub-region of Corralitas Valley is one the rising stars of the West Coast. Viticulturalist Prudy Foxx designed many of the vineyards planted in this region. Commonly called “the mother of the vine” by local purveyors, Foxx helped match the perfect rootstock and clones with the ideal soils and climate conditions, and revolutionized the use of canopy management in the region. On a daily basis, this special style of farming allows the growers in the valley to take advantage of the sun as well as the heavy amounts of wind and fog that come off the nearby Monterey Bay. As a result, there is a wide range of magnificent wines packed with complex flavors and vibrant acidity, made with Pinot Noir and other cool climate grape varieties grown in this special sub-region that is only a few miles away from the Pacific Ocean.
Grape Expectations
Whites: Chardonnay and smaller plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Reds: On the west side of the mountain, the focus is predominately Pinot Noir and a small amount of Rhone varieties; while the focus on the eastern side is more based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Bordeaux or Meritage blends, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Taste Sensations
White Wines: In general, the Chardonnays are very vibrant, bright, and showy. Notes of lemon curd, grapefruit, green apple, coconut, crème brulée, pie crust, roasted almonds are common in the lower elevation areas; while the fruit from higher elevation sites tend to be leaner and more acidic with lovely notes of peach, citrus, mineral, wet stone and brioche. The other white wines made with Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Riesling are best known for their floral aromas, fruit-driven flavors, and crisp, clean finishes.
Red Wines: The diversity of climate conditions, soils, sites and clones make the Pinot Noirs from the Santa Cruz Mountains dynamic in terms of flavors. Over the past decade, many of the producers have put a new emphasis on making more limited-release and single-vineyard designate wines. Some are also using wild yeast and fermenting with whole grape cluster to build up profiles with more ripe fruit flavors, structure, and lavish texture. As a result, the medium to full-bodied wines commonly feature lovely aromas of ripe red fruits, blood orange, earth and spice. The flavors are expansive, with notes of raspberry, plum, cherry cola, pomegranate, green tea, mountain herbs, cinnamon and clove. The more complex and sophisticated wines often have deeper body, lush texture, and flavors of licorice, blackberry, raspberry, cranberry, and great length on the finish.
On the eastern-facing slopes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends are elegant, stately and age worthy. Aromas of dark berries, leather, tobacco, mocha, fresh sage and clove; flavors of dark plum, blackberry, raspberry, red currant, cherry, dried cranberry, black olive, mineral and mountain herbs; firm tannins; and great depth on the palate. The Merlots are smooth and seductive, and offer nice texture to the blends. The Syrahs tend to be deeper, with meatier texture and notes of smoke, dark berries, blueberry, cassis, vanilla, cumin, and allspice. While the Zinfandels are typically more limited release wines with briary flavors of wild berries, chocolate dipped cherry, black pepper, and long spicy finishes.
Food Pairings
With the white wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains, try shellfish, grilled shrimp, spring rolls, Nicoise salad, Heirloom tomatoes, creamy cauliflower soup, fresh halibut, Schnitzel, chicken with fresh herbs, and roasted pork. For red wines, the lively complex flavors of Pinot Noir pair extremely well with kale caesar or wild rice salads, Ahi tuna tartare, grilled salmon, pulled pork sandwiches, pasta with wild mushrooms, tarragon chicken, duck confit, and skirt steak. The more complex flavors of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux-style blends are admirable matches with fine cheeses, grilled duck breast, Mu Shu pork, polenta with short rib ragu, and grilled steaks. The deep spicy notes of Syrah and Zinfandel are nice complements to rich and tangy soups, chow mien, gourmet burgers, chili, gamey meats, slow cooked stews and barbequed ribs. 

By Christopher Sawyer