From the time I put out my recommendations for great wineries to visit in Napa last year, I’ve known that people love to learn more about the tasting rooms and vineyards they should visit to maximize their wine-tasting trips. Because I know how hard it is to narrow down the many choices available in California, I decided to do a few more installations of my recommendations and focus on different areas of the wine country. In this edition, we’ll go into the Santa Cruz mountains! Though this area is not as well-known as Napa or Sonoma, there are some truly great wineries here that I hope you’ll take the time to visit.
Like most wineries, those in the Santa Cruz mountains are often unable to accommodate large parties even with prior notice. My recommendations are for parties of four, but I still encourage you to call ahead and check the winery’s website before showing up just to make sure they are open and that you don’t need to reserve time to taste their wines.
I also want to point out that you should keep in mind who you’re going with (a trip with those who are just starting to learn about wine is much different than one with seasoned veterans!) and what you want to get out of your trip before you make your selections. To help you out, I’ve grouped my recommendations based on the goal you’re trying to accomplish with your visit. Ready to head into the Santa Cruz mountains with me? Here we go!
I want a good winery for beginners
Recommendations: Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard; Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery; Big Basin Vineyards
Beginners always do well with wineries that focus on pairing wine with food, and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard does a great job of this. They make their wines with moderate alcohol and oak so they pair well with many types of foods and will be easily approached by those who have not yet developed a distinct palate. This winery has been around for over 30 years but didn’t open a tasting room until 2008. Close to other tasting rooms and the Natural Bridges State Park, your party will have plenty to do nearby after your tasting is over.
Winemakers with big personalities are always popular with beginners, and Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery has one of the best! Richard Alfaro is intense, energetic, and passionate and his family-centered winery is always a big hit. Start out with the “A” wines that include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the unique Pinot Noir Rose – a perfect blend for those who love whites but are trying their hand at mild reds.
Historic sites are another win for those who may burn out early on tastings and want other activities. Big Basin Vineyards was founded on one of these sites in 1998 next to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Beautiful and serene, this is a great place for hiking and biking enthusiasts as they can get in their exercise and then stop by the winery’s scenic patio for a tasting of Pinot Noir or Syrah.
I want a spectacular view
Recommendations: Cinnabar Winery; Storrs Winery; Beauregard Winery
Located in the historic Saratoga village, Cinnabar Winery is situated under a gorgeous stretch of the Santa Cruz mountains that provides the ideal backdrop for relaxing and wine-tasting. They have a patio and deck that are perfect to soak up the sun while you sample this winery’s limited production wines – some of which are only available in their tasting room. With a fun staff always ready to educate guests about wine, your party will no doubt have a wonderful experience.
Storrs Winery is definitely at the top of my list in multiple categories! This small artisan winery could also be classified as a hidden gem, but I put it in this category because of the pretty scenery and the funky vibe that just makes it a cool place to visit. In a former mill district, the tasting room at Storrs is very unassuming, letting the beauty of the natural surroundings and the taste of the high-quality wines take center stage! Their Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot and Chardonnays are excellent, and they also make an old vine Grenache and Petite Sirah that are quite good.
Looking for one of the most unique tasting experiences in the mountains? Then you have to visit the breathtaking vistas that are a part of Beauregard Vineyard. Located in the coastal redwood community of Bonny Doon, this winery boasts 65 acres of estate vines, amazing grounds, and a historic tasting room. Your party can relax and taste Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels under redwood trees while listening to the soothing sounds of a nearby babbling mountain creek.
I want the hidden gems
Recommendations: Neely Wine; Testarossa; MJA Vineyards
For those who are interested in sustainability, Neely Wine provides an insider’s look into the careful cultivation process that produces superior wines while still protecting the natural inhabitants of the land. Their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are juicy and flavorful and it’s important to note that this winery is entering a new era with innovative winemaker Shalini Sekhar joining the team in 2015. You can expect lots of great things from this winery in the coming years!
If tasting world-class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays is on your list, Testarossa should definitely be on your radar. Blending centuries-old techniques with new technology, Testarossa has produced more than 1,000 different wines that have earned 90+ points. Now that’s impressive! You can taste these wines in their main tasting room, or upgrade to club membership to taste them in the winery’s historic cellars.
MJA Vineyards is another destination that produces award-winning wines. You’ll especially want to try out their Pinot Noirs from grapes in the mountains as well as their Cabernets from their grapes in Napa. Those Cabernets are Napa-quality but offered at Santa Cruz prices, a great deal for those who enjoy bold reds. You can also taste their Sauvignon Blancs, dessert wines and Bordeaux blends for a well-rounded tasting experience.
I want to impress
Recommendations: Mount Eden Vineyards; Ridge Vineyards; Thomas Fogarty Wines & Vineyards
Want to drink the wine of royalty? Then you need to bring your party to Mount Eden Vineyards, makers of the Pinot Noir that was poured at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Even if your party isn’t interested in sampling the same wine as the royal family, they’ll still be impressed by this small historic wine estate that overlooks Silicon Valley. One of the original boutique California wine properties, the winery produces small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that boast the longest lineage in California.
Ridge Vineyards relies on nature and tradition rather than technology and their straightforward approach to winemaking will impress the traditionalists in your group. Their process is simple: find the most intense, flavorful grapes and then intrude on the process only as much as absolutely necessary. Nestled up in the northern reaches of the mountains, this winery offers their guest an exceptional opportunity to experience Zinfandels, Chardonnays and assorted other wonderful single-vineyard wines.
Quality over quantity is the philosophy of the Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards. When Thomas Fogarty Sr. bought his estate, decided that he would only develop 30 acres of the vineyard, leaving the rest of his 360 acres to remain an open space preserve. The staff hand-farms and raises these wines and the result is small production and very high quality. Their passion truly comes through with every sip.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my Santa Cruz recommendations and I know you won’t be disappointed by visits to any of these impressive wineries. If you do decide to make a trip, please tell them that Angie An recommended them! Until next time, drink safely and enjoy! Cheers.