Santa Cruz Wine Tasting Trip

Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Cruz wine country

Last week Aubrey and I left for our second Palate Club road trip to Santa Cruz. I was considerably more excited for our trip to Santa Cruz than I was for our first trip to Lake County. Santa Cruz doesn’t have a lot of wineries that are household names. However, the iconic Ridge and Bonny Doon both call Santa Cruz home. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed by any of the wineries (or wines for that matter) we tried on our trip. Unfortunately, our time was limited and we had to be back in San Francisco that evening. Our drive to Santa Cruz was short and sweet with winding roads and a beautiful view of the ocean. As we rolled into town, I was reminded of why I loved Santa Cruz. It had been years since my last visit, but the relaxed and vibrant beach town was unchanged.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards

Our first destination, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, was just a few miles from the beach on the edge of downtown. Jeff, the winemaker, guided us through our wine tasting experience. All the Santa Cruz Mountain Wines were delicious. The single vineyard Grenache Blanc and Petite Sirah were my favorite wines. Santa Cruz Mountain Winery also produces another label called Quinta Cruz, which was equally impressive. The name ‘Quinta Cruz’ comes from quinta, the name for an estate or house in Spanish and Portuguese. In such, this Santa Cruz winery only makes wines with Spanish and Portuguese varieties. In reflecting on the climate and geography of Portugal from my wine studies, I understood why these grape varieties make sense in Santa Cruz.

The Tempranillo was well balanced and earthy with tart acidity, red fruits, green herbs, mocha and an elegant finish. While the Sousao (also known as Vinhao) was an instant favorite. The Sousao grape varietal originated in the Minho region of Portugal. Plus, it’s found all over Spain. This isn’t a grape you see varietally bottled often, but it was special. For wine lovers like myself, who enjoy savory, earthy, meaty, umami wines, this wine will strike a chord. Sousao is yet another example of a new and unusual wine which finds an ideal home in a well thought out California vineyard site.

Standout Dessert Wine in Santa Cruz

At the end of our tasting Jeff offered dessert wine. So, we had a splash. Normally when it comes to dessert wines, Aubrey and I say no for two reasons. First, we aren’t buying dessert wines yet. Secondly, there are just not that many great California dessert wines. However, the Quinta Cruz “Port Style” wine was spot on. Quinta Cruz uses the correct grape varietal (Touriga Nacional) and uses their own house brandy, Osocalis. This is how you make great fortified wine. Yum!

Bonny Doon Vineyard

Bonny Doon Vineyard was our next stop. Their tasting room is a quirky place and I laughed out loud at the alien and UFO memorabilia strewn around the shelves of wine bottles. There was even a photo booth for guests, complete with a spaceship and laser-eyed cats. Their wine maker Randall Graham has a sense of humor and even better winemaking sensibility.

Bonny Doon originated from Randall’s love of Burgundy and originally focused on Pinot Noir. Yet he transitioned to Rhône style wines when upon realizing the Mediterranean climate of the Central Coast had a natural proclivity to cultivating grapes like Syrah and Grenache. Their flagship wine, “Le Cigare Volante” comes in both white and red. It’s an homage to the blends of Châteneauf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône Valley. WGrenache Blanc and Grenache dominate the blends and both wines are excellent in quality.

I also quite enjoyed the Picpoul with its waxy, honey and melon notes. We thanked the tasting room manager, took advantage of the photo booth, and departed.

Santa Cruz Mountain AVA

Next, we headed to ridge Vineyards Monte Bello. As we drove up the steep winding road to the winery, I realized exactly how high the vineyards are. Santa Cruz Mountain is a stand out appellation, or AVA. In fact, it was the first AVA to be defined by elevation. This means the grapes of the appellation wines MUST grow above a certain height. The elevation of this AVA is complicated (Aubrey and I even had a little argument about it) because it is defined by the fog line.

On the west side of the mountain the grapes grow at 400 feet above sea level. Whereas on the east side of the mountain, they must grow at 800 feet above sea level with the maximum elevation for plantings in the AVA at 2600 feet. Ridge’s stunning estate is situated around 2000 feet elevation and the view is incredible. I stood on the edge of a vineyard to the fog ebb and flow a thousand feet below me.

Ridge Monte Bello Tasting

Aubrey and I arrived a few minutes too late for our tour and went straight to the tasting room. Our tour guide walked us through the history of Ridge Montebello as we sampled wines. Ridge was previously called Perrone Vineyards and was Paul Draper’s winemaking project in the U.S. A few years prior, I met Paul at a wine dinner. Even in his seventies, Paul exudes a tremendous energy and passion. His tenure at Ridge Monte Bello started in 1969 and he is considered a pioneer of California wine.

We tasted through Ridge’s current selections. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was drinking beautifully with supple red fruits, earth and a kiss of oak spice. A group next to us requested a back vintage tasting and our tour guide kindly poured us a few splashes. We really enjoyed the 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was drinking better than the 2005 with a more balanced structure, but both showed great potential for further aging.

Ser Winery Tasting Room

Finally, Ser Winery Tasting Room in Saratoga was our last stop. Two of the other wineries Aubrey and I tasted at highly recommended this winery. Nicole, the winemaker, also makes wine for Bonny Doon. Ser, literally means “to be” in Spanish and the premise behind this name is to let the wine be as it is. Moreover, wine is best when it finds its own intrinsic quality and expression from an original site.

Ser sources a majority of their grapes from Santa Cruz and other Central Coast Vineyards. They specialize in unique varietals and also have some stellar single vineyard Pinot Noir. A little-known Bordeaux varietal called Cabernet Pfeffer is one of the shining stars of their collection.

The Cabernet Pfeffer comes from a small dry-farmed vineyard with 90-year-old own-rooted vines. Own rooted vines are hard to come by due to a root louse called phylloxera. Phylloxera attacks the roots of the Vitis Vinifera grapevine and either stunts the vine’s growth or kills the vine completely. Most of the world’s vines are Vitis Vinerfera vines grafted on to rootstocks from another variety of disease resistant vine. In conclusion, finding a parcel of vineyard that is 90 years old and own-rooted means someone took time to carefully select the vineyard site or maintained it meticulously. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed the consideration that went into creating these wines.

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