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 (although it didn’t disappoint) Lake County. Santa Cruz doesn’t have a lot of wineries that are household names but it does have Ridge and Bonny Doon, both of which are iconic. The good news; I wasn’t disappointed by any of the wineries (or wines for that matter) that we tried on our trip. The bad news; our time was limited on time 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.
Our first destination, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards was just a few miles from the beach on the edge of down town. Aubrey and I met with the winemaker Jeff and settled in for a great tasting. All the Santa Cruz Mountain Wines were delicious. I loved the single vineyard Grenache Blanc and Petite Sirah the best. Santa Cruz Mountain Winery also produced another label called Quinta Cruz which I was equally impressed by The Quinta Cruz wines were named as such because Quinta is the Spanish and Portuguese name for an estate or house and all the wines were Spanish and Portuguese varieties. I reflected on my wine studies and when thinking about the climate and geography of Portugal, I understood why these grape varieties made sense in Santa Cruz. The Tempranillo was well balanced, earthy, with tart acid, red fruits, green herbs, mocha and an elegant finish and the Sousao (also known as Vinhao) was an instant favorite. For those of you who haven’t heard of the Sousao Grape varietal, it originated in the Minho region of Portugal and is found all over Spain. From my experience, this isn’t a grape that 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. This is yet another example of a new and unusual wine that finds an ideal home in a well thought out California Vineyard site. At the end of our tasting Jeff offered us dessert wine and we had a splash. Normally when it comes to dessert wines, Aubrey and I say no for two reasons; one, we aren’t buying dessert wines yet, and two, there just not that many great California dessert wines. The Quinta Cruz “Port Style” wine Jeff poured for us was spot on. The reason for this? 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.
Our next stop was Bonny Doon. Bonny Doon’s tasting room is a quirky place and I laughed (the sci-fi nerd in me was happy) out loud on seeing alien and UFO memorabilia strewn around the shelves of wine bottles. There was even a photobooth for guests, complete with a spaceship and lazer-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. When Randall realized the Mediterranean Climate of the Central Coast had a natural proclivity to cultivating grapes such as Syrah and Grenache he transcended to Rhone style wines. Their flagship wine, “Le Cigare Volante” comes in both white and red and is an homage to the blends of Chateneauf-de-Pape in Southern Rhone. With Grenache Blanc and (red) Grenache respectively being the dominant grape in the blend, 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 and took advantage of the photobooth and departed.
Ridge Monte Bello was our next stop and as we drove up the steep winding road to the winery I realized exactly how high the vineyards were. Santa Cruz Mountain is a stand out appellation, or AVA, in that it was the first AVA to be defined by elevation. This means the grapes of the elevation MUST be planted 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 can be grown at 400 feet above sea level and on the East side of the mountain they must be grown at 800 feet above sea level with the highest allowable 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 and watched the fog ebb and flow a thousand feet below me.
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 Paul Draper’s winemaking project in the US. Paul Draper is the owner and previous winemaker of Ridge. A few years prior, I had the pleasure of meeting Paul at wine dinner and although in his seventies, he exudes a tremendous energy and passion. Paul’s tenure at Ridge Monte Bello started in 1969 and he is considered a pioneer of California wine. We tasted through Ridge’s current selections and 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 and 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. We finished tasting here and departed to go visit our final winery.
Our last stop was at Ser Winery Tasting Room in Saratoga. This winery was recommended highly by two of the other wineries that Aubrey and I tasted at; the wine maker Nicole, also makes wine for Bonny Doon. Ser, literally means “To Be” in Spanish and the premise behind this name is the wine to let the wine be as it is. Wine is best when it finds its own intrinsic quality and expression from and 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. One of the shining stars of their collection is a little-known Bordeaux varietal called Cabernet Pfeffer. 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 growth or kills the vine completely. Most of the worlds 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 time and thought that went into creating these wines.
To wrap up our Santa Cruz trip we visited our friends Jeffrey and Sarah at The Plumed Horse and The Basin for a quick glass of bubbles and then headed back to San Francisco. This was a fun and informational day trip. I was impressed by the quality of the wines and loved the relaxed easy attitude of the winemakers. We have a few videos that will be up soon from Ridge and a few wines going into our Palate Club Selection. Stay tuned and keep checking back in on our YouTube Channel as we add content. -JE