We have all heard plenty about Napa and Sonoma, but many of the other American Viticultural Areas in California want attention. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is one such region. Often ignored by the press, it is, nonetheless, home to several prestigious wineries.
Covering three counties, the Santa Cruz Mountains span from Half Moon Bay (just minutes from San Francisco) to south of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, making it one of the larger wine-growing regions in the state. However, with a history of troubles ranging from the pest phylloxera to Prohibition to the '89 earthquake, there are now only about 1,500 acres (compared to 5,000 in the late 19th century) planted among 60 or so wineries.
With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other, microclimates abound, depending on the location and the elevation. To qualify for inclusion in the AVA, vineyards must sit at a minimum of 800 feet elevation on the east side of the range and 400 feet on the west. Foggy evenings, cool nights, thin soils and ocean winds make the vines work hard to produce quality fruit. Varieties that do exceptionally well are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and more recently Syrah.
Several wineries truly make the most of the challenge. Some are small, family-run businesses without tasting rooms or much distribution. Others are better known. For instance, Ridge produced quite the splash last year when its 1971 Monte Bello, grown in the Sana Cruz Mountains, took first place in the famous 30th anniversary tasting of the Judgment of Paris, where California wines beat out those from Bordeaux. Again.
Some wines, like Monte Bello or Pinot Noir from David Bruce and Testarossa, may only be found on restaurant lists. Others are available at local wine stores. (The following are made by Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, which does not necessarily mean the grapes are grown there.)
Testarossa Castello Chardonnay (approx. $25): Tropical fruits tempered by minerality and acidity, with hints of oak.
Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel (approx. $32): A blend, this elegant wine usually displays jammy fruits and pepper, able to age longer than most Zins.
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling (approx. $11): Delightfully dry and floral.
Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin (approx. $21): Strong and dry, good with items off the grill.
For those wineries that don't distribute to Mississippi, such as Kathryn Kennedy and Cinnabar, you'll just have to plan a trip out to California. Remember that Napa is not the only wine destination, and maybe I'll see you up on the mountain.