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California’s Best-Kept Wine Secret: Santa Cruz Mountains

It’s where to go for outstanding cool-climate wines

Janice Williams By August 16, 2022
photo collage of 3 bottles of wine standing tall in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Photo illustration by Pix

The Santa Cruz Mountains may well be California’s best-kept secret. It produces high-quality wines at a fraction of the price of many bottles coming out of more well-known California wine regions, as well as luxury bottles that overdeliver for their price. 

Not far from San Francisco, and surrounded by coastal foothills, tree-lined hillsides, steep valleys, and majestic mountain peaks, the Santa Cruz Mountains is home to several grape varieties. Still, it’s the minerally, bright Chardonnay, polished and poised Pinot Noir, and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon that winemakers in the region really seem to knock out of the park.

“In the last five to seven years, there’s been a concerted effort among a growing group of producers to really raise the bar for quality and consistency in the wine,” says John Benedetti, owner, and winemaker of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines, who’s made wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 2008.

A growing wine region

Winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains dates back to the early 19th century when Franciscan missionaries planted grapevines on the hillsides above the town of Santa Cruz. By the 1880s, the region had built a reputation for its wines — until everything came to a screeching halt when the fire of 1889 wiped out many vines.

When Burgundian winemaker Paul Masson arrived in the area in 1901, he helped revive Santa Cruz Mountains’ wine industry and planted some of the first Pinot Noir grapes in the region. The sparkling wines Masson produced on his property near the town of Saratoga landed him the moniker Champagne King of California.

Prohibition had a big impact on the region and not because of the wineries, but because it was the perfect place for smuggling. Eventually, quality winemaking came back with the opening of now iconic wineries such as Mount Eden and Ridge Vineyards

Santa Cruz Mountains achieved American Viticulture Area status in 1981 and has since expanded to include six subregions — Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills, Ben Lomond Mountain, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley. Though the appellation is one of the largest in California by landmass, it’s one of the state’s smallest in terms of wine production. Grape vines cover a mere 1,600 acres of the region’s total 480,000 acres.

According to the Santa Cruz Wineries Association, there are now more than 70 wineries registered in the region and more than 100 vineyards dedicated to grape growing. Much of the new vineyard development has happened in the last decade, as ambitious winemakers flock to take advantage of the region’s terroir.

Mount Eden Vineyards overlooking Silicon Valley

Mount Eden Vineyards overlooks Silicon Valley from 2,000 feet above the ground. Photo courtesy of Mount Eden Vineyards.

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It’s all about the microclimates

Vineyards are found on both the east and west sides of the San Francisco Peninsula ridge of the Pacific Coast Ranges, resulting in differing climates, soil types, and flora and fauna. 

On the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, closer to the coast, the cool climate and foggy maritime influences are perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot. 

“I really think that with Pinot Noir being a thin-skinned grape, it absorbs the characteristics of the surrounding flora. We have redwood trees, madrone trees, fir, and pine growing around vineyards. So you get that coniferous quality in the Pinots and that maritime minerality in the Chardonnay. That’s what makes our wines so unique,” says Benedetti.

Meanwhile, the eastern side, where oak and chaparral trees are abundant, is hotter and drier, creating the conditions that Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux styles need; vineyards here also benefit from cooling coastal breezes.

“Santa Cruz Mountains are fortunate in that we do generally get a pretty high rainfall. Even this year, which was an incredible drought year, we still had a Napa average of rainfall. So we’re still doing OK, even though we got half the rainfall we’d normally get,” says Bradley Brown, founder and vineyard manager at Big Basin Vineyards.

With such varied terroir, it’s no surprise that other grapes are also thriving, from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer through to Merlot, Zinfandel, and Syrah. 

If it’s quality you seek

But, for the moment, the region’s reputation is based on its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon, now attracting vintners from elsewhere: Winemakers from Sonoma, the Central Coast, and other parts of California are making the trek to purchase grapes from growers in the Santa Cruz Mountains. While competition for fruit contracts has increased prices, Benedetti sees the growing interest as a positive sign.

“Rising tides raise all boats, and those outside-of-the-area producers have been making some beautiful wines from local fruit,” he says.

“There are some new producers here now making amazing wines, and they seem to be getting better and better every year. That’s the most exciting thing,” Benedetti says.

Best of all, from the wine lover’s point of view, the wines are relatively affordable — for now.

Santa Cruz Mountains white wines to try:

bottle of Thomas Fogarty Gewürztraminer

2016 Thomas Fogarty Monterey County Gewürztraminer (~$19)

Located some 2,400 feet high on the Pacific Plate in Santa Cruz County resides Lexington Wines, a vineyard first planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon vines in 2000. The first wines from the organic and sustainable property weren’t released until 2011 and have since developed a reputation for fresh and expressive California wines. The Gewürztraminer is exceptionally balanced with fruit and acid character and harmonic texture and flavor.

bottle of Madson Wines Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

Madson Wines Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay (~$39)

It’s all about Santa Cruz Mountains fruit and minimal intervention winemaking at Madson, which winemaker Cole Thomas established in 2018. The grapes for this bright and energetic Chardonnay are sourced from small oceanside vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which sit some 400 feet above Monterey Bay, as well as grapes from the Los Altos Hills. All the fruit is organically farmed and gently pressed to create a white wine with depth and minerality.

bottle of Arnot-Roberts Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay Trout Gulch

Arnot-Roberts Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay Trout Gulch (~$48)

What started as a basement winemaking project between friends Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts blossomed into an actual winery in 2001 when the duo founded Arnot-Roberts. With a focus on site-driven wines that showcase the unique differences of California’s terroir, the winery works with fruit from across the state. The grapes for this Chardonnay come from the Trout Gulch Vineyard, located about 4 miles away from the ocean in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The producer describes this as high acid with intense minerality and notes of salinity.

bottle of Sandar & Hem Santa Cruz Mountains Mindego Ridge Chardonnay

Sandar & Hem Santa Cruz Mountains Mindego Ridge Chardonnay (~$42)

Produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Sandar & Hem winemaker Robert Hem, this Chardonnay is intense with tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Critics at Wine Enthusiasts have awarded this bottle with a 94-point score. The producer describes this wine as deep and complex with distinctive pineapple and citrus aromas. On the palate, the wine is described as elegant with bracing minerality, tree, fruit, and citrus flavor that leads to a finish denoted by roasted nuts and crushed rock nuances. The grapes used for this wine are grown just a few miles away from the ocean, near the small town of La Honda.

bottle of Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay Estate

Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay Estate (~$57)

One of the most notable wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ridge Vineyards has made wine from grapes grown in the region since 1962. Its estate-grown Chardonnay has been a favorite of critics year after year, often receiving scores above 90 points. Golden straw in color, the producer describes this wine as medium-to-full-bodied with notes of pear, honey, and minerality, which leads to a clean finish.

bottle of Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Bottled Santa Cruz Mountains

2018 Mount Eden Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay (~$64)

Mount Eden Vineyards overlooks Silicon Valley from 2,000 feet. The vineyard was established in 1945 and has long been considered one of the original boutique California wineries, known for producing top-quality Chardonnays that are full-bodied with fine acidity. The wine displays citrusy lemon core sprinkled with spicy nuances and minerality that only seem to get better after an additional two to four years of bottle aging.

bottle of Thomas Fogarty Winery Langley Hill Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

2017 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Langley Hill Vineyard Chardonnay (~$60)

Thomas Fogarty and Michael Martella first planted the estate grapes of Fogarty’s namesake winery in 1977 to bring a bit of Burgundy to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over the years, Fogarty’s vineyards have transitioned to organic, sustainable, and biodynamic and remained primarily focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Grapes for this Chardonnay come from the winery’s largest estate vineyard and display a steely, refined structure saturated in citrus fruit, mint, and mineral flavors.

Santa Cruz Mountains red wines to try:

bottle of Samuel Lois Smith Sandstone Terrace Syrah

Samuel Smith Louis California Sandstone Terrace Syrah (~$35)

Samuel Louis Smith produces wines with fruit across the Central Coast of California. The winery’s cool climate Syrah is made predominantly with fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains, though it does include a bit of Syrah sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Low intervention winemaking and whole cluster fermentation are at the heart of Samuel Louis Smith’s wine production and often result in a deep purple-colored Syrah that exudes intense and complex spicy and floral characteristics.

bottle of Big Basin Vineyards Old Corral Pinot Noir

2018 Big Basin Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Old Corral Pinot Noir (~$45)

Bradley Brown first planted grapes at Big Basin Vineyards’ Rattlesnake Rock Estate vineyard in 2000, with the first vintage released in 2002. Pinot Noir, created with grapes from the winery’s Old Corral vineyards, has won high scores — 91 points — from Jeb Dunnuck and Wine Enthusiast. With tight grippy tannins, this is a complex and structured Pinot Noir. Intense bright red fruit aromas extend to the palate and evolve into nuances of crushed rock and baking spices. This is a bottle that will only improve over time. 

bottle of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines Chrysanthemum Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

2019 Sante Arcangeli Santa Cruz Mountains Chrysanthemum Pinot Noir (~$60)

Pinot Noir grapes from three separate vineyards across the Santa Cruz Mountains are used to create this wine, which has received a 93-point score from Wine Enthusiast critics. Light bodied and easy to drink, the purity of red fruits in this wine is undeniable, while the herbal nuances of juniper give it a fresh accent.

bottle of Ceritas Cabernet Sauvignon Peter Martin Ray VineyardCeritas Cabernet Sauvignon Peter Martin Ray Vineyard

Ceritas Cabernet Sauvignon Peter Martin Ray Vineyard (~$99)

Ceritas has produced wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 2005. The Cabernet Sauvignon used for this wine comes from the organically farmed vines in the Peter Martin Ray Vineyard that were first planted in the 1920s. The old vines give a complex red wine that the producer describes as vibrant and taught with refined tannins and character that’s distinctive from the big red wines produced by neighboring vineyards.

bottle of Rhys Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir

Rhys Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir (~$129)

For more than 15 years, Rhys Vineyards has worked to showcase the distinctive character of the Santa Cruz Mountains, working solely with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. This particular fruit and spice bomb of a Pinot Noir has consistently received scores of 90 points and higher over the years from wine reviewers like Robert Parker and Jeb Dunnuck. Rhys Vineyards uses estate-grown fruit from the Horseshoe Ranch Vineyard to create an intense, complex, and elegant red wine with notable minerality.