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

It’s where to go for outstanding Pinot Noir under $75

Janice Williams By April 21, 2022
Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by steep valleys and majestic mountain peaks
Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by steep valleys and majestic mountain peaks. Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.

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. 

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 mineral, 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

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.

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 regarding landmass, it’s one of the state’s smallest in terms of wine production. Grapevines cover a mere 1,500 acres of the region’s total 480,000 acres.

According to JancisRobinson.com, there are now about 300 vineyards located within the Santa Cruz Mountains. Much of the new vineyard development has happened in the last decade, as ambitious winemakers flock to take advantage of the region’s terroir.

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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 led to increasing 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.

Bottles to try:

bottle of Thomas Fogarty Gewürztraminer

Thomas Fogerty Winery Gewürztraminer 2016 (~$24)

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 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Bottled Santa Cruz Mountains

Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay 2018 (~$60)

Mount Eden Vineyards overlooks Silicon Valley from 2000 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 Sante Arcangeli Family Wines Chrysanthemum Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

Sante Arcangeli Family Wines Chrysanthemum Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2019 (~$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-drinking, the purity of red fruits in this wine are undeniable, while herbal nuances of juniper give it a fresh accent.

bottle of Thomas Fogarty Winery Langley Hill Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

Thomas Fogarty Winery Langley Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 (~$68)

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.

bottle of Big Basin Vineyards Old Corral Pinot Noir

Big Basin Vineyards Old Corral Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2018 (~$65)

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.