Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Welcome to the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Country and winegrowers of the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation. Santa Cruz Mountain wineries have terrain that experience marine influence, varied microclimates, and distinctive soils to produce ideal conditions for high quality winegrowing. The Santa Cruz wine region or AVA consists of mostly of them family-run, working to promote the unique aspects of their wines & region. Recognized as an AVA in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation was among the first to be defined by its mountain topography, following the fog line along the coast to encompass our highest vineyards on the ridge tops at 2600’ elevation. The small size of the Santa Cruz Wine AVA wineries allows for greater attention to detail and a hand-crafted wine quality from the grapes that grown here.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is an American Viticulture Area centered on the Santa Cruz Mountains. It includes three counties in California: Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo. Recognized as an AVA in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation was among the first to be defined by its mountain topography. Based on elevation, it largely follows the fog line along the coast, extending down to 800 feet (240 m) in the east (San Francisco Bay side) and 400 feet (120 m) in the west (Monterey Bay side), and encompasses the highest ridge tops at 3000+ elevation.[The appellation encompasses approximately 480,000 acres, from Woodside in the north to Watsonville (Mount Madonna) in the south, some 60 miles as the crow flies and 100 miles to drive. Within this area are some 60+ wineries and over 200 small vineyards growing approximately 1300 acres of winegrapes, divided about ¼ evenly among Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and ‘other’ varietals. A single vineyard in some appellations has as much if not more acreage than the entire Santa Cruz Appellation!

This mountain AVA region is marked by diverse microclimates: warm on the eastern (inland) side where Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Merlot predominate; and on the coastal side and ridge tops, that are cooled by ocean breezes and fog, cooler climate varietals such as Pinot Noir are grown. Soils are varied (decomposed rock, clay, loam, limestone); an abundant mineral content often releases a fresh, mineral character to the wines.

The region’s vineyards actively support sustainable winegrape growing. Our winegrowers have used best vineyard and sustainable practices, including cover crops, erosion control, canopy management, for decades.

Santa Cruz Mountain wines reflect a special mountain terrior as well as the different varietals and winemakers and are typically known for their minerality and balanced acidity, their complex flavors and long finish, and the ability to age.

The Santa Cruz Mountains has played a pivotal role in the history of winemaking in California, with roots going back over 100 years. Some to first work with vines in this area include legendary winemakers such as Paul Masson, Martin Ray, David Bennion (Ridge), and David Bruce. The precedence set by these legendary figures (along with best and sustainable practices in the vineyards and wineries) can be tasted today in their world-class wines of the Santa Cruz AVA.

A little Santa Cruz Mountain wine growing history….

The Santa Cruz Mountains region is one of the first areas of California to be developed for the commercial production of wine. The early pioneers were truly remarkable characters – visionaries and adventurers all. Like the mountains themselves, these early vintners were larger than life. John Burns, John and George Jarvis, Charles Lefranc, John Stewart, and Paul Masson were some of the early settlers. Each of these remarkable men contributed significantly to the industry of the region and to the rich history of California wine.

John Burns settled in the area in 1851, and in 1853 planted the first commercial vines in the county. Burns named the mountain where his vineyard grew "Ben Lomond" (meaning Mount Lomond), which was the name of an old wine district in his homeland of Scotland. Meanwhile, brothers John and George Jarvis planted a vineyard above Scotts Valley; in a place they named "Vine Hill." These became the two pillars of the county's wine industry, which by the turn of the century would emerge as dominate in the state. Santa Cruz became a third area, when Pietro Monteverdi and Antonio Capelli from the Italian wine district established the Italian Gardens, as a vineyard district on what is now know as the Pasatiempo Golf Course.

The 1870s saw a boom in the state's wine industry, with 16 vintners in Santa Cruz County. But the industry was hurt by vintners who rushed wine to market "before its time," and by a product made mostly from mission grapes. Overproduction followed by a depression brought hard times to the infant industry. John Jarvis stayed at Vine Hill, but his brother sold his share, and moved his "Jarvis Wine & Brandy Co." to Santa Clara.

In 1879, Henry and Nellie Mel bought one of the Jarvis properties at Vine Hill. And because their family's French name was "Mel de Fontenay," they named the vineyard "Villa Fontenay." Henry Mel had a serious interest in quality grapes. His sister-in-law obtained and introduced the first California vines of sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Vert and Muscadelle de Bordelaise, and he later became county wine inspector. By 1884, both Mel and Jarvis had won awards for their wines. As Santa Cruz County vineyards were held up as examples to the rest of the state, vine acres increased fivefold in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1880s.

The most serious Santa Cruz County vintner was Dr. John A. Stewart, a Scot who came to Scotts Valley in 1883 and established Etta Hill vineyard. He emulated the best French vineyards and achieved superior quality by blending wines in the French manner -- a practice that was new to California. Stewart became president of the Santa Cruz vintner's society and took over for Mel as the county's local wine inspector. He also wrote articles on California winemaking.

Near the summit on Highland Ridge, German florist Emil Meyer established "Mare Vista" vineyard. That contained the area's first resistant root stocks, which avoided the root-louse infestation that later crippled other grape- growers. Meyer's success was in the longevity of his winery, which survived Prohibition, closing in 1939 when his son died.

The wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains started to receive awards and recognition at the international level. Ben Lomond Wine Co., operated by William Coope, and Stewart won prizes at World's Fairs in Paris in 1889, Chicago in 1893 and San Francisco in 1894.

Problems beset the wine industry just as it was seeing success. Industry leader John Jarvis died in 1892, and a bank foreclosed on two wineries. The survivors were Ben Lomond Wine Co. and Mare Vista. In 1899, a terrible forest fire ravaged the Santa Cruz Mountains. It threatened the Mare Vista Winery, which firefighters fought to save. Then the water supply was lost. Emil Meyer didn't want to stand by and watch it burn, so he ordered firefighters to hook up their hoses to the wine vats and use wine to put out the fire. This they did and saved the day. Los Gatos Creek ran red with claret, surprising many residents with this river of blood.

An increasing number of people were attracted to the area in the late 1840's. The invasion was complete with the Gold Rush of 1849 and statehood for California in 1850. Adobes disappeared to make way for tall Protestant church spires and white picket fences.

The early industries of the area drew heavily on the seemingly unlimited natural resources. Lumber camps were established in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, concentrating in the San Lorenzo Valley and Aptos areas. The McCrary family, who came to Davenport in 1863, still operates Big Creek Lumber Company, one of only two mills left in Santa Cruz.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, early vintners put to use their pioneering efforts to produce fine California wines. Fontenay Vineyard on Vine Hill and the Ben Lomond Wine Company in Bonny Doon provided leadership both locally and statewide.

In South County, apples became the main agricultural product and have retained their importance. Other agricultural specialties in the area have included artichokes, brussel sprouts, strawberries and flowers.

The arrival of the railroad made it possible to benefit from the area's natural resources in a completely new way; thus the tourism industry was created. Early conservation efforts, led by Andrew Hill, resulted in the creation of the first state park at Big Basin in 1902.

The most ambitious effort to attract the tourist was made by Fred Swanton. When Swanton's 1904 casino burned down in 1906, he responded with a second version which is the one we know today - the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Looff Carousel was installed in 1911 and the Giant Dipper roller coaster was added in 1923; both are National Historic Landmarks.

Some of the oldest wineries in California are in this region. Two wineries from the Santa Cruz Mountain region participated in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting with the 1973 David Bruce Winery Chardonnay placing 10th in the white wine tasting and the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon placing 5th in the red wine tasting. Other notable wineries in the appellation include: Bonny Doon Vineyard, Byington Vineyard, Kathryn Kennedy Winery, Mountain Winery and Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards.

Jon Bonné, the esteemed wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, called the Santa Cruz Mountains “A perfect laboratory for winemaking not held hostage to fashion.” Bonné further speculates that this “has allowed a style of wine to flourish that skipped the industry’s steroidal tendencies of the past 20 years.” Bonné concludes - “It hosts some of California’s defining wines and vineyards, and yet fame has eluded the region itself.”

This sentiment is echoed by Antonio Galloni, writing for the Wine Advocate in August of 2012, when he offered “There is no doubt in my mind the Santa Cruz mountains is the greatest and most overlooked terroir in the United States. Period.” The quality of wine produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains is uniformly high, as you can see from comments above. Still, the region has not been fully recognized or appreciated compared to the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma. This leaves a wonderful opportunity for wine tourists and professionals alike to discover the taste of “Old California.”

Within this diverse geography, running from Woodside, just above Palo Alto, to Mount Madonna in south Santa Cruz County, there are pockets that are ideal for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, which are winning awards here and abroad. Elsewhere in the Santa Cruz AVA vintners are producing excellent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel, all celebrated for their concentrated, intense flavors.