There is literally something for everybody when visiting the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticulture Area, or AVA, and it’s virtually unknown by comparison to the nearby Napa Valley and Sonoma County AVAs. With San Francisco just north, the Silicon Valley in its center and Monterey to its south, the SCM is in the heart of some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes, architecture, culinary establishments and institutes of innovation. This particular itinerary focuses on some of our best wineries for wine tasting and activities in the region.
IN THIS GUIDE:
- Travel Logistics
- Northern Wineries
- Southern Wineries
- Northern Hotels
- Northern Restaurants
- Southern Hotels
- Southern Restaurants
- …and more
If you’re considering spending a long weekend in this special wine region, your best bet is to fly into San Jose International Airport. Alternatively, you can fly into San Francisco, rent a car and drive one hour and a half south to the area. Take a look at current flight deals into either of these airports right here. We make a few hotel and restaurant recommendations towards the end of this travel guide.
This little-known appellation includes three California counties San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz and covers more than 322,000 acres. It is defined by mountainous terrain with elevations of 400 feet on the western coastal side, 3200 feet high at the summit and 800 feet on the eastern side. The Pacific Ocean and the nearby San Francisco Bay have wide-ranging effects on the appellation and create a diverse and terroir-driven environment for making wines of distinction. The coastal side of the mountains is generally temperate, with ocean fog cooling the evenings, and is perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The eastern side of the mountains is usually warmer during the growing season, producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons in the United States. Many other varieties including Syrah, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, and Merlot thrive here as well.
There are currently over 70 wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, mostly small, and owned and operated by family, artisanal winemakers.
The history of wine growing in the Santa Cruz Mountains goes back to the 1860s when George Jarvis first planted significant vineyards. By the late 1880s, there were thirty-eight wineries in the mountains. Many California wine-growing pioneers started here, including Paul Masson, Martin Ray, and Charles Le Franc. The appellation was the first in the U.S. to be defined by geophysical and climatic factors. While the Santa Cruz Mountains has always been a well-kept secret, its wines have increasingly become better-known and more widely recognized among wine enthusiasts and the general public. After all, it was the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello from the Santa Cruz Mountains that won the 30th anniversary Judgment of Paris tasting in 2006.
Suggested Two-Day Santa Cruz Wine Tasting Itinerary
I recommend spending a couple of days exploring the SCM, since it’s spread out over so much area and various terrains. Take one day to explore the northern San Francisco Bayside and another day to explore the southern Monterey Bayside.
The Northern region encompasses the heart of Silicon Valley and includes the towns of Woodside, Palo Alto, Saratoga and Los Gatos.
I like visiting Mount Eden Vineyards first, located in Saratoga, this landmark Estate has a history dating back to the first wine grape vines planted in California. Owned and operated by Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson along with their son Reid, Mount Eden makes world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is considered to have the longest lineage of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in North America. If you’d like to visit Mount Eden, they offer unique wine experiences to enhance your knowledge and enjoyment of their wines and the SCM as a whole.
Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello Estate in Cupertino is located at a 2,300-foot altitude and is a must-visit winery, not only for their award-winning Bordeaux blends, but also for the breathtaking views of the South San Francisco Bay. The drive up Montebello Road is a very winding route that occasionally becomes a single lane, common for many wineries throughout the SCM. Ridge has a traditional tasting room and if you bring a box lunch, they have open areas with picnic tables to enjoy the views. (Winetraveler tip: Additionally, Monte Bello road is a popular bicycling route if you’re feeling more adventurous.)
Now, take a stroll down Big Basin Road in Saratoga Village, you’ll find cute shops and restaurants plus several wineries also have tasting rooms here. You can enjoy the wines of Silvertip, Mindego Ridge, Lexington, Cinnabar and Big Basin Vineyards all within a few steps.
Just a hop, skip and a jump away is the Town of Los Gatos where Testarossa Winery is housed in the old Novitiate Winery, originally built in 1888 by Jesuit Fathers and Brothers from Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University). For nearly 100 years, the Jesuits made altar wines, as well as sweet, fortified wines at the Novitiate Winery. Ironically, the demand for church altar wine production skyrocketed during Prohibition (1919-1933), and the winery and adjoining vineyards more than doubled in size during that period. Today, Testarossa produces a wide range of wines sourced from various vineyard sites throughout California that you can experience and purchase at their tasting room or while relaxing at their patio restaurant, Wine Bar 107, and enjoy a few small plates paired with wine flights.
The Southern SCM includes The Summit of the SCM, The City of Santa Cruz, Davenport, Bonny Doon and The Corralito Wine Trail.
From Los Gatos, drive south on Highway 17 to Summit Road where there are nine wineries to explore. Along with the natural beauty and awe of being “On Top of the World,” check out Regale Winery for a Tuscan feel and the magnificent views. (Winetraveler tip: Ask them about their association with The Spa Los Gatos while tasting, you might get a surprise.) Next head to Burrell School Vineyards for even more insight into the history of the SCM and more wine. West of the Summit is Ben Lomond Mountain and Partage Winery, here you’ll find wine made with Burgundy in their heart.
Next stop is Santa Cruz! The City of Santa Cruz is full of colorful characters and diversions, and the Swift Street Courtyard is where you’ll want to go for wine tasting. There are seven wineries with tasting rooms that cover the spectrum from sparkling to big reds and across the street is one a Santa Cruz’s best restaurants, Bantam, with woodfired pizza and delicious locally source preparations. If you drive a few miles north on Highway 1 to Davenport, you can geek out at Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon Winery and take a walk on the beach, or stop by Beauregard Vineyards to check out their very cool digs. Downtown Santa Cruz is definitely worth a detour where you can follow the “Just Off the Beaten Path Map” for wine, snacks, craft-chocolate and more. And last but not least at the southernmost reach of the SCM is The Corralitos Wine Trail with its idyllic country roads and fantastic Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from Windy Oaks Estate and Alfaro Family Vineyards . . . among others!
San Jose: Hotel Valencia Santana Row
Los Altos: Enchante Hotel
Los Gatos: Hotel Los Gatos
Cupertino: Alexander’s Steakhouse
Saratoga: The Plumed House
Los Gatos: The Bywater
Los Gatos: Manresa
Santa Cruz: Dream Inn Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz: Chaminade
Aptos: Seascape Resort
Felton: The Cremer House
Santa Cruz: Bantam
Santa Cruz: Bad Animal
Aptos: Café Sparrow