Beyond Napa and Sonoma: Wine Tasting in the South Bay
The majority of California’s wine tourists flock to Napa and Sonoma, but Oenomad founder Kelly Whiting recommends raising a glass at the other end of the Bay.
The Santa Cruz Mountains stretch from the San Francisco Peninsula southwest towards Monterey Bay, a geological uprising where two tectonic plates meet to form the San Andreas fault. It’s hostile terrain for most farming purposes—but, in some places, the decomposing limestone and shale substrate provide excellent conditions for pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon, packing the grapes with an earthy, mineral punch. And while the appellation is one of the oldest in the country—winemakers have toiled here since the early 1800s—it’s also one of quietest, especially compared to Napa and Sonoma.
Up in the mountains, it’s easy to forget just how close this bucolic region is to the world’s most densely moneyed technological hub. But that’s not to say the worlds of Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz don’t overlap. One self-confessed oenophile from the world of tech is Kelly Whiting, an entrepreneur who recently launched Oenomad. The website and iPhone app helps travelers choose from thousands of California wineries based on their personal preferences and travel plans.
Whiting herself enjoys visiting the boutique winemakers of the South Bay, including the Santa Cruz Mountains. The wineries tend to be intimate, family-run places with as much charm as their northern neighbors. Moreover, the option of walk-ins and lower fees make for more spontaneous tasting trips. “During quieter times, you’re likely to get some one-on-one time with the tasting room managers or even the winemakers themselves,” says Kelly. “Hearing their stories is what makes many winery visits exceptional. Well, that and the wine!” Here, she shares her favorites in the region.
Santa Cruz’s highest-profile winery, Ridge shot to fame in 1976, when its Monte Bello beat out many top-notch Bordeaux wines in the so-called Judgement of Paris. The wine—dominated by cabernet sauvignon but usually including a touch of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc—is still highly rated, but Ridge is also loved for its zinfandels. Chief winemaker Paul Draper prides himself on the winery’s pre-industrial methods and remains a proponent of minimum intervention and respect for natural processes. Whiting loves the “gorgeous location” but warns that the steep, twisty drive is not for the faint-hearted. “But it’s worth the trip.”
East-facing vineyards at this certified organic winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains grow cabernet sauvignon grapes—arguably the region’s best—from cuttings of Paul Masson’s original French imports, dating back more than a century. The vineyard also grows high quality cabernet franc, chardonnay and syrah grapes. And the winery doubles as a horse ranch: Whiting suggests saddling up and taking a horseback tour of the estate.
Clos La Chance
The newest kid on the block, Clos La Chance grew from a vine in Bill and Brenda Murphy’s backyard in 1987 to a full-blown family enterprise hidden in the Hayes Valley in San Martin. Check out their Designate Series, particularly the cuvées like Hadley’s from 2015 (a white blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc) and Lila’s from 2013 (leading with grenache and petite syrah). Aside from a regular tasting, you can also sign up for classes on wine making, tasting basics and different wine regions.
One of California’s oldest wineries, Testarossa was built in 1888 by Jesuits, and the original three-floor gravity-flow winery in Los Gatos is still in use. One of the only wineries to flourish during Prohibition (due to increased demand for altar wines), Testarossa still specializes in limited production pinot noir and chardonnay. Whiting recommends taking a cellar tour “so you can really understand how much work goes into the wine.”
The Burrell School, which was part of a 19th-century homestead in the Santa Cruz Mountains, first planted grapes in 1854. Its vineyards pick up cooler air from the Pacific fog, which hangs some 600 feet below the west-facing parcels during the summer—perfect conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir, though it also grows merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The pinot noir grapes have their genetic origins in Burgundy, as they were cloned from four different varieties of Dijon grapes. “Dry red wine drinkers will love this hidden gem,” says Whiting. “I love the laid-back atmosphere here with the beautiful rooftop view of the vineyards and mountains.”
Testarossa: 300 College Avenue A, Los Gatos, CA; 408-354-6150
Ridge Vineyards at Monte Bello: 17100 Montebello Road, Cupertino, CA; 408-867-3233
Cooper-Garrod: 22645 Garrod Road, Saratoga, CA; 408-867-7116
Clos La Chance: 1 Hummingbird Ln, San Martin, CA; 800-487-9463
Burrell School: 24060 Summit Road, Los Gatos, CA; 408-353-6290