On Sunday, April 24, 2022, a perfect spring-weather day, I had the privilege and pleasure to attend the Wines of Santa Cruz Mountains Grand Tasting event at the jaw-dropping venue of Mountain Winery in the hills above Saratoga. This was the first big tasting event for Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains since before the pandemic, and judging by the number of attendees (500+) and wineries representing the AVA (40+), local wine producers and wine lovers alike were more than ready for it.
The venue itself is amazing. The views across the Silicon Valley are absolutely breathtaking and on a clear day you can see almost to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Sitting at approximately 1400 feet in elevation, the Mountain Winery is the location of the historical Paul Masson Winery. Paul Masson was one of the first to bring Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine grape cuttings from Burgundy, France, to the Santa Cruz Mountains back in the 1870s, and made one of the area’s first traditional method (AKA champagne method) sparkling wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, earning him the name “Champagne King of California.” Today, the Mountain Winery is not only a working winery surrounded by perfectly manicured vines, it is also a well-known concert venue during the summer and fall months. But on this day, the stars of the show were the wines of Santa Cruz Mountains and their enthusiastic and skilled producers.
As I attended this event, I was wearing a few different hats. First, I was there with my friend and colleague, Deborah Parker Wong, to promote the Wine Studies program at Cabrillo College in Aptos, where Deborah teaches classes and where I occasionally co-teach and TA after completing the program and attaining 3 Skills Certificates in Wine. The Wine Studies program has undergone a make-over and will re-launch in the Fall starting with the first wine class in a series that can culminate in a Certificate of Achievement. For more info and to register for classes, click here.
In addition, as Field Coordinator and contributor for the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA for Slow Wine USA, I represented the Slow Wine Guide USA at the event, meeting with producers and tasting wines that are already in the Guide and those who would be good additions to it. The Slow Wine Guide is part of the international Slow Food movement and strives to showcase wineries and vineyards that are using best practices for making and growing wine. Many are certified sustainable and/or organic.
My first tasting stop was House Family Vineyards, based in Saratoga on the next hilltop over from the event. Jim Cargill, the talented winemaker, took Deborah and I through a tasty tasting of his lineup of the day: 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, 2018 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, 2017 Monterey County Coastview Vineyard Syrah, 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 “Vintner’s Reserve” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon “Block 10”. The wines showed beautifully. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave the classic Santa Cruz Mountains fruit expressions of those varietals—nice fruit aromas and flavors balanced by good acidity—with old-world winemaking. The Chardonnay sees one year in oak (35% new) and båtonnage (lees stirring) to soften the mouthfeel. It’s a lovely wine! The Syrah was one of my favorites of the day, coming from an organic vineyard high up in the Gabilan Mountains of Monterey County, and co-fermented with Viognier in the Northern Rhône style. House’s Cabernet Sauvignons are classics: cassis, blackberry, mint, and touch bell pepper notes with firm but silky tannin and a rich finish. A great tasting and a great way to start!
My press pass gave me access to the “VIP Lounge,” where some fine rosé wines were on offer, including the Equinox 2019 Pinot Noir Rosé. Barry Jackson, owner and winemaker at Equinox Wines, makes traditional method sparkling wines and is well-known for them in this region. Starting with bubbles is always a great plan! This wine is delightful, fresh, floral, and some nice autolytic characteristics from time spent on the lees in the traditional method. The Equinox 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains Blanc de Noirs had weight and body while being light and refreshing. Several lovely, lively, and youthful still rosés were poured at this table as well, with the 2020 Lester Estate Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir a standout.
One of my goals at the event was to taste smaller, lessor-known producers, some of which I hadn’t tasted before. As it turned out, several of these are wineries that have either resurrected old vineyards and relaunched with a new brand or are working with vineyards that have a long history in the AVA. I especially enjoyed connecting with the people behind these wines. With most of these wineries producing very small lots from highly sought-after fruit, it was a special treat to be able to taste them in one spot. I had many favorites (and wasn’t able to taste at every winery’s table), but a few highlights follow.
Aptos Vineyard – Aptos Vineyard was originally founded and operated by Judge John Marlo and his wife Patti in 1974, and the Baker family has rebooted it with a keen eye towards making high-quality wine from the site’s estate vineyard, DaLarDi vineyard, at the hands of talented local winemaker John Benedetti. The flight started with a lovely 2020 “All Rise” Rosé of Pinot Noir (the name is an homage to the Judge), which showed good fruit and lovely framboise notes through the mid palate. Delicious! The next two wines were two different vintages of the “Opening Remarks” Pinot Noir, 2018 and 2019. Both were made using 20-30% new oak for 10 months on the Pinots. Wow! The nose on the 2018 was simply awesome and I must admit I spent a good long time just enjoying those aromas: dark cherries, raspberries, earth, redwood notes, mushroom, kiss of oak. The 2019, although expressing younger with more wood notes (brown spice), was equally amazing. Fruity with cola notes, bright and youthful, long finish. Last in the flight, the 2019 “Amicus Curiae” Lester Estate Syrah presented dark fruit, black pepper and oak notes, still pretty young but will evolve nicely over the next 3-5 years.
Armitage Wines – Brandon Armitage is the owner/winemaker at Armitage and his estate vineyard is Heart O’ the Mountain, which used to be the home of Hollywood producer/director Alfred Hitchcock. At the Armitage table, I tasted two different Pinot Noirs, each showcasing the difference in terroir between them: 2019 Meadowridge Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2019 Heart O’ the Mountain Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir. The Meadowridge Vineyard, located in the Corralitos area, showed lovely cherry and strawberry notes along with touches of oak and a soft texture, more feminine. The Heart O’ the Mountain Vineyard, which sits at 1100’ elevation, was bolder, more rich and intense, a more masculine expression of Pinot Noir: bold fruit, redwood and mushroom umami notes, with a smooth rich finish.
Charmant Vineyards – A relatively new winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains is this gem established in 2017. The estate vineyard was formerly known as Windy Oak Vineyards’ Diane’s Block, and is farmed using sustainable practices. Eugene Theron is the owner/winemaker, with local wine-whisperer Tom Stutz acting as consulting winemaker since 2018. Charmant’s estate is comprised of 5 acres of vineyard located in the Corralitos area. The flight of wines showed exceptional quality with terroir focus and really stood out for me. The 2019 Tondré Grapefield Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA was outstanding. Made to really express the terroir of this special place along limestone-laced benchlands on the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, this Chardonnay brought lemon and tropical fruit notes nicely balanced by good acidity and a smooth, lush finish. One of the best Chardonnays I’ve tasted from this vineyard! Charmant’s 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, fermented with native yeasts and aged 24 months in 30% new French oak, again showed nice balance between fruit and acidity, bringing in some spice and umami notes. Just delightful!
El Vaquero Winery – Owner Bob Prikazsky and his daughter, winemaker Alex Prikazsky, are the talent behind El Vaquero (Spanish for “cowboy”), producing excellent quality wines from small vineyards utilizing some intriguing varietals that you don’t typically find in this AVA. Alex took me through the tasting flight, taking the time to talk with me about how each of the wines were made and sharing the backstory on some of their labels. The 2019 “One-Eyed Charlie” Sandy Lane Vineyard Contra Costa Carignane and the 2016 Athena Vineyard Santa Clara Valley Cabernet Franc both blew me away. The aromatics on both of these wines, especially the Cabernet Franc, were amazing. Alex explained that she prefers to use Hungarian oak to age her wines, giving them less overtly oak notes and allowing the fruit and terroir to shine through. The Carignane comes from 120-year-old vines in the northern part of the East Bay where the vineyard receives Delta and marine influences. Fruity with bright acidity, this was one of the best California Carignane’s I’ve tasted. But the Cabernet Franc had aromatics off the charts: cherry, cranberry, cassis, floral, earth, bell pepper. One of the best wines I tasted at the event.
La Vida Bella – Another revival, in 2011 Joe Quink and his family purchased this estate that used to belong to the Biagini family, and had their first vintage in 2013. The 18-acre estate is located off Pleasant Valley Road in Corralitos, with 13 acres planted to vines on sandy loam soil and 130 olive trees around the property. Joe holds a degree in Viticulture/Enology and brought in Prudy Foxx, the master Santa Cruz Mountain viticulturist, to consult. The traditional method Sparkling Rosé was made by local legend Dan Person, and offered subtle white raspberry and floral notes on the nose and soft frothy bubbles on the palate. The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, derived from clones 113 and 114, saw 18 months in 100% new French oak. The aromatics were great: terroir focused with a major oak kiss.
Sandar & Hem Wines – Robert Bergstrom, owner and winemaker at Sandar & Hem, is a great guy, a wealth of knowledge, and super enthusiastic about the Santa Cruz Mountains’ terroirs and his wines made from them, as he justifiably should be. Ray and I had the pleasure to end the day’s event at Robert’s table, where he was holding court with several fans. Sandar & Hem is a new winery that sources fruit from some of the best vineyards in the region. The 2019 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay was sublime: old-world style, elegant, restrained fruit expression (lemon, white flowers, minerals, touch of stone fruit), good acidity, refreshing and lively now, but also worthy of aging. If you like Chardonnay, you will love this wine. Hands-down the best Chardonnay I tasted at the event. As I was swooning over this wine, Robert opened up a fresh bottle of his newly-released 2020 Bates Ranch Vineyard Rosé of Grenache. Bates Ranch Vineyard is a storied vineyard for some of the best quality Cabernet Sauvignon in the region. So to see Grenache from this spot, much less a rosé, was such a pleasant surprise. The wine tasted like a fresh summer breeze: strawberry, grapefruit, saline, just a hint of floral and spice. Absolutely delightful and refreshing! Robert also makes a 2019 Mindego Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, which he was out of by the time we made it to his table. But I have no doubt this wine will be excellent.
Other outstanding wines I tasted at this event: Mount Eden Vineyards 2018 Estate Chardonnay – a classic from the self-named Mount Eden clone, this wine comes from vines at 2000′ elevation on Franciscan shale and shows lovely golden apple, pineapple, and French oak notes balanced by minerality; Mindego Ridge Vineyard 2017 Estate Chardonnay, from their sustainable estate vineyard, was balanced with good acidity and lively fresh fruit notes; Madson Wines 2020 Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2020 Chardonnay – Madson wines are great, made with minimal intervention from small parcels; Lester Estate Wines 2018 “Domingo” Pinot Noir – such a great vineyard you just can’t go wrong with any wines from this fruit; Muns Vineyard 2012 Estate Pinot Noir – from the “vineyard in the sky” at 2600’, this Pinot is tasting great at 10 years old with evolved fruit, tertiary qualities, rich and smooth; Windy Oaks Estate Winery 2018 “One-Acre” Chardonnay and 2019 Whole Cluster Estate Pinot Noir – lovely and elegant Burgundian style in the Corralitos area.
I had a great time connecting with old friends and making new ones at this event. Our Santa Cruz Mountains wine community is a warm, welcoming tight-knit group comprised of enthusiastic enthusiasts and small family-owned and operated wineries. Ray and I enjoyed being there together, tasting the wines, and taking in the views. Till next time, cheers!
About the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1981. It was the first AVA in California to be defined by minimum elevation requirements: 800’ minimum on the eastern slope overlooking Santa Clara Valley and 400’ minimum on the western slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with some vineyards planted at 2600’ or higher. Approximately 1600 acres of vineyard area is dispersed in small pockets across the large mountainous region (320,000 acre total). Many of the vineyards are plated in plots that were either originally cleared for logging redwoods or for planting orchards in the 1800s. The mountains and hillsides provide a large diversity of microclimates and terroir. The most prominent grape varietals are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and other varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Some vineyards are considered old vine, planted before Prohibition, having survived phylloxera thanks to sandy soils in those vineyards. Click here for a detailed map of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA including wineries and vineyards.