California Dreaming: The Santa Cruz Mountains

As I watch the swirling snow of the worst snow storm in ten years, I think it is time to do some California Dreaming. This summer, I had the opportunity to visit California for the first time. During the first week I took the time to explore the Santa Cruz Mountains. I did a little hiking, listened to some fabulous Celtic music, visited a few vineyards and checked out some tasting rooms.

My first tasting after a long flight. There were several good Rhone blends as I recall in my jet lagged state.

Cinnabar Tasting Room in Saratoga.. My first tasting after a long flight. There were several good Rhone blends as I recall in my jet lagged state

The Santa Cruz mountains are heavily forested and vineyards are sporadic throughout the area. The proximity to the coast provides the cooling effects from the fog banks. The mountains, with various elevations and aspects, provide many microclimates which have proven to be ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Other areas produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel.

Although it is a relatively large AVA (American Viticultural Area) covering three counties (Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo), there is less than 1500 acres under vine. Although it has been a recognized  AVA since 1981, its history goes back much further. In the 1860’s vineyards began to be planted in the mountains. The wines soon began to win international acclaim in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Unfortunately, in 1899, a huge forest fire destroyed many of the vineyards.

In 1901, Paul Masson, a native of Burgundy,  planted his vineyards on a mountain overlooking Saratoga. Here, Masson became famous for his “Champagne” He ultimately became known as the “Champagne King of California. Eventually, he sold the vineyard to Martin Ray, who replanted it with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. These varietals have since became the most popular grapes. He also started the practice of producing pure varietal wine. Previously wines had been blended and given the dubious names of California Chablis, Champagne and Burgundy. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1958 a concert bowl was built at the winery. There is an annual summer concert series that hosts many well-known artists such as Diana Ross, Ringo Starr, Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson. Under new ownership,  the winery is now known as The Mountain Winery. I ventured up the long, winding road that hugs the side of the mountain. At the top I partook in a small tasting of their estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir while enjoying the view from the top.

For most of the week I stayed next to Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACreek. The old growth redwoods are so massive that a photograph can rarely do them justice. There is a winery about 10 minutes from the park called Big Basin Vineyards. I was unable to visit the vineyards but I was able to taste many of their wines at their Tasting Room in Saratoga. They have many vineyards both in the Santa Cruz Mountains and further south. The warm climate lends itself to the production of some exceptional Rhone Blends (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre,  and Viognier) They also have some delicious Pinot Noir. The one I chose was from their vineyards in Monterey.  It had a silky mouth feel with luscious cherry and red berry flavours. I am looking forward to trying the bottle that I brought home with me.

The vineyards in the mountains tend to be nestled in the forest. I drove by the entrance OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto Byington Vineyard and Winery three times before I found it. Once there I found a beautiful winery that is often used for weddings and other events. I tried several of their wines in their beautiful tasting room followed by a charcuterie plate with  a glass of Saigneé on the patio. This wine is their rosé made in the French style where the juice has limited contact with the skins and is then “bled off”. The resulting wine has a beautiful  intense pink colour and a rich strawberry nose and palate. I also enjoyed Liage which is an interesting blend so Sauvignon Blanc with a little bit of Viognier.  The resulting wine is crisp with tropical fruit and a bit of honey on the nose. This was another wine that managed to bring home.

IMG_3185I ended my trip with a visit to The Bonny Doon Tasting Room. Bonny Doon Vineyards was established in 1983 by Randall Grahm. During my sommelier studies, his name came up frequently. During my first paper on the varietal Rousanne, I learned about his interest in bring Rhone grapes to California. We were also told about the funeral that he held for wine corks when he made the switch to screw caps for his wine. Finally I profiled his wine labelling strategies as part of my presentation in The New World module. I guess this part of the visit was a bit if a pilgrimage. Many of the labels of Rhone blends have a UFO theme. This is a reference to the 1954 law in Chateauneuf du Pape that decreed that flying saucers were not allowed to fly over, land or take off from the vineyards. The law was repealed in 2007. I had a wonderful visit to the tasting room and sampled quite a few of the Rhone blends.

I will post soon about my visits to Sonoma and Napa.

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