Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

A few years back, I wrote about the Central Coast viticultural areas. No one commented on the lack of information about the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. My guess is that most hadn’t heard of it, or had about the same limited exposure to this area as I had. Well not anymore. For this article, I will rectify the glaringly small blurb, and share what I learned on a recent trip to the region.

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Wine production in the Santa Cruz area dates back to around 1804, when the Franciscan missionaries and later the Jesuits, settled in the area. The church usually planted mission grapes to create their sacramental wine, but the cooler climates produced a bitter, inferior wine. For that reason, Black Muscat was planted, and used to make a sweet, port-like, wine. The best known was made at the Novitiate Winery, now the home of Testarossa Winery.
The mountain vineyards would arrive later in the mid 1800’s, as a result of logging in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Loggers cut over 18 million board feet of redwood, leaving large swaths of land cleared. Cleared spaces allowed homesteaders to plant fruit, vegetables, and vineyards. The first known vineyard, in the mountains was planted by a Scotsman names John Burns, who named the mountain near his vineyards, “Ben Lomond”, after a wine district in Scotland. 

The vineyards spread over the mountain and down into the Santa Cruz area when an “Italian Wine District” was established. By 1875, existing records noted that Santa Cruz had 262,275 vines (about 300 acres) and was making 70,000 gallons of wine a year. By the mid 1880’s, the Santa Cruz Mountains were producing award winning wines, not just locally, but world-wide. The Vine Hill Winery won international acclaim in 1884, and the Ben Lomond Wine Company won at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Unfortunately, a huge forest fire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1899, destroying many wineries and most of the vineyards.

Winemaking took a big turn when famed Frenchman, Paul Masson, planted 40 acres of vines above Saratoga in 1896, and opening a winery in 1901. Masson was already known for his California “Champagne”. He grew grapes in the region until 1936, when he sold the vineyards to Martin Ray. Ray immediately pulled out the grapevines Masson had planted, and replaced them with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes that now dominate the area. Ray was also the first known winemaker to produce single varietal wines, as most California wines were field blends of different grapes.

Prohibition, as in other wine regions, had a huge impact on the premium wine business in Santa Cruz. Matter of fact, Santa Cruz was the birthplace of California's temperance movement. The wineries that survived produced “medicinal” or sacramental wine, while others simply went underground. The first winery to emerge from Prohibition was run by the Bargetto family. John and Phillip Bargetto opened their place in Soquel in 1933, and are still in business today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a resurgence of winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. By the early 70s, a small group of Santa Cruz Mountain winery owners applied to create their own AVA. By 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established. It was one of the first AVA’s recognized by altitude (from as low as 400 feet, to as high as 3,200 feet) and defined by its mountain topography.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a mountainous area (who woulda guessed, based on the AVA name?), bounded by Half Moon Bay on the north, Watsonville (the flatter “vegetable bowl “area) and the Monterey Bay to the south, and Silicon Valley to the east. The appellation encompasses about 400,000 acres, within three counties: Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo. Only about 1,500 acres are currently planted with vines.

The appellation can really be split into two different growing regions. The west side of the mountains faces the Pacific ocean, and is often covered in fog. This cooler region can be looked at as more “Burgudian” in style (more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). The eastern side of the mountains is Bordeaux region, where you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon. The east side is influenced by the warmer San Francisco Bay. Needless to say, there are many micro-climates throughout the region, just as there diverse soils. The most sought after soil, limestone, is present in many of the finer vineyards in the area. Sun exposure and elevation further influence the vineyard, and make this appellation one of the most terroir driven regions in California.

There are numerous sub-regions within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA:  Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, Coastal Foothills, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley. Additionally, Ben Lomond Mountain AVA is within the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

Some of the oldest wineries in California are located in this AVA. If you watched the movie “Bottleshock”, you would be familiar with the 1976 Judgement in Paris. While the focus of that movie was on Chateau Montelena and their Chardonnay, there was also a red wine tasting. One of the red wines that competed (a 1971 Cabernet) came from Ridge Vineyards, while another white (a 1973 Chardonnay) came from the David Bruce Winery.

When you look at a map of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the wineries all look fairly close together….that is until you actually get up in the area. As we found out, many of the roads are single lane, deadend roads, that require you to drive long distances to see one winery, then head back to the main road, only to head up another deadend road for the next winery.

In my next article, I will share my 4-day tasting trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and some of the great finds of the trip.

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