Forget the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. The Santa Cruz Mountains represent some of the most rugged winemaking areas in California, if not the U.S. as a whole. This high, steep region towers over Monterey and Silicon Valley on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other. Some of California’s earliest winemaking operations — including Paul Masson — hail from this region, along with some of its most prized bottlings — many of which I was able to taste over two days of Zoom sessions with winemakers from the region.
The wines here can be unusual and unexpected, the varietal characteristics abstracted, muted, or twisted in unique (and delightful) ways. To delve into that in earnest, we ultimately tasted through 12 different bottlings — chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir — while hearing tales of wild climates, ancient vines, and the hand-dug cellars that are part and parcel of the region.
2021 Beauregard Vineyards Chardonnay Ben Lomond Mountain Bald Mountain Vineyard – Lots of citrus paired with a moderately creamy base, a steely, saline-dusted, and lightly mineral-laced quality emerging from there. There’s a modest spice element in the mix, hinting at ginger and sharpening up the finish. “Crushable” to a fault, with a gentle floral quality lingering on the back end. A / $65
2019 Thomas Fogarty Chardonnay Langley Hill Vineyard – Fresh and lightly buttery, with notes of lemon curd and a moderated salinity, fading gently into traditional California-inspired notes of vanilla and some coconut. Well rounded and engaging from start to finish, the crisp wine warms to reveal some notes of guava and baking spice, complementing an approachable and lively attack. Delightful from beginning to end. A / $85
2021 Sandar & Hem Chardonnay Mountain Winery Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – From the storied Mountain Winery, this chardonnay kicks off with just a touch of ever-so-slightly sour “natural”istic funk before settling into a more traditional oak-butter-almonds-lemon curd groove. Guava and gentle coconut notes give the wine a more traditional northern California vibe later in the game, the finish showing as toasty with touches of oak and brown butter lingering on the palate. Full citcle. A- / $50
2019 Ridge Monte Bello – 82% cabernet sauvignon, 9% merlot, 8% petit verdot, and 1% cabernet franc. The jewel of the Ridge universe, and one of the most notable blue chip wines of California, this is a wine I got to taste out of the barrel (different vintage) when visiting with renowned winemaker Paul Draper a few years ago. The man’s a legend, and the wine still holds up after his retirement. Opulent and rich notes of blackcurrants segue into flavors of chocolate and spice, layered with touches of oak (mostly American, surprisingly). There’s tobacco and earth here, with a hint of balsamic on the finish nodding to the fact that this wine is still at a very early in its life. Ridge says this won’t be ready to drink until 2029, so cellar, decant, or both. A / $215
2018 Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains – 85% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, and 2% petit verdot. Still playing things a bit close to the vest, this bottling feels like it has a few more years before it hits its peak — and can probably hold out for a decade or two after that. Chewy and earthy, but balanced by acidity, the plummy, cherry-driven notes that emerge finishing on a tart note. Drink it now if you must, but another few years should prove productive. A / $115
2019 Vöcal Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Bates Ranch Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – A somewhat lighter style of wine than expected given the prior two bottlings, here we see Santa Cruz pouring on the red fruit along with some lighter chocolate notes. Brighter and fresher, the austerity of Monte Bello is long gone here in a wine that feels perfectly approachable right this moment, bursting with raspberry and cherry, and just a light squeeze of currants on top. Touches of spearmint and some licorice liven up the finish and add complexity. A- / $70
2019 Big Basin Vineyards Old Corral Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains – A bit on the earthy side, with cranberry notes pairing in interesting fashion. Very light in color, there’s a lot of youth here, gentle tannins and a beefy bite giving the wine a peppery, savory quality. A classic iron fist in a velvet glove experience. Would be interesting to track its development over a few years. B+ / $65
2021 Alfaro Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Lindsay Paige Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – Juicy, almost jammy, with overtones of chocolate and caramel sauce. One of the most exuberantly fruit-forward pinot noirs in this lineup, with a zippy, spicy edge that tempers some of those sweeter notes. My instinct says to pair this one with a hearty or spice-driven meal. B+ / $48
2019 Thomas Fogarty Pinot Noir Will’s Cabin Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – An investigation into the red wine side of Fogarty. A rich and complex wine, albeit one dashed with balsamic notes, giving it a rather racy quality. Layers of wet earth spar with notes of cherry and some anise notes, the experience becoming quite sharp as it develops in the glass. Some tart orange peel and a touch of red pepper continue to drive into the finish. A- / $85
2018 Windy Oaks Estate Pinot Noir “Le Chaud” Special Release Santa Cruz Mountains – Probably the lightest and most approachable wine in this lineup, this gentle pinot kicks off with mint before showcasing a light touch of graphite, dropped atop notes of strawberry and almond and strawberry. Pretty and ever so slightly sweet, the wine winds up with the lightest touches of baking spice and cola lingering on the finish. Quite atypical for the region. A- / $85
2021 Sante Arcangeli Family Wines Pinot Noir Split Rail Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – Something of an oddball in this collection, the wine showcasing a beefy, Burgundian style that evokes some balsamic character, then a gently leathery quality on the burly, almost gruff finish. Cola and some spice notes add an edgy quality to an already punchy wine that feels like it still has some developing to do. B / $59
2021 Madson Wines Pinot Noir Ascona Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains – My least favorite wine in the lineup, but one with its own level of funky, rustic charm. Notes of tobacco, anise, and turned earth dominate a heavy, rather weighty experience that needs ample time to open up. The quiet licorice note on the finish gives the wine a brooding quality, but it finds a home alongside the soothing cherry character at the wine’s core. B / $55