Unbelievably, my husband, Ken, and I had the place to ourselves.
I remember Napa before the tour buses and tasting fees; Sonoma, when the only picnic-foraging spot was a focaccia-free deli called the Salami Tree. Lately, though, I'd come to think California had run out of undiscovered places to taste wine.
Until I learned about the Santa Cruz Mountains, a rugged grape-growing district between the corporate campuses of Silicon Valley and Monterey Bay. The area is home to more than 50 wineries, some so small they're open only by appointment. Most produce excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Yet there are no Pinot-loving hordes clogging Santa Cruz County's twisty mountain roads. The tasting rooms, like the one at Thomas Fogarty, are so uncrowded you might believe you're at a private tasting.
I started — and finished — with the 2002 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. It was syrupy and sensuous, and unlike the heavy Chardonnays popular in Napa Valley, it didn't leave me feeling as if I'd been chewing on a stick of butter. I was starting to understand how these wineries captured a respectable number of gold and silver medals in the most recent San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
Because the wine region of the Santa Cruz Mountains is so spread out (its appellation exceeds 350,000 acres), visitors need a tasting strategy. We started near Woodside, northwest of Palo Alto, and wound southward 40 miles to the small town of Boulder Creek and then an additional 30 miles down to the even smaller town of Corralitos. We took three days in April; we didn't want to rush this.
From Thomas Fogarty we followed Skyline Boulevard past a collection of Christmas tree farms. The landscape looked unlike any wine region I'd ever seen. Here, orderly rows of vines pushed up against cluttered forests of redwood — the way it might look if the Three Bears kept a vineyard.
Our next stop was Byington Vineyard & Winery outside Los Gatos, which has one of the fanciest tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains — a cross between a French château and a Mexican hacienda. In the tasting room, Lou Runeare explained why every Santa Cruz Mountain wine we sipped tasted like heaven.
"It's all about more hang time," he said. "The fog makes the nights cool, and that gives the grapes a longer growing season." I liked this notion of hang time; it sounded so Santa Cruz. But these were no slacker varietals. That extra time on the vine gives the grapes a more complex flavor.
We lingered for a game of boccie, playing on a court bordered by grapevines and lavender before forcing ourselves to leave. We were headed to the nearby winery of David Bruce. It would be a sacrilege not to pay our respects to the local godfather of Pinot Noir.
Wine lovers and vintners know Bruce as one of the fussiest winemakers in any region. All his estate wines, for instance, are foot-crushed. I imagined barefoot women in peasant skirts — like an episode of "I Love Lucy" — until Jeannette Bruce, David's wife, showed us a photograph of burly men in rubber waders.
"This is my deathbed wine," she declared, handing me a glass of their 2001 Estate Pinot with a reverence one usually reserves for Holy Communion.
I swirled. Sipped. Sipped some more. This was indeed a wine to die for.
Deep roots in winemaking
The Burrell School Vineyards & Winery, also southwest of Los Gatos, was our first stop on Day 2. This historic winery is named for Lyman Burrell, an early settler and one of the first — in 1850 — to grow grapes and make wine here. From the late 1800s until Prohibition, the Santa Cruz Mountains area was a respected winemaking region in California. One lucky newspaperman sent to report on the area's wines in 1886 gushed that they were "of a grade unlike any yet presented."
Ken and I learned this history from Burrell School owner and winemaker Dave Moulton, who along with his wife, Anne, restored the small red 1890s schoolhouse on the property. Santa Cruz Mountain schoolchildren no longer trudge here to learn grammar or long division. Instead, grown-up wine lovers from across the country enroll in weekend classes such as Crush & Fermentation and Barrel Strategy.
The Moultons have named their wines Detention Red and Teacher's Pet Chardonnay and write the tasting menu on a chalkboard. The winery's slogan is also in chalk: "I promise to sip my wine," repeated in languages from Hebrew to Icelandic, as if the work of a wine-guzzling, multilingual Bart Simpson.
"We grow flavor," Dave Mouton told us. And to get it, he dry-farms. "I haven't watered in 13 years."
Behind the schoolhouse was a picnic area bordered by walls of rosebushes, a tempting place to play hooky with a bottle. We were in pursuit of further knowledge, however, so we continued up the road to Silver Mountain Vineyards.