The approach to Thomas Fogarty Winery was just this side of too bucolic. Lupine and poppies lined the driveway, trellised wisteria hung over the picnic tables and swans (swans!) glided around a pond filled with lily pads. Inside the tasting room, a wall of windows faced steep vine-covered hills.
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.
In an area known for wineries with spectacular views, Silver Mountain may have the best. Perched at 2,100 feet, its vistas stretch from the Monterey Bay to the Bay Bridge. We gazed, stunned, until Oscar and Nessie, the winery dogs, sniffed out our tri-tip sandwiches. We rescued our picnic, then walked down to the plain building that serves as home and winery for Jerold O'Brien.
The wine at Silver Mountain is organic. But "free-range" grapes aren't the main reason to drink it. The 2001 Silver Mountain Chardonnay has a seductive velvety finish. The Bordeaux blend, appropriately named Alloy, has about 43 layers of flavor.
"You don't make wine up here unless you're passionate about it," O'Brien said. And he's a good example of that. In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and a subsequent fire, he lost all his vineyards and his winery. Within four months, he had begun rebuilding.
We ate our slightly dog-gnawed sandwiches on the big deck outside the tasting room, surrounded by views and Labradors, and never made it to another winery that day.
Four times a year, small wineries that are not usually open to the public welcome visitors for tasting, food and sometimes music. We timed our last day to coincide with a Passport Saturday.
Windy Oaks Estate, near Corralitos, is open only six days a year and doesn't even have a sign. The only clue that we'd arrived was a barrel with a tacked-up sign reading, "You made it," and a vase of roses on top. The winery was equally simple, not much more than a big garage. The setting, however, is positively Burgundian — the French appellation that inspired Windy Oaks' proprietors and winemakers, Jim and Judy Schultze.
Before tasting, we hiked through the vineyards to the two massive oak trees that give the winery its name. From the ridge, we could see the ocean, redwood-covered hills and a party of picnickers so settled in it seemed nothing short of winter would dislodge them.
Back in the tasting room, Jim Schultze used a tool resembling an enormous turkey baster to draw tastes from an aging barrel of 2003 Pinot. Schultze is unusual in that he never racks his wine (moves it from one barrel to another so the barrels can be cleaned). He explained, "I want the wine to reflect what's in the field."
Judy Schultze, wearing a sticker that read, "I'm passionate about Pinot" poured the winery's two current Pinot Noir releases — a 2002 blend and a 2001 estate vintage. The blend tasted of the earth, in the way that the best French wines do. The 2001 estate was, as that 19th century reporter said, "of a grade unlike any yet presented."
Judy Schultze is a real evangelist. She explained the region's microclimates and soil content as she poured, telling us, "Wine Spectator magazine calls the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation the most underrated wine appellation in the world."
Not by me it isn't.
Wine, dine, sleep
Expenses for two on this trip:
Lodging (with tax)
Brookdale Lodge $109 Historic Sand Rock Farm $204
Breakfast, picnics, plus dinners at Soif Wine and Ciao Bella $142
Two winetasting Passports $50 Thomas Fogarty tasting fee $12
Distance from L.A.: 370 miles
WHERE TO TASTE:
Thomas Fogarty Winery, 19501 Skyline Blvd., Woodside; (650) 851-6777, http://www.fogartywinery.com .
Byington Vineyard & Winery, 21850 Bear Creek Road, Los Gatos; (408) 354-1111, byington.com.
Burrell School Vineyards & Winery, 24060 Summit Road, Los Gatos; (408) 353-6290, http://www.burrellschool.com .
Silver Mountain Vineyards, Silver Mountain Drive, between Miller Cut Off and Skyland Road; (408) 353-2278, silvermtn.com.
David Bruce Winery, 21439 Bear Creek Road, Los Gatos; (800) 397-9972, davidbrucewinery.com.
Windy Oaks Estate, 380 Sweetwood Way, Corralitos; (831) 786-9163, windyoaksestate.com.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Redwood Keg, 12980 Highway 9, Boulder Creek; (831) 338-2727. There's no food along the road except berry bushes, so a picnic lunch is essential. This joint looks like a liquor store, but in back they serve tri-tip sandwiches smothered in barbecue sauce. Sandwiches $5.39.
Corralitos Market & Sausage Co., 569 Corralitos Road, Watsonville; (831) 722-2633. They smoke and stuff their own sausage — venison, lamb and even ostrich — and they'll cook a few for sandwiches. Sandwiches $4-$6.
Ciao Bella, 9217 Highway 9, Ben Lomond; (831) 336-9221. It looks as though it was decorated by Liberace on acid. The waitresses sing (not always well). The food is nothing to write home about. But everybody has a good time. Dinner only. Entrees $10-$21.
Soif Wine, 105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz; (831) 423-2020, vwww.soifwine.com. Soif means "thirst" in French, which seems appropriate. For tasting, they pour 2-ounce and 5-ounce pulls from the list of 60 served by the glass. It's a 12-mile drive from Aptos, but worth it. Dinner only. Entrees $14-$18.
WHERE TO STAY:
Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Highway 9, Brookdale; (831) 338-6433, http://www.brookdalelodge.com . The only accommodations in Boulder Creek (a good central location) is this kitschy, down-at-the-heels lodge. An actual brook runs through the restaurant (which makes the place kind of damp). Doubles $79-$99.
Historic Sand Rock Farm, 6901 Freedom Blvd., Aptos; (831) 688-8005, http://www.sandrockfarm.com . At the southern end of the mountains, this charming B&B is an excellent choice. The inn is a lovely restored Arts & Crafts-style cottage on 10 acres. Doubles, $185-$225, including breakfast.
TO LEARN MORE:
Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Assn., 7605-A Old Dominion Court, Aptos, CA 95003; (831) 479-9463, http://www.scmwa.com . The association provides information and maps to all the region's wineries. Most open only on weekends or by appointment. On Passport Days — the third Saturdays of January, April, July and November — some additional small wineries open their doors. You must buy a lifetime passport, $25.
— Janis Cooke Newman