One more reason to love living on the Peninsula is the remoteness yet accessibility of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area) wine region. And, unlike other wine regions where winery visits can feel like gimmicky shuttle stops, Peninsula wineries are forced to exist within the rugged landscape, not the other way around.
Though most of the 70-plus wineries are within a one-hour drive between San Francisco and San Jose, they feel a world away. Keikilani McKay, executive director of Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains, explains that "Unlike other wine AVAs, it's not an easy stroll to visit these wineries, but their remoteness is what makes them so special. This is an inventor's region, a place for discovery, and they attract like-minded people who are willing to drive through ridges and redwoods to find that great wine."
The Santa Cruz Mountain AVA is the only one in California that is defined by geography, not geopolitical lines, according to McKay. Three counties — San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz — reside in the AVA. And with such drastic elevation shifts — from 400 feet to 2,600 feet — the cool climate can't help but define the wine and influence the vines. "When the AVA was established in 1981, they took into account the fog line and how that marine layer affects the grapes," she says.
Without large swaths of land to plant, the area's wineries tend to be stewards of their acreage, focusing on making the most of vineyards that reside in often challenging topography.
"The Santa Cruz Mountains have numerous state parks, so winemakers who settle here understand the challenges of farming amongst old-growth redwoods, for instance," McKay says. Visiting the wineries in this AVA and getting to know the folks who make some of the best cabs and pinots in the country is one way to help preserve the area.
McKay's organization breaks the region down into six subregions: Midpeninsula; Skyline and Woodside; Cupertino, Saratoga and Los Gatos; Summit and Highway 35; Santa Cruz, Soquel, Bonny Doon and San Lorenzo Valley; and Aptos, Corralitos and Gilroy. Our tasting guide only covers San Mateo, Santa Clara and the eastern part of Santa Cruz County (Los Gatos). This is in no way a complete list, but a starting point for your own discovery. All of these wineries offer on-site visits, either by reservation or drop-in.
The rolling hills west of I-280 are home to some iconic vines and wineries. The roads to Saratoga wineries weave through pockets of estates and farms. Montebello Road reaches almost 2,000 feet in elevation pretty quickly. It's got some hairpin turns right after Picchetti and turns into a single-lane road at this point, so watch for oncoming traffic and cyclists.
A visit to Garrod Farms could include wine and horseback riding, but Cory Bosworth, Cooper-Garrod's tasting room manager and granddaughter of Vicky Bosworth (Garrod), recommends riding before drinking. With a new brand change and website, Garrod Farms encompasses the Cooper-Garrod fruit-growing and winemaking legacy and its horse and agriculture footprint in these rural Saratoga hills. "This is a farming community first," Bosworth says of the area's agriculture history. "We're happy to be part of this tasting community. We are an eclectic bunch of wineries, each with unique tasting experiences."
The land where the winery and stables reside have been in the family for five generations, first growing fruit and then grapes. All the wine is estate-grown, sourced from 28 acres of certified organic and certified sustainable grapes. The family grows five red and two white varietals; tasting flights are themed and start at $22. There's a large covered patio and plenty of room to roam with your glass. Small bites are served. Open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m.; weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reserve online or stop by.
Mount Eden Vineyards
Paul Masson, Martin Ray, Ridge, and Mount Eden — four iconic wineries that relied on each other for lessons, cuttings, and talent. Mount Eden's cabs, pinots, and chardonnays have a cult-like following, and their tasting area is as elegant and understated as their wines. Consider setting aside some time to visit. Take your time tasting through the wines.
Director of Hospitality Sophie Patterson Sharabi says, "As we are one of the original boutique wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, we love to share our beautiful view and extensive history with our guests. Our veranda where we host our tasting experiences overlooks our estate chardonnay and pinot noir vines with panoramic views of the Santa Clara Valley at our 2,000 feet elevation." Reserve via Tock for weekday tastings ($35) starting at 10:30 a.m., with the last seating at 2:30 p.m. No food.
R & W Vineyards
Retired scientists Bill Wood and Nöel Relyea tend to a half-acre of cabernet sauvignon grapes high above the valley on Montebello Road. In addition to their estate-grown wine, they also make cabernet sauvignon from grapes sourced nearby in the same Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. They average about 300 cases, which are distributed between sales from visitors, their website (and wine club), and a few local Peninsula retailers like Roberts Market in Woodside and Bianchini's in San Carlos. Similar terroir to iconic Ridge Winery, but using younger vines. Tastings ($10 for four tastes) are by reservation only; times vary.
It's been six decades since Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen and Howard Ziedler purchased the Torre Ranch portion of the famed Monte Bello site and started dabbling in winemaking. What was once a four-family endeavor for these Stanford engineers turned into a once-in-a-lifetime wine legacy for the region. The wine-making facilities at the Monte Bello site still produce award-winning cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, and its historic tasting room is a must-visit experience for the Cupertino cabernet — curious. Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, by appointment only. You might spot retired winemaker Paul Draper walking the grounds. Estate ($25) and Private Library ($75) tastings are available.
In 1872, the Picchetti brothers bought 160 acres of land on a ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountain range and named the property montebello (beautiful mountain). They planted zinfandel, carignane, and petite sirah and farmed the land for 72 years. Today, the owners of Picchetti lease the land from the Midpeninsula Open Space District and produce about 10,000 cases. Open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tastings include four pours for $20. Incredible grounds, so pack a picnic and your hiking shoes.
Known as one of the founding families of land development in the South Bay, the Vidovichs make a small amount of wine at the former home and vineyard of the family's patriarch, Stephen Vidovich. They grow cabernet sauvignon grapes there on Montebello Road, in addition to a small plot in Los Altos Hills. The wine is well-regarded and has the legs to stand up against any Napa cab. Probably the best view of the valley. Open Saturdays noon to 4 p.m. by reservation only. Taste four of their cabernets for $20.
Summit Road and Loma Prieta Avenue are home to several wineries clustered together, making it possible to visit a few over the course of an afternoon. These roads, unlike Bear Creek, are relatively easy to navigate. Visit both David Bruce and Byington on the same trip, if possible, so that you can compare their pinots and avoid the twists and turns of Bear Creek Road more than once.
Silver Mountain Vineyards
For 40 years, Jerold O'Brien has been making premium wine at affordable prices. His summit (2,100 feet) winery and tasting room might be humble, but be prepared to be impressed with his cool-climate syrah (2014) that won him a "Best of Class" at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. If he doesn't farm his organic grapes himself on his property, he sources from nearby vineyards. Though they have a new Santa Cruz tasting room, you can still visit the winery and enjoy a tasting ($15) of four wines. Outside food is welcome. No reservations; Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
At 1,800 feet, this summit winery and tasting room are housed in a vintage California farmhouse-style compound with outdoor decks and super views. It's a historic location dating back to the Gold Rush era. Owner and winemaker Dan Lokteff pours his estate chardonnay and pinot noir, in addition to merlot and cabernet sauvignon that he makes from nearby-sourced grapes. Tastings ($20) are Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., walk-in or by reservation. Bocce ball court open to visitors. Kids and dogs welcome. Check their website for special events held at the winery throughout the year.
Muns has the distinct privilege to be the highest-elevation vineyard (2,600 feet) in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Their winery on Loma Prieta Avenue is intimate, with Ed and Mary Muns tackling most of the vineyard tending and winery business. Tastings ($15) of their excellent pinots and syrahs take place on a deck with amazing views. Expect a personal experience; come with questions as this is their life and passion. Because Ed and Mary lead tastings, there are slotted Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer months. Check their website to review and book. Times vary.
Even though Portola Vineyards and Mindego Ridge reside on or near Alpine Road, they are a world away from each other due to the open-space preserves that dominate the topography in these parts. Better to plan other outings around each of these three wineries: A hike through Arastradero Preserve before heading to Portola Vineyards; a side trip to Half Moon Bay before or after Thomas Fogarty Winery; and a drive to Pescadero State Beach after a stop at Mindego Ridge. Of course, there's plenty to enjoy at each winery if you choose to make that your only stop for the day.
Recently, Len Lehmann became one of only a handful of certified kosher winemakers in the area, making a stop at this winery in the foothills of Portola Valley a must for anyone searching for local kosher wine. Lehmann produces about 1,000 cases of estate wine every year from his organic and dry-farmed 2-acre property. His approach to winemaking is community-driven, so becoming a wine club member has certain advantages. Members help pick grapes during harvest season, along with the opportunities throughout the year. That sense of community extends to tastings, which happen on Sundays from April through October. Reserve a time and taste ($20) though Lehmann's wines while he gives you a tour of the vines.
Thomas Fogarty Winery
Thomas Fogarty makes a lot of highly acclaimed wine from several vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which means a tasting at this picturesque winery on Highway 35 is a great introduction to the area's diverse terroir. The terraced grounds are lovely and offer amazing views of the valley. Visitors have a chance to taste five wines ($35) outdoors or indoors. There's also a facility and vineyard tour with tasting ($55). By appointment only. Open every day 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
David and Stacey Gollnick tend to 10 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes on a south-facing sloped hillside a few miles from the Pacific Ocean in La Honda. About 15 years ago, both decided to leave the medical tech industry and grow grapes. The wines are 100% estate and dry-farmed. "I manage all the vine-to-vine handwork," David Gollnick says. "We're fortunate to have access to Rhys Vineyard's crew from time to time for harvesting, etc." With such a small production, they're also fortunate to have access to one of the top cool-climate winemakers in California, Ehren Jordan, who has his own label (Failla). "We take our fruit to his facility and head home," David Gollnick says about the partnership. "Now he's purchasing some fruit from us." Tasting opportunities for non-allocation members ($40) happen on select Saturdays and Sundays, booked online. David says that "five pours give guests an idea of what our wines are about. When people come out here, it's intentional." Tastings happen on the deck and are led by David and Stacey, who provide insight into their journey and the land.