Santa Cruz Mountains: wild parks, winning wines, and shimmering views converge in the hills south of San Francisco.
The summer sun gives the hills an ethereal golden sheen. We shade our wineglasses under an umbrella. We wouldn't want to mar this moment by a single degree, since we've come to this mountain spot to pay homage to the world's best wine. Yes, you read right: world's best. As in, unsurpassed. Number one. Top dog.
Ridge Vineyards, here on a slope called Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has been judged by the world's top tasters to make the best Cabernet on the globe; ranked above some famous Bordeaux at the ground-breaking 1976 Paris blind tasting, the same Cabernet placed first in a rematch last year.
The best wine in the world--not from France? Nor Napa? You'd never guess the source to be the Santa Cruz Mountains--unless you already know this place harbors not only great wineries but also good food and plenty of room to roam.
Of course, today we can't afford the current vintage of that lauded Cabernet (starting at $160 a bottle), but we more than make do with some excellent Chardonnay.
Top-of-the-world wine, with atop-of-the-world view: We pronounce it a perfect pairing.
Challenging wines, challenging roads
How, we wonder, have we gotten so lucky to have this place all to ourselves?
While a number of wine aficionados know and love the region, few wine lovers come for a visit. Granted, the landscape is not easy for visitors: Wineries are tucked into mountain folds and behind evergreens down dirt roads. Many are small and open to visitors intermittently. And there is no quick way to get anywhere from the tops of these hills.
So we drive, and drive, and drive some more in this beautifully rugged terrain, happily hurling ourselves down corkscrew roads. We spend our nights near the ocean in Santa Cruz. In the mornings, when surfers head to the shore and college students pack the coffee shops, we point our car east and head back into the hills for more.
More than 70 wineries operate in the Santa Cruz Mountains region. It's a section of land that follows California's Coast Range from Half Moon Bay and Woodside in the north (about 30 miles south of San Francisco) to Watsonville on the coast and Gilroy inland (30 miles south of San Jose). Towns along the main through street, State 9 (which is anything but straight), offer organic groceries and cafes with hippie roots, funky mountain art co-ops, and the feeling that you're much farther than two dozen miles from urban life.
Hiking with peacocks
The hills also host a huge network of parks, where palm trees neighbor redwoods and boulders have been displaced by earthquakes. Mountain lions are sometimes seen here. Just down the hill from Ridge is the Picchetti Ranch Open Space Preserve, where we stretch our legs amid the live oak- and madrone-filled canyons. But before we get far, we're stopped by a male peacock, in full iridescent display, blocking our path.
The weight of its blue and green feathers at full reach seems to test the bird's balance, and it takes some compensatory steps, first in one direction, then another. It lets out a screech. Odd that such beautiful birds would have such grating voices. We, however, are speechless, until the fellow tires of showing off, closes up shop, and strides away.
We shrug--just another mountain surprise, like the time we stumbled upon a woman walking a llama in another park up here. The llama was on a leash, just like a dog. We continue on our own hike, switch-backing down to a shaded madrone-filled canyon. We climb up again, to grassy meadows, a seasonal pond, and views of Stevens Creek Reservoir. We could hike out here for days, climbing ridge after forested ridge, running into the next park, and the next, all the way to ocean if we had the time.
After our hike, we stop in the old buildings by the preserve entrance. Turns out this spot housed one of the area's earliest wineries, dating back to the 1890s. One member of the winemaking family liked exotic birds, thus the peacocks, descendants of the original pet flock.
And wine is still made here by Picchetti Winery. We step into a 100-year-old barn to swirl and sip some more.
Our pourer is a recent college grad with shaggy hair who hits the beach with his board on his days off: "This Sangiovese is, like, totally delicious," he says.
Santa Cruz's coastal climate clearly keeps his wine pretension level low. Much like, we think, Santa Cruz Mountains wine in general. We dig the mellow vibe, because who doesn't like a humble winner?
Where to stay
Hotel Los Gatos The swankest spot in the mountains. From $249; www.hotellosgatos.com or 866/335-1700.
West Cliff Inn New Santa Cruz lodge with ocean views from six rooms. From $150; www.westcliffinn.com or 800/979-0910.
Where to eat
Gabriella Tiny but excellent. $$$; 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; 831/457-1677.
Manresa French dishes with a Catalonian twist. $$$; closed Mon; 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos; 408/354-4330.
Theo's Local and organic. $$$; closed Sun-Mon; 3101 N. Main St., Soquel; 831/462-3657.
What to do
Big Basin Redwoods State Park About 20,000 acres of trails and camping. $6 day-use fee, campsites $25; 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek; www.parks.ca.gov or 831/338-8860.
Picchetti Ranch Open Space Preserve and Picchetti Winery Mountain hiking, with a winery on-site. $5 tasting fee; 13100 Montebello Rd., Cupertino; www.picchetti.com or 408/741-1310.
Where to sip
For more, contact the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (www.scmwa.com or 831/685-8463).
Burrell School Vineyards and Winery Thu-Sun; $5 tasting fee; 24060 Summit Rd., Los Gatos; www.burrellschool.com or 408/353-6290.
David Bruce Winery 21439 Bear Creek Rd., Los Gatos; www.davidbrucewinery.com or 800/397-9972.
Ridge Vineyards Open Sat-Sun; 17100 Montebello Rd., Cupertino; www.ridgewine.com or 408/867-3233.
Vinocruz $9 tasting fee; 725 Front St. (entrance on Abbott Square off Cooper St.), Santa Cruz; www.vinocruz.com or 831/426-8466.--S.S.
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|Author:||Schneider, Sara; Taggart, Lisa|
|Article Type:||City overview|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2007|
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