Amongst the clutter in the world, it's comforting to know there are still wineries with soul. After seeing the gigantic chateaux emerge from the expensive dirt, and experiencing the grueling Napa traffic, I'd begun to think Northern California's wine country had morphed into one giant, overcrowded suburb. But, then I discovered dreamy Santa Cruz. Its elegant rolling hills, renegade winemakers and earnestness coalesce into a beautiful drink, leaving you confident someone still cares.
Each of the roughly 65 small and midsize wineries in Santa Cruz lie several miles apart, spanning two growing regions separated by rugged mountains and a busy super-highway. At the top of one of these steep peaks lies the legendary Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon producer Ridge Vineyards. In an unassuming turn-of-the-century winery, winemaker Eric Baugher creates magic with grapes free from earth-trashing pesticides. Ridge's Santa Cruz outpost is called Monte Bello, 140 acres dotted with stumpy 100-year-old Zinfandel vines and brimming with healthy Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In the aging room I grew faint seeing rows of oak barrels brimming with the glorious, unbelievably smooth 2001 Monte Bello Bordeaux blend ($120 per bottle). Tasting it created other unspeakable sensations. But even after years of worship, like its sister winery in Sonoma, Monte Bello Ridge remains low key, concentrating on crafting amazing wines rather than marketing. Sure, their schtick isn't low price, but any Ridge lover can still find Santa Cruz gems under $30, like their delicious Chardonnay or Cabernet.
One of the early pioneers in Santa Cruz winemaking is David Bruce Winery. Highly respected for their marvelous Pinot Noirs, they have been around almost 40 years, longer than most Napa or Sonoma houses. Winding up another mountain, I found the modern winery perched at 2,200 feet overlooking Monterey Bay. Eyes twinkling and emotions stirring, Bruce talks about his Pinots as if they are his children and proudly visits the sleeping wines in their barrels on a daily basis. Although he loves Pinots, his repertoire includes many other grapes like Petite Syrah, an intense, dark grape from France that yields fruity, sometimes peppery wines. Like the Pinots, the craft permeates every drop. His wines price between $18 and $40 and are widely available.
Closer to the Pacific, the hyperactive child of Santa Cruz winemaking, Randall Grahm, rules Bonny Doon Vineyards. His twisted experimentalist attitude is motivated by his goal of making what he calls "an original wine that matters." Grahm spent years trying to "subvert the dominant paradigm" by releasing obscure wines and exploring what his 140 acres of 80 different types of grapes would cough up. But now, like a kid growing up, he wants to create "soul" in his wines, where you can taste personality. Although he says he hasn't reached that level yet, his fun, wily wines have certainly garnered attention. This is the same guy who is converting all his bottling plants to screw-tops because he considers them superior — in his gut. He takes chances and succeeds quite often at doing so. Counted in his stock are successful wine names designed to thumb the nose at the establishment: Big House Red, Le Cigare Volant, Bouteille Call and Heart of Darkness. Wine drinkers are lucky to have the deliciously original and decadently devilish Bonny Doon on their side. Wines range from $8 to $30, in wine stores everywhere.
Other wineries of note in the Santa Cruz region are Bargetto, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards and Cinnabar. Although they aren't necessarily widely available, they're worth seeking out, especially if you're out that way. Like Ridge, David Bruce and Bonny Doon, their wines are refreshingly original, unpredictable and fabulous — the way wines with soul should be.
Wine Editor Taylor Eason can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 162 or [email protected].