The wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains—more than 70 of them—are producing some of the best wines in the world. Just 30 miles south of San Francisco, the area, with its mix of surfers, artists and hippies peddling organic groceries, could not feel more different from its cousins to the north in Napa. And its wineries, tucked away down small and windy roads are, perhaps, more thrilling because of their remoteness—and because of the nature of the land: winegrowers produce distinct pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay varietals from low-yielding vineyards on small plots of land, giving the wines intense flavors and aromas. Many wineries are only open on Saturdays and Sundays, making Santa Cruz an ideal weekend jaunt. Here’s our recommended itinerary:
Check into the Dream Inn, where retro guestrooms have views of the Monterey Bay and there’s free morning yoga on the pool deck. Save the sunset for another night and head straight to Sones Cellars, a small-production mom-and-pop winery whose fruit-forward petit syrahs are nearly impossible to find outside county lines (sonescellars.com). Down the street, stop by Silver Mountain Vineyards’ new tasting room to try former military pilot Jerold O’Brien’s organic Bordeaux-style blends (silvermtn.com). Stay in Santa Cruz for dinner at Gabriella Café, where the emphasis is on local, seasonal fare (gabriellacafe.com; reservations suggested).
Start the day just outside town at Hunter Hill (hunterhillwines.com; open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday), which has gorgeous estate wines, such as the cherry-and-plum-infused 2006 pinot noir.
Back in Santa Cruz, nosh on a vegetarian burrito at Tacos Moreno (tacosmoreno.com) before heading north on Route 17 to Los Gatos, where the Testarossa (testarossa.com; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; $10 tasting) is the area’s oldest continuously running winery, and is known for its pinots and chardonnays. Burn off some calories with a walk along the Los Gatos Creek Trail, which stretches nearly 10 miles from the Lexington Reservoir County Park in Los Gatos to downtown San Jose.
For dinner, reserve at table at the two-Michelin-star Manresa Restaurant (manresarestaurant.com), where chef David Kinch prepares French-inspired dishes—such as poached, roasted poularde with peas and radishes, or trout confit with horseradish custard and preserved plums—using local ingredients from nearby Love Apple Farm. Opt for the four-course tasting menu with wine pairings ($67 per person; $95 per person for premium wine pairing) and save room for dessert: Pastry chef and James Beard semifinalist Deanie Fox just left her post at Ubuntu in Napa to take charge of sweets.
Go early to Ridge Vineyards (ridgewine.com; open for tastings weekends only) to avoid crowds later in the day. Its cabernet was voted the best by some of the world’s top tasters, and its tasting room affords spectacular views of the Bay Area. Backtrack on Stevens Canyon Road to Picchetti (pichetti.com; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), one of the area’s oldest wineries, located within the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. On Sundays, there’s live music and the picnic area here is one of the best, so pack a lunch (get the goods at the Summit Store where the meatloaf sandwich is nirvana and the cheese selection is encyclopedic) and stop by before hopping on Interstate 280 to the airport.