Last month at a wine event in San Francisco I met a woman who used to travel throughout Northern California selling French and Hungarian barrels to wineries. I found that so intriguing that I asked her if she could write an article for LocalGetaways.com about her favorite Nor Cal wine region. And here it is—an insider’s guide to Deborah Passin’s favorite wineries, wine makers, restaurants, inns, hikes, picnic spots, camping, and activities in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And be sure to check out Deborah’s website at backcountrywines.com.
IT’S EASY TO LOSE ORIENTATION in the Santa Cruz Mountains, looping through miles of thick redwood trunks on narrow, winding roads that rise and fall in elevation. The sun makes infrequent appearances through a dense canopy of trees or vanishes completely behind a heavy layer of mist. Despite the fact that one of my favorite vineyards is on Memory Lane, I can never remember how to get there and get lost every time I go. But I always enjoy the journey.
The Santa Cruz Mountains is one of the most rugged and diverse wine regions in California. It’s also one of the most underappreciated, which is due to its size rather than the quality of the wines. There are only 80 wineries and 1,500 acres planted to vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains, compared to Sonoma County, which has 300 wineries and 60,000 acres planted to vines.
My favorite vineyard in the Santa Cruz wine region now has a tasting room conveniently located in the town of Saratoga. Stop in at Big Basin Vineyards and say hello to the tasting room manager, Andy. If you are there on a Friday or Saturday between 4 and 7pm, take advantage of their Happy Hour deal of 50% off your first glass of wine. The wines are exceptional and the atmosphere intimate, friendly, and serene. Enjoy browsing artwork from local music-inspired artist Matt Jones.
For more wine tasting, visit Cinnabar and enjoy live music on the patio of its wine bar on Fridays from 5-7pm May-September. If that’s not enough music, you can see a concert at nearby Mountain Winery, the first winery built in the area (1907), and sit in a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater with a 12th century Spanish portal as the backdrop to the stage. Their summer series concerts run from July to September.
Grab dinner at many of the fine dining restaurants in walking distance from the tasting rooms. Enjoy authentic Michoacan (Mexican) at Casa de Cobre or its sister restaurant, The Basin. For a more casual option, drive 15 minutes to Los Gatos and eat at Los Gatos Brewing Company.
Spend the next day hiking amongst old growth Redwoods in Big Basin State Park, the first state park in California. For serious backpackers and hikers, the Skyline-to-Sea Trail is considered the best long-distance (around 30 miles) hike in the Bay Area, but there are plenty of shorter hikes in the park.
Another option for a day trip from Saratoga is hiking one of the shorter trails in Castle Rock State Park and a tasting and picnic at Ridge Vineyards. Nestled high up in the mountains and surrounded by some of the oldest vineyards in the region, this winery is worth the drive up the mountain.
If you are going to Big Basin by way of Felton or Boulder Creek, stop and pick up lunch for the road at New Leaf Market in Boulder Creek. There are five New Leaf Markets in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they are great options for fresh, local, organic and gluten-free foods. If you want to stay overnight, I recommend the tent cabins in Big Basin State Park.
For a more low-key weekend, look for yoga retreats at Samantha Shatki’s studio at Big Basin Vineyards (yes, the actual vineyard) in Boulder Creek. The studio is on the second floor of the winery, overlooking the vineyard and the surrounding Redwood forest. Check the website for schedules as the retreats are infrequent. On the calendar now is “Sustainability from the Inside Out,” a two-day workshop of Anusara Yoga and Permaculture August 6th and 7th.
There is no better way to appreciate the giant redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains than from a canopy 150 feet off the ground. Redwood Canopy Tours offers eco-friendly adventures including a two-hour zip-line tour with certified guides sharing their extensive ecological knowledge and history of the redwood forest. Don’t be put off by its affiliation with the religious Mount Hermon Camps. The canopy tours are religion-free, although you might feel like praying when you take your first leap.
Continue your nature expedition and hike the Fall Creek Trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. If you like to get away from the crowds, this part of the park gets fewer visitors. Hikers with an historical interest will enjoy traveling to the old limekilns. Don’t forget to pick up lunch at New Leaf Market in Felton.
Getting back to wine, spend some time at the secluded Beauregard Vineyards. Sit outside, relax, and take in the smell of the woods and view of the Monterey Bay. If you want go camping in the Santa Cruz area, New Brighton State Beach is a great option in the spring or fall. Book far in advance if you plan to go in the summer.
If camping isn’t your thing and you want to stay off the beaten path, head to the town of Aptos. The Best Western Plus Seacliff Inn is reasonably priced and within walking distance to Seacliff State Beach. Spend the evening at the hotel’s Severino’s Bar and Grill and enjoy a tasty meal, live music, and local vibe.
Foodies will enjoy one of the two French restaurants in Aptos, Au Midi and Ma Maison. They are sister restaurants with Au Midi on the more casual side, although the prices are not so casual. Reservations are recommended. If you’re still in your hiking clothes or just want a no-frills, delicious old-fashioned barbeque, Aptos St. Barbeque is a local favorite.
Before you head home, take a side trip to one of my other favorite wineries in the region, Windy Oaks. The vineyard is easy to miss but well worth the number of times you have to turn around to try again. The new tasting room is open every Saturday from noon to 5pm. Bring a picnic to enjoy on the patio or up on the vineyard ridge. With advance reservations and a party between two and six people, you can do a private walking tour of the vineyard. Owners Jim and Judy Schultz make the experience warm and personal.
Everything I’ve mentioned above is just a fraction of the things to see and do in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a place rich with history, nature, food, and wine. A one-day trip won’t be enough and you’ll want to allow plenty of time for getting lost, so plan a weekend getaway. You can count on an adventure every time, no matter which path you choose. – Deborah Passin