Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area
The official Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area) includes three California counties: Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo. The appellation, which encompasses about 322,000 acres comprises of six sub-regions: Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills (above Santa Cruz), Ben Lomond Mountain, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley.
Vineyards and wineries exist throughout the varied topography that includes mountains, sun-drenched valleys, and the foggy ocean coastline. This region is fun to explore because many vineyards and wineries are located on remote, winding roads and mostly hidden throughout this highly regarded and beautiful appellation known for wines that are marked by layers of complexity and rich flavors.
First recognized as an American Viticultural Area in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was unique in being defined by its mountain topography. Some of the vineyards are at elevations of 3000+ feet. The appellation follows the fog line along the Pacific Coast, extending down to 800 feet in the east to the San Francisco Bay, and 400 feet to the west to Monterey Bay.
The very different terrains within the appellation create distinct microclimates depending on the elevation, type of soil, sun exposure or the presence of fog, proximity to the ocean, etc. The individual micro-climates combined with the cool, salt air breezes from the Pacific Ocean contribute to the production of highly concentrated fruit, which lends itself to the creation of superior wines. Warm days and cool nights create the perfect environment for the long, slow ripening of cool climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Heartier reds like Cabernet Sauvignon do better inland with warmer temperatures, away from ocean breezes.
Vineyards and Grape Varieties
There are about 200 small vineyards in the appellation grown on only about 1500 acres. The number of wineries and acreage planted with grapes has grown tremendously in the last few years as the area becomes recognized as a premium grape producing region. The individual micro-climates and marine influence contribute to the production of intensely, concentrated fruit, which lends itself to the creation of superior wines. Types of grapes grown are split evenly between four varieties: Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and other varieties such as Merlot and Zinfandel. The region’s vineyards and wineries actively support sustainable practices, and several vineyards are organic.
The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area’s history is rooted in the early 1800s when the Catholic missionaries first planted vineyards in the area now known as Harvey West Park. The missionaries produced an inferior, bitter wine, which the fathers sweetened by adding brandy. Viticulture was set to expand between 1850 and 1880 after loggers stripped 18 million board feet of lumber from the Santa Cruz Mountains, leaving land suitable to farming fruit, in particular grapes as they could be grown in the mountainous region. In 1853, Scotsman John Burns planted the first commercial vines in the county in Ben Lomond. Concurrently, John and George Jarvis established a winery near Scotts Valley they named Vine Hill. After these two local vintners won international acclaim in 1884, the interests in wine-making in the area blossomed. Viticulture in Santa Cruz then took off in the area that is now Pasatiempo Golf Course.
By the 1870s there were 16 vintners in Santa Cruz County. The wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains started to receive awards and recognition at the international level. Ben Lomond Wine Co., operated by William Coope, and Stewart won prizes at World’s Fairs in Paris in 1889, Chicago in 1893, and San Francisco in 1894. Vine acreage increased fivefold in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1880s.
Quality Santa Cruz Mountains wines came from the Santa Clara County side as well. However, prohibition soon marked the end of California’s first quality wine district of international repute. Prohibition began in 1919, forbidding the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” and lasted until December 5, 1933. Afterward, growers began replanting fine wine variety vineyards, but it was decades later that modern winemaking was adopted, enabling the Santa Cruz Mountains to regain its status among the premier wine growing areas in the country.