The Santa Cruz Wine Experience
It’s organic––of wine, relationships, and terroir
When I’d mentioned to family and friends that I would be taking a wine tour with The Santa Cruz Experience on a weekend when Santa Cruz faced yet another heavy rain, everyone said the same thing, “That’s a perfect way to spend a rainy day!” Indeed.
The drizzly day began with tour guide Matty welcoming us into the comfortable van. A professional surfer from the age of 19, after Matty’s last world tour his wine-expert buddy wondered if he might want to help give wine tours on the weekends. As the two friends began to hang out with local winemakers and experienced wineries in the region they noticed a pattern––lots of people would stroll into the tasting rooms around 4:30, right before closing, for their last tastes. These people were in no condition to hit the mountain roads on a drive home afterward. That’s what gave them the idea for The Santa Cruz Experience which would not only provide a unique, memorable way to taste the region’s best wine but also get these late-tasting wine lovers safely off the road. Soon Matt quit his day job in the surfing industry to lead wine tours full time which still gives him plenty of freedom to surf dream breaks around the world like Namotu Island’s Cloudbreak.
When Matty asked for my wine preferences, I mentioned my big love of pinot noir and champagne. I shared a few of my unique wine experiences including hiking with stemware in Big Sur at the Big Sur Food and Wine Festival a few years back where I enjoyed an excellent five-course meal and wine pairings at a barn in the wilderness. I also talked about my hunt for the perfect champagne in France’s storied Reims and Epernay regions.
We agreed that wine is so subjective and lots of times it has so much to do with the memories we make with the vintage, a sort of relationship with the wine. “It’s very rare that you find someone that has the exact same palette,” Matt said.
We were joined on the experience by a mom and her daughters, part of their festive mother-daughter weekend away from LA and the Central Valley. After they weighed in on their favorites, Matty created a personalized experience based on our tastes and wine preferences which would include a local winery known for sparkling whites that makes about 90 percent of the sparkling wines for wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
He had me at sparkling white, of course. I couldn’t wait to taste his hand-picked lineup.
Bonny Doon Vineyard, Davenport
As the sun came out on our gorgeous drive up the Pacific Coast, we learned Bonny Doon Vineyards winemaker Randall Grahm is into three things––unique wines, no corks, and aliens. His nickname, a kind of moniker in the wine world, is the Rhône Ranger because he was the very first west coast winemaker to bring Rhône varietals out to California which was a big, big no-no. The French insisted that the wine wouldn’t taste the same if the clippings grew in the terroir of California. But in typical Randall pioneer fashion, he thumbed his nose at convention and planted them anyway becoming the eighth largest distributor internationally on the west coast of the varietal. In another avant-garde move, Grahm took Picpoul––a white grape usually used for blending––and showcased it in its own wine.
He also was the first to widely use the Stelvin screwcap, mostly because he likes every bottle of his wine to taste the same and there’s just no guarantee of that with corked bottles. Most wine enthusiasts will point to the fact that seven out of ten corked bottles will be characteristically different than the other three because you get different molds and spores on the inside of the cork which chemically change the wine. That’s what’s fun about wine.
Not for Randall. But he’s also not a fan of finding corkscrews, corkage fees, or being accused of being a cork sniffer either. So much so, that he saved corks for a number of years and got together with his artist buddies to make a cork corpse and coffin to parade through the streets of Manhattan declaring the death of the cork.
But the stories don’t stop there. Intrigued by laws banning UFOs resembling cylindrical cigar-like ships, a cigare volant or “flying cigar,” from landing in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the 1950s, Graham decided to pay homage to the craze that set Châteauneuf-du-Pape (translates to The Pope’s new castle) in an uproar. Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volant’s flagship wine features a label with a cigar-like UFO sending a red beam down onto a vineyard.
My tasting included five different wines with grapes sourced from Napa to Santa Barbara. Lots of variety here from the toasted creaminess of the ready-to-drink unorthodox 2016 Vin Gris de Cigare Réserve “en bonbonne” to the sixth iteration of their flagship red, a 2013 Le Cigare Volant Réserve “en bonbonne,” their famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, perfect for your wine cellar for up to 15 years.
Beauregard Vineyards, Bonny Doon
Next, we wound our way cutting the mountains past the Old Highway One, zig-zagging through the redwoods while discussing the fate of the old Davenport Concrete Plant and how its concrete was used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, one of the Panama Canal locks, and even constructed the dry docks in Pearl Harbor. We also learned about John Davenport, the town’s namesake and a whaler by trade, who built a wharf off El Jarro Point, once used for shore-based whaling.
As if on cue, the fog rolled in while we walked below the majestic canopies of the redwoods just outside The Lost Weekend tasting room at Beauregard Vineyards, where you can taste the fruit of its fourth generation of winemakers. At a certain point in the forest, just outside the tasting room, you can look up and see tree branches frame a heart-shaped patch of sky. Originally a grove of 3000 to 5000 years old trees, they were all harvested to rebuild San Francisco. The remaining second and third generation trees are around 150 years old.
Matty let us know that over the years there was a lot of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll that took place at the tiny little log cabin in the redwoods, once the tasting room for Bonny Doon. While almost totally shrouded in fog, over a delicious picnic lunch provided by historic Zoccolis, we learned the place had gone from biker bar to neighborhood grocery store to winery and was named after a 1945 movie.
I wished the walls could talk here and they actually do in a way. The history of the winery is illustrated beautifully along the walls of the tasting room. Perfect to take in after sipping wine by the fire or enjoying the redwoods. With wine glass in hand, stroll and discover many fun facts including that Pet Rock inventor Gary Dahl had been one of the owners of the place; and pour over a framed letter from Shell Oil dated 1939, honoring Amos Beauregard for having the original idea of dividing highway traffic by painting a line down the middle of the road.
Old World techniques inspire current winemaker Ryan Beauregard’s cellar practices after he became exposed to them during his European travels. “Our whole thing is terroir,” Ryan says of his winemaking philosophy where he gets technology out of the way so that the wine becomes wine with little or no additives. Ryan uses all native yeast in all of his wines and ages them in cement which micro-oxidizes the wine but doesn’t add any flavors. In 2016 Beauregard Vineyards released their first vintage of estate grown sparkling wine.
And speaking of sparkling…
On the way to the Equinox tasting room, we heard the wonderful story of how Matty met his wife––involving mermaids, Istanbul, and a scene where they met up a la Sleepless in Seattle––the perfect romantic tale to get us in the mood to sample the region’s leading methode champenoise winemaker. We soon arrived at the tasting room located in a shopping center on Ingalls Street nestled among other wine tasting rooms.
The sparkling wine at Equinox was born in 1989 only to have half of their harvest lost in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Barry and Jennifer later opened their Santa Cruz facility and also desired to support other wineries who wanted to make sparkling wines under their own label. Barry’s mom Dot loves to taste test his wines and works as an unpaid consultant.
Our sparkling flight was pure celebration which included sampling six of their specialties from 2015 Monterey Rosé to 1992 Extended Tirage Blanc de Blanc. The bubbles were full-on, and I literally had to ask how it was that the bubbles were so tasty but not as apparent in the glass. The secret to their varietals’ great flavor lies in the taste, not the show, our server noted. My favorite was the 2014 Santa Cruz Mountains Blanc de Blanc 100% Chardonnay and ready to party. For those interested in still selections Bartolo serves up some great offerings from Fianos to Grenache, Petit Verdot to Merlot.
The cozy tasting room has plenty of relaxed, comfortable seating, complete with a place to buy or sell used books. Pick up a great title for a suggested donation and linger over a glass of bubbles, a great way to spend an afternoon. My picks? Wines of the Rhône Valley by Robert M. Parker, Jr., Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and The Classic Ten by Nancy MacDonnell Smith, full of true stories about the little black dress and other fashion icons.
I found The Santa Cruz Experience wine tour so much more fun and enjoyable than the usual wine tasting grind of the larger California wine regions. Totally kick back and served up by a storytelling, former pro surfer, the experience embodied Santa Cruz. The big sell for my experience buddies? The wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains are so much more accessible to them from Los Angeles and the Central Valley than the other major NorCal wine regions.
Whether leaving the kids at home for a weekend away, a mother-daughter weekend, or getting a little break while visiting your collegiate kids, you’ll have a whole lot of fun and won’t have to worry about crowds, heat, or traffic while discovering boutique wines, most of which are not distributed internationally or nationally. But, the best part is the experience––all the behind-the-scenes stories and memories created with loved ones at different vineyards along the way to go with the bottles acquired. The Santa Cruz Experience wine tours are those you’ll want to take, again and again––rain or shine––to peel back the layers on the rich history and wine of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.