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Sip California’s Santa Cruz Mountains

Wine Tasting in Silicon Valley’s Backyard

Story and photos by Kai Oliver-Kurtin

For many, a winetasting trip to Northern California means joining the crowded tasting rooms throughout Napa Valley and Sonoma. This leaves other savvy oenophiles to freely enjoy Silicon Valley’s best kept secret: wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This lesser-known American Viticultural Area—the first wine appellation named for a mountainous region—is located an hour south of San Francisco, stretching the coastline from Half Moon Bay down to the city of Watsonville.

More than 75 wineries dot the Santa Cruz Mountains, with tasting rooms situated against mountainsides to offer panoramic views of both redwood trees and Silicon Valley landmarks like Apple’s ring-shaped headquarters dubbed “the donut.” Most of Santa Cruz Mountains’ boutique wineries are family-run and only produce about 2,500 cases of wine annually, typically charging between $10 to $25 for tastings.

What’s Growing

The region’s cool climate makes for optimal growing conditions for several grape varietals, including pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon. Wine from this area tends to be higher in acidity and minerality, so it’s typically very approachable and can be enjoyed with or without food.

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Farm-to-table restaurants in the area typically serve local, seasonal fare alongside complementary local wines. Several notable Michelin-starred restaurants are among the dining options as well as prominent chefs like David Kinch.

Fine Dining

Michelin-starred restaurants in the Santa Cruz Mountains area:

Three Stars

Manresa, Los Gatos

Two Stars

Baumé, Palo Alto

One Star

Maum, Palo Alto
Protégé, Palo Alto
Plumed Horse, Saratoga
Madera, Menlo Mark
The Village Pub, Woodside

Weekend Getaway

Since Santa Cruz County has the most state parks in California, this means there’s vast land between each winery—which makes for a lovely leisurely vacation yet it’s difficult to bounce between multiple tasting rooms in a single afternoon. The wineries attract vino lovers from throughout the South Bay, but because they’re small operations, many of the tasting rooms are only open on Saturdays. To maximize a weekend, head to Surf City Vintners on Sunday to continue wine tasting in an urban warehouse space that contains 11 wineries.

Passport to Pinot

Peak visiting times are during Santa Cruz Mountains (SCM) Passport Celebration Days, held the third Saturday of January, April, July, and November, when all the wineries are in full swing. Purchase a SCM Passport ($75) from the local winegrowers’ association that’s valid for tastings at 40 participating wineries throughout the region—it’s redeemable all year long as well as on Passport Celebration Days, too. Launched this year, the PremierPass ($175) includes six premium wine tasting experiences (among 20 offered) that take tastings to the next level with exclusive tours, food and wine pairings, and private winemaker tastings.

The bulk of tasting rooms are spread throughout the towns of Los Gatos, Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz and Saratoga, which are all easily accessible from the San Jose International Airport. Hired transportation is available for those who want to organize a private wine tour or need a designated driver.

Bon vivants will enjoy a winetasting weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which promises incredible outdoor scenery, easy-to-drink wine and contemporary restaurants.

Plan A Trip

Insider tips can help you build an itinerary in the Santa Cruz Mountains:

  • Eat an upscale dinner that showcases the region’s bounty of fresh ingredients at Chef David Kinch’s Manresa or at Nick’s Next Door in Los Gatos or at Alderwood in Santa Cruz.
  • Drink at House Family Vineyards to take in some of the best views of Silicon Valley paired with Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, cabernet franc, and merlot.
  • Stay at the Mediterranean-style Hotel Los Gatos, centrally located at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains in downtown Los Gatos.
  • Play in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, that houses redwood trees measuring more than 50 feet in diameter.
  • Snap a photo of the serene mountain view and picturesque vineyard surrounding Big Basin Vineyards, while enjoying live music every Friday night.
  • Toast to a great trip at Equinox, the region’s only winery to specialize in sparkling wines.

For more information, visit the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association website.

Visit California

Kai Oliver-Kurtin


Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based freelance writer specializing in travel, dining, and lifestyle.