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Cruz control
Santa Cruz wines come around again

It’s always exciting to watch a wine region evolve (Long Island is now an infant, while Rhode Island and Massachusetts are still in the womb). Almost as exciting is watching a region’s rebirth. Santa Cruz, located about 70 miles south of San Francisco, has been on the wine scene for quite some time — indeed, it was California’s premier wine region in the 19th century. Now, Santa Cruz is undergoing a renaissance, producing top-notch wines at reasonable prices (at least compared to the finest Napa and Sonoma offerings).

For an area to be a real wine region, it has to attain a certain critical mass. Wine drinkers must be aware of it, and they must be on the lookout for it. The area, writ large, has to mean something to them. Wine regions come, but they rarely go; once they’re established, it’s simply a question of the wines’ quality. And that’s what’s helped give Santa Cruz a second life.

The first wine grapes were grown in Santa Cruz between 1804 and 1807, but the area didn’t develop as a wine region until the mid 1800s, when extensive logging left the hillsides bare for planting. Early on, the wines garnered praise and won competitions; by the 1870s, more than a dozen vintners shared the region. By 1889, Santa Cruz wines were winning prizes at world’s fairs (first in Paris in 1889, then in Chicago in 1893, and up the road in San Francisco in 1894), putting California wine country on the map.

Then, in the early 20th century, Santa Cruz found itself at the heart of California’s temperance movement. Unlike Napa and Sonoma, Santa Cruz has no surviving wineries from before 1930. (Prohibition had a vastly disruptive effect on US winemaking: for all but a few wineries making sacramental religious wines, wine production was illegal. The whole industry stood idle for more than a decade, whereas in Europe, Australia, South Africa, and South America, wine production has continued unabated for at least 150 years.)

Santa Cruz’s famous neighbors — Napa and Sonoma to the north, and Monterey, Santa Maria, and Paso Robles to the south — have long overshadowed the region. But it is re-emerging with a vengeance. It now hosts more than 50 wineries, at least 10 of world-class stature. My top 10 at the moment are Ridge, Storrs, Savannah-Chanelle, David Bruce, Mount Eden, Kathryn Kennedy, Cinnabar, Byington, Bonny Doon, and Ahlgren — but so many fine wineries keep emerging that my list is subject to change.

Paul Draper’s Ridge Vineyards deserve special attention. In any listing of New World cabernets, Ridge’s Monte Bello places right near the top. Paul Draper, acknowledged by almost every wine publication as a visionary leader, is the person most responsible for Santa Cruz’s renaissance. In addition to cabernet sauvignon, Ridge specializes in a host of more obscure varietals, including zinfandel (which may not seem so obscure now, but it was 30 years ago when Draper made his start), petite sirah, mataro (a/k/a mourvèdre), carignane, and field blends (such as Geyserville, which often includes cinsaut and Alicante Bouschet). Draper championed the idea of single-vineyard labeling early on, and his passion and talent for winemaking, to say nothing of his laid-back marketing savvy, make Ridge one of the world’s great wineries.

Santa Cruz has other stars, such as Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, whose wines are seemingly everywhere (he has a tasting room just a few miles from downtown Santa Cruz, and another in Paso Robles). Storrs makes wonderful zinfandel, merlot, and petite sirah, as well as a game gewürztraminer and some drinkable chardonnays. I have raved about Savannah-Chanelle’s zinfandels and cabernet francs, and I must confess I love everything this winery puts on the shelves.

As a whole, this region is still learning which vine varieties work best, and at which vineyard sites. So far, its diversity rivals Napa’s or Sonoma’s, although it produces very few sauvignon blancs. Its proximity to the sea and the shady hills makes this a cooler wine region, despite its location 100 miles south of Sonoma. Its wines, made mostly from mountain fruit, tend to be big without going over the top.

Santa Cruz winemakers, moreover, tend to be very friendly and supportive of one another, and the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy makes for a convivial atmosphere (in Napa and Sonoma, on the other hand, money and spotlight-sharing issues have led to some major feuds). It is also one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Many of its 50-plus wineries are open for tastings (often free of charge), and there’s plenty of affordable lodging near the ocean. It’s safe to say that after gestating for more than 20 years, this region is just as wonderful the second time around.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: July 5-12, 2001

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