If you are California-bound this summer and want to visit a winery or two, you should consider the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Cooler than Napa, more remote than Sonoma, Santa Cruz was once the center of wine-making on the West Coast and still offers the adventurous traveler the prospects of fine scenery and wines to match. For those whose travel is limited to the aisles of wine shops, Santa Cruz also offers bargains and some of the most interesting California wines.
In Santa Cruz, the rugged, gorgeous country that lies close to the ocean is bathed in sunlight during the day and is cool at night -- a combination that is good for grapes. A century ago, when there were many more vineyards in the Santa Cruz area, the region had the reputation for producing good zinfandel and riesling. But Prohibition ruined things there, as it did for the rest of the California wine industry, and Santa Cruz never matched the resurgence of vineyard planting and wine-making that began in Napa in the late 1960s.
Nonetheless, there are several fine vineyards tucked away in Santa Cruz, often at the end of tortuous roads. Most of them require that would-be visitors make an appointment, but a few have public tasting rooms and picnic tables.
One of the more welcoming is Congress Springs, established in 1892, just north of Saratoga. Congress Springs turns out about 15,000 cases of wine a year -- not enough to interfere with quality control. Although the winery produces cabernet and cabernet franc, most of its wine is white. Its chardonnay, semillon, riesling and pinot blanc are made almost entirely from grapes purchased elsewhere in the region; most are reasonably priced, and all are good.
The estate-bottled chardonnay, made from Congress Springs' own small vineyard, is barrel-fermented and aged in French oak for six months. Its toasty qualities, however, do not overwhelm the fruit, which is abundant in all the Congress Springs wines. Made in very small quantities, this wine is the pride of the winemaker and owner, Dan Gehrs. It has earned a host of medals and costs $20.
For considerably less you can buy Congress Springs' other chardonnay, made from grapes grown in nearby Santa Clara Valley. Complex and well-balanced, it is lush and more or less ready to drink when released. The '86 is available locally for $11.
On the western side of the mountains, near the town of Felton, is a sign that reads "Welcome to Bonny Doon." Just down the road is another sign: "You just left Bonny Doon." In between is the hamlet and winery of the same name -- a tiny clapboard house with a tasting room, and a cluster of buildings out back.
The Bonny Doon vineyards are hidden on a hillside a mile to the north, amidst redwood and madrone trees. They and the winery belong to Randall Grahm, a former philosophy student and a disciple of the wines of the Rhone Valley in France. Grahm makes his wine from syrah, grenache and mourvedre -- considered exotic grapes in California -- as well as from more common local grapes, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
And what wines! Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant ("The Flying Cigar"), mostly grenache, has great color and depth of flavor and costs about $9. The Bonny Doon Estate chardonnay, $20, is a rich, concentrated wine made in very limited quantities. These and most other Bonny Doon wines can be bought here as well as at the source.
Grahm's passion for innovation and good wine-making should quickly become apparent to any visitors who encounter him in the tasting room. His audacious wine-making and his sense of humor -- evident in the offbeat names of his wines -- have helped create a large demand for his wines. These include Clos de Gilroy -- $9, and also predominantly grenache -- and Grahm Crew California Vin Rouge, a blend of syrah and cabernet for only $6.25.
Probably the least accessible winery in the area is Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz itself. "About one person a year gets up here uninvited," says the owner, Ken Burnap, who has no tasting room but does not turn away those determined to see the origins of his extraordinary wines.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard has a tiny production of 3,500 cases. Because of the area's abundant rainfall, the vineyards are "dry farmed," meaning there is no irrigation. The pinot noir, planted in 1969 and '70, grows in a vineyard with a view of the distant ocean and is made by traditional Burgundian methods. The "cap" -- the floating mass of skins and seeds in the fermentation tank -- is pushed down by hand, giving the wine great color, intensity and flavor.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard's chardonnay and cabernet are made from grapes grown nearby under long-term contracts. The chardonnay is medium- bodied and flavorful, with a lemony finish, and it sells for less than $10 -- a steal. The cabernet, at $12, is full-bodied and tannic. It throws a sediment -- an indication of aging potential and real Santa Cruz character. ::