Follow our path through idyllic landscapes to discover these low-key high quality vineyards.
Looking for a wine country adventure, but don’t feel like making the long haul to navigate weekend crowds in Napa or Sonoma? Try sipping your way through the wonderful wineries of the southern Santa Cruz Mountains instead. Small, family-owned and tucked into serene settings, these quietly competitive wineries deliver under-the-radar quality in the shadows of the redwoods.
We recently spent a weekend exploring these wineries on the south side of the region around Soquel and Corralitos. This is prime country for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but you’ll find a little of everything in an area that makes for a perfect day trip from the San Francisco Peninsula.
Before they were winemakers, Richard and Mary Kay Alfaro owned a restaurant and a baking company. Then they bought up an apple farm and converted it to vineyards. There are now 56 acres under vine, eight of which are certified organic. The family vibe extends to those vineyards as well. The Lindsay Paige, Ryan Spencer and Mary Katherine Vineyards are named after Richard’s daughter, son and wife respectively.
In addition to the Pinots and Chardonnays that do so well in this region, Alfaro’s has a knack for producing quality reds, including Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as their crisp white Grüner Veltliner.
The patio at Alfaro Family Vineyards just begs for a friendly gathering. It’s covered and shady and jets out right over the vines. Feel right at home to bring kids, pups and picnics along, then set up at one of their tables while you sip on the wines. There’s a good chance that one of the family members will be pouring in the tasting room as well.
Go here if you like balanced wines with a hint of rustic edge and a laid back attitude.
Tasting Highlights: The 2015 Trout Gulch Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir comes from a dry farmed site, four miles from the ocean. It has a core of tart cherries with savory, woody and black tea notes with plenty of freshness for balance. The 2014 Ryan Spencer Estate Syrah has blackberry, boysenberry and spiced plum notes with brambly rosemary and thyme. The 2016 Dragon Slayer is an easy drinking blend of Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Carignane and Syrah, with a tongue-in-cheek label depicting a fearless woman taking on a dragon (apparently this is Mary Kay keeping Richard in line). It’s a solid buy at $20.
Details: They’re open Saturdays from noon to 5:00 pm all year, as well as Sundays during the summer. $12 tasting fee.
Ever dreamed of leaving the business or tech world behind to make wine? Jim and Judy Schultze did just that. They started Windy Oaks Estate while they were both still management consultants. Nowadays, they run their vineyards and winery with their two sons. Jim sees to the vines and the winemaking, while Judy handles the business end of things — you’ll also usually see her in the tasting room on Saturdays.
The Schultze’s are very much inspired by the wines of Burgundy, and Jim’s winemaking style definitely shows that influence. He takes a hands-off approach and intervenes as little as possible during the process. Overall, the wines are ethereal and light on their feet. They focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah for their estate wines, but also purchase fruit to make a variety of other offerings. Their vineyards are farmed sustainably, using organic and biodynamic techniques.
Their tiny Corralitos tasting room is situated amidst their almost 30 acres of vines surrounded by redwoods. Taste at the bar or outside on the patio that spills out into the vines. The vineyards creep up a hill that give way to spectacular views of the ocean. Take the short hike to sneak a peek if you can.
Go here if you enjoy elegant wines in a leaner style that will whisk you away to France.
Tasting Highlights: The range of Pinot Noir bottlings is quite beautiful. It’s worth comparing a few on the Premium Estate Flight. The 2014 Estate Syrah Vaccaro Family Vineyard shows the lighter side of this typically big grape, with hints of pine and lilacs over blackberries. The 2014 One-Acre Estate Chardonnay has a chalky finish with just a hint of vanilla (that would be perfect for a crab feast). The strawberries and flowers of the 2015 Bastide la Combe Rosé from 100% Grenache are ideal for sipping through long sunny, summer days.
Details: The Corralitos tasting room is open Saturdays, 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. They’ll also be open Sundays from June 9th through mid-October. Flights run from $15 to $20. They also have a tasting room in downtown Carmel.
The view from Soquel’s beautiful patio is simply stunning. Their vineyards cover hills that roll into the Pacific, a view that is further enhanced by their pretty Pinot Noirs boasting a lovely purity of fruit.
Soquel Vineyards was established by twin brothers Peter and Paul Bargetto, and their friend Jon Morgan. The Bargetto brothers come from a winemaking family, but decided to venture out on their own in 1987. The slew of awards their wines have won over the years vouch for the results.
The fruit for their Estate Pinot comes from a three-acre hillside vineyard that originally was part of larger parcel owned by the Bargettos’ grandfather. They source grapes for the rest of their wines from other vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as well as Paso Robles and Napa Valley.
Go here if you like your Pinot and you’ll take it with a spectacular view, thank you very much.
Tasting Highlights: The 2016 Estate Grown Pinot Noir is rich with notes of warm, spiced black cherries and pomegranates. The 2016 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir presents a solid value at $25 with its notes of cranberries and cherries laced with orange zest, clove and black tea. If you’re looking for something more robust, the 2014 Cepage a Deux has got you covered with its silky dark berries and smoked plums dusted with cocoa, black pepper and herbs.
Details: The tasting room is open on weekends from 11:00 am to 4:30 pm. Tastings range from $5 to $15.
History buffs, this is your spot — it’s the oldest winery in Santa Cruz County. Phillip and John Bargetto purchased this property in 1918 and they began making wine in an old barn on the site. After weathering prohibition, they opened in 1933 the day after it was repealed. The winery is now operated by the third generation of Bargettos. (And yes, Peter and Paul Bargetto of Soquel Vineyards, above, come from the same family. The wineries are just a short distance apart.)
If you’re looking to learn the basics of winemaking, the winery offers tours daily that walk you through the broad strokes. The tasting room has a rustic, old-school vibe, while the outdoor patio overlooking a creek makes a lovely spot for a picnic. The wine tend towards a bigger, fruit-forward style.
Go here if you like a broader, fruit-driven style of wine with a dose of history.
Tasting Highlights: The Bargetto brothers came to the US from the Piedmont region of Italy and the 2015 Santa Cruz Mountains Dolcetto is a nod to that history. It shows notes of dark cherries with savory sun-dried tomatoes, tomato leaf and herbs. (Pasta anyone?!) The 2015 Mount Eden Clone Pinot Noir is ripe with bright dark cherries, red plums and hints of rose. Spices, savory herbs and dusty tannins lead the way to the finish.
Details: They’re open daily from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. A five-wine flight is $15. They also have a tasting room in Monterey.
Where to Eat
All that wine tasting is probably making you hungry! Allow us make some suggestions on where to stop.
Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Capitola is a convenient stop on the way to any of these wineries. Grab coffee and breakfast before your tastings and load up on additional goodies to enjoy a picnic during the day.
VinoCruz in Soquel Village is just down the street from Bargetto Winery and Soquel Vineyards. Their beverage list showcases wines, beers and ciders from around the Santa Cruz Mountains. Nosh on beautiful small plates at this modern wine bar as you gather inspiration for future adventures.
Want to add more wine tasting stops? Check out the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association website for more suggestions.