courtesy Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

Head south from San Francisco, and a whole different kind of wine country awaits. Established in 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA has more than sixty wineries, with 1,300 acres of grapes grown mostly on shale and sandstone soils. But its viticulture heritage goes back much further than that. Before Prohibition, it was considered to be California’s best wine region.

Today it draws comparisons to the Sonoma Coast, and is known for age-worthy wines made with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. The latter is especially capable of producing offerings with red fruit, juicy acidity and silky tannins along with secondary earthy and savory aromas; in other words, varietally-correct, elegant wines that aren’t over-extracted fruit bombs. Ridge and Bonny Doon are perhaps the most well-known producers, but there are lots of smaller, more boutique properties making bottles worth seeking out (which often means a visit to to their tasting room or to a restaurant in the area.)

“The Santa Cruz AVA is distinguished by two factors: elevation and orientation,” says Todd Brinkman, lead sommelier at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, which stocks wines from the region on its restaurant and bar lists. “[There] is a mountain range covering the San Francisco Peninsula, so it matters a lot if your vineyards are on the coastal or bay side of the range.” Eastern-facing slopes over the bay have warmer daytime temperatures well-suited for cabernet and Bordeaux varietals, while those that benefit from coastal breezes allow chardonnay and pinot noir to ripen more slowly. Vineyards above the fogline (like those along Skyline Boulevard) are the warmest and ripest sites, he adds. And there is vintage variation in this area, especially because mountain vineyards require more water since groundwater is well beyond the reach of deeply-planted roots.

Thomas Fogarty vineyards, photo by Kelly Magyarics

Beyond that, the AVA is pretty big, with somewhat of an identity crisis, says Nathan Kandler, winemaker at Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards in Redwood City. Corralitos in the south, close to the ocean and lower in elevation with fine sandy soils produces nervy wines with red fruits and soft tannins. The Summit’s rocky soils and high elevation above the fog link makes for powerful, tannic wines with dark fruit and spice. The Saratoga and Los Gatos area is warm with rocky soil, yet its low-lying fog makes for vintage variations. Finally, Skyline/La Honda is pretty diverse, with higher elevations, ocean influence and a mix of both sedimentary and volcanic soils. “The region is so sparsely planted it’s hard to make too many great generalizations, but [it’s] uniquely defined by its proximity to the ocean, elevations and fine, rocky soils.”

Thomas Fogarty was founded in 1981 by the namesake surgeon who invented the first heart catheter. He almost planted a kiwi farm on the 320-acre property, but decided to go with chardonnay and pinot noir instead. Today, the winery has twenty-two acres under vine, and produces 2,000 cases of wine per year sold mostly in the tasting room. Like many of the AVA’s producers, they practice organically, using compost tea, fava and oats for cover crops and bacillus and mineral oil to combat powdery mildew. Interestingly, Fogarty’s vineyards lie less than a mile from the San Andreas Fault in an area that was completely underwater fifty to sixty million years ago.

But back to that pinot noir, which Kandler points out has probably been grown longer in the Santa Cruz Mountains region than anywhere else in California.“Pinot noir [here is] interesting to me because they possess all the fruit you would ever want, but are really complex and rarely one-notes,” he says. “They balance the fruit, earth, spice and textures in a way that separates them from a lot of California pinot noir.” Old traditionalists like Mt. Eden, Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard and Thomas Fogarty are joined by new and exciting producers like Rhys, Clos de la Tech, Big Basin and Beauregard. He’s not sure if one signature style is emerging, but all wines tend to have great structure.

The same is true with chardonnay, Brinkman notes. “I see the Santa Cruz wineries not caring about how they are perceived but making wines in the style that they like,” he says. Chablis fan Ryan Beauregard, for instance, makes bright, vibrant wines that aren’t particularly oak-driven, while John Benedetti of Sante Winery crafts richer wines that are a nod to his penchant for Meursault and Montrachet. But rather than viewing this as an attempt to recreate Old World wines in the New World, Brinkman sees it a putting their own personal stamp on the bottle. “I find these wines tends to be the ones I connect with the most.”

Beyond chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon (which also accounts for a decent amount of plantings here), there is lots of opportunity for growth, Brinkman says, as land is more affordable compared to other pricey regions like Napa, and there is excitement for less expected varietals like grüner veltliner and nebbiolo. Still, the best chance of tasting these special wines might just be in their natural habitat.

Bottles to try:

2014 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay ($35): Made entirely from estate-grown grapes on 40 year-old vines, this wine is driven by balance, with bright citrus fruit and minerality. It’s buttery yet crisp, round yet fresh and shows great regional character.

2014 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($38): Made with grapes sourced from four distinct regions, It’s bursting with red fruit including cherries, hints of violet, spice, mineral and tea, and deftly balances acid and tannin. Savory and earthy as well as fruity, it’s the perfect example of how the grape expresses itself here.

2012 Rhys Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir ($84): “The complexity of this Pinot is worth the bump in price,” Brinkman says. “I like this with fatty seafood dishes, especially if there is a red wine element in the presentation.”

2016 Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon ($35): Elegant and restrained with dark fruit, cassis and balance, this cab is versatile on the table and especially perfect with filet mignon, short ribs or burgers.