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People talk about the mystery of wine, yet most don't want anything to do with mystery. They want it all there in one sniff, one taste. If you keep an open mind and take each wine on its own term, there is a world of magic to discover. - Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant

We recently organized a wine tasting event dedicated to the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. We tasted 8 different wines made of grapes coming almost exclusively from that region.

Characteristics of the region

The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA) encompasses the Santa Cruz Mountain range, from Half Moon Bay in the north, to Mount Madonna in the south. The east and west boundaries are defined by elevation, extending down to 800 feet in the east and 400 feet in the west. Vineyards are generally small and low-yielding. Thanks to the marine influence, the mountain terrain, and distinctive soils, they can produce wines with full and intense flavors.

Wine has been produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the 1800s. The region was once known as the Chaîne d'Or (golden chain) for its high-quality fruit, but few of the original wineries survived Prohibition. Now, the region is home to nearly 50 wineries, mostly small and low-key. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the usual cool-climate varietals, shine in this often foggy, mountainous terrain but other grapes also excel, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah.

The wines

We started our tasting with a Chardonnay from Beauregard Vineyards. This is a small winery located in Bonny Doon with a brand new tasting room on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. The winery is focusing on producing small batches of extremely high-quality wines, most of which are grown, made, and bottled entirely in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Trout Gulch Vineyard is one of the vineyards it sources its wine from. It is located within 4 miles of the Monterey Bay coastline at an altitude of 720 feet above sea level, and enjoys warm temperate days, cooling coastal nights, and a long growing season. The 2003 Beauregard Chardonnay Trout Gulch Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains was truly delicious and was one of the group's favorite. It had a bright straw-yellow color and a pleasant fragrant nose. On the palate, it had a lively acidity with some notes of caramel, minerals and no obvious oak aromas. The finish was well balanced with a lot of freshness and vivacity.

Our second white wine was a Chardonnay from Mount Eden Vineyards. This small winery focuses on small lots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The estate Chardonnay comes from a low-yielding vineyard located above the fog level at 2,000 feet and about 15 miles from the ocean. The proximity of the ocean keeps the daytime temperature low and allows dry-farming. This wine is considered by many connoisseurs to be one of the longest-lived white wines produced in California. The 2002 Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains had a deep golden color, with an aromatic nose of tropical fruits and notes of honey. The palate was smooth, medium to full-bodied, with additional butterscotch flavors. The finish was pleasant, fresh and not too oaky.

After the whites, we moved to a Pinot Noir from Varner Wine. It is a garage-sized winery owned by two brothers, Bob and Jim Varner. They believe that the best wine comes from winemakers who grow their own grapes and they are entirely devoted to handmade, Santa Cruz appellation Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The 2002 Varner Pinot Noir Hidden Block Santa Cruz Mountains had a medium garnet color. The nose had mild cassis and raspberry aromas, followed by more complex earthy flavors on the palate.

The next wine was a Syrah produced by David Bruce Winery, a Pinot Noir specialist and one of the first winery established in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 60's. The 2001 David Bruce Syrah Santa Cruz Mountains was the winner of an earlier Syrah tasting, and that evening, it was also one of the group's favorite red wine. The nose was very fruity and attractive. The palate was well-balanced with a rich, smooth mouthfeel and an elegant finish.

The following wine was a Cabernet Franc from Cooper Garrod Vineyards. The winery is a 28-acre estate specializing in the Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Viognier varietals. The Cabernet Franc vines date back to the original stock brought to the Chaîne d'Or region by French settler and grape expert Pierre C. Pourroy around the turn of the century. Cuttings from the old Pourroy property were planted in 1995 in west-facing slopes at the western edge of the Cooper Garrod property. The 2001 Cooper Garrod Cabernet Franc Francville Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains exhibited blackberry aromas on the nose. On the palate, it was full-bodied, with sweet ripe fruit flavors, oaky aromas and firm tannins.

The next wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery's Lone Oak Vineyard. It is a south and west-facing vineyard in the northeast corner of the property, planted in 1991. The vineyard is named after a 100-year old California Live Oak, which dominates the vineyard and provides commanding views of Santa Clara valley. The 1999 Cooper Garrod Cabernet Sauvignon Lone Oak Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains was unfortunately not very inspiring. The wine had a mild nose, and on the palate, it did not have enough fruit to counterbalance its acidity. Consequently, the finish was also weak and mostly acidic.

Our next wine was a 1999 Cinnabar Mercury Rising. Cinnabar is a purple-red derivative of mercury that was believed to miraculously transform ordinary metals into silver and gold. Tom Mudd of Cinnabar Vineyards & Winery believes that he can capture the magic of alchemy in his handcrafted wines. The estate is located on the eastern rim of the Santa Cruz Mountains above the town of Saratoga. Mercury Rising is the name of Cinnabar's proprietary Bordeaux-style red wine. In 1999, sources in Napa Valley, Monterey County, Paso Robles, and Santa Clara Valley contributed Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot to the blend. To create a wine of great depth and complexity, lots were fermented separately and then blended. The wine had a dark color, forward fruit on the nose, a dense and full-bodied palate, followed by a well-balanced finish.

We finished the tasting with the 2001 Storrs Zinfandel Rusty Ridge Santa Clara Valley. Storrs Winery is a small winery dedicated to Santa Cruz Mountains wines, mostly Chardonnay and Zinfandel. The grapes for this cool climate Zinfandel were grown in two very old, gnarly vined vineyards on the foothills of the Santa Clara Valley. The wine had a deep garnet color. The nose exhibited strawberry and vanillin aromas. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with spices and sweet fruit flavors. Tannins were still present on the finish. This excellent wine was, at the end, the one that the group preferred.

See our other tasting reports.