California Wine's Best-Kept Secret

Never had a wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains? Now’s the time.

One of the abiding mysteries of California wine is why more people don't know about—and therefore love—the Santa Cruz Mountains wine region. Part of the explanation may be that it's small, with only about 1,600 acres of vines (Napa Valley has 46,000); part of it may be its divided nature, since the region lies on both sides of the San Francisco Peninsula ridge of the Pacific Coast Ranges (it was, in fact, the first American Viticultural Area, or AVA, to be defined by a mountain range). Yet right now it's producing some of the state's best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well as several benchmark Cabernets—unlikely bedfellows but for the dramatic variations in climate and soil here. And the region is also beautiful, with wineries tucked away amidst conifers and oaks and, on the western side, often graced with stunning views of the Pacific. You owe it to yourself to investigate.

The State of California Wine | Best Kept Secret
Photo by Victor Protasio / Graphics by Abbey Lossing

Read more: The State of California Wine

Pinot Noir

2016 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($38)

This longtime Santa Cruz Mountains producer offers remarkable levels of quality across its entire line. For a good introduction, check out this fragrant, black cherry–rich, lightly savory red.

2018 Sante Arcangeli Split Rail Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49)

The Split Rail Vineyard is a mere five miles from the Pacific. That coastal proximity lends a silky elegance to this transparent ruby Pinot, while a touch of oak adds a spicy top note to its flavors.

2017 Big Basin Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60)

Big Basin made its name with Syrah, but winemaker Bradley Brown makes excellent Pinots as well, among them this garnet-hued wine, full of raspberry, rhubarb, and spicy flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon

2016 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)

Ridge's Monte Bello Cabernet is a California benchmark, but don't overlook the winery's excellent estate Cabernet. Dark currants and cassis, cola and mint—it's both complex and delicious.

2016 Vöcal Bates Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)

Ex-sommelier Ted Glennon makes wines that express the "sommelier style"—less fruity, less alcohol and oak. Here, that's tart red cherries and savory tobacco notes.

2015 Kathryn Kennedy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($285)

The late Kathryn Kennedy planted her vineyard in 1973; her son Marty Mathis has made the wines—like this utterly beguiling, tobacco-scented, red currant–rich Cabernet—since 1981.


2016 Domaine Eden Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($32)

Jeffrey Patterson's deft touch shows through in this lightly toasty, savory white. If you enjoy it, next time splurge on his famed Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay, one of California's greatest.

2017 Mindego Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($48)

From a small vineyard on the Santa Cruz side of the appellation, Mindego Ridge makes top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This white's light lime notes float above creamy golden-apple fruit.

2016 Rhys Vineyards Horseshoe Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($79)

Rhys has, in a short time, become a California superstar. This delicate yet intense white reveals why, its complex flavors shot through with stony minerality.

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