California is a playground for wine enthusiasts, offering a vast array of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that often showcase hidden gems, the undiscovered corners that escape the limelight. Among these, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Lucia Highlands AVAs stand out, not only for their exceptional wines but also for the warmth and charm of the people who create them.
Having had the privilege of visiting these regions, I was immediately enamored by their rustic allure and the genuine hospitality of the winemakers. “It’s a little piece of paradise, a supporting grape growing community full of humble farmers, passionate about wine, who believe in something and support each other in making great wines,” says winemaker Bibiana González Rave of Cattleya Wines. These are places where passion meets the soil, where small-production wineries are tended to by salt-of-the-earth individuals, cultivating their dreams on small parcels of land.
Both AVAs are known for their under-the-radar wines and distinct terroir that sets them apart in the world of viticulture. Notably, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA stands as a true anomaly in California’s wine map, defined by its high-altitude vineyards and a unique convergence of geographical elements. Meanwhile, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, though less renowned, captivates with its secret symphony of flavors.
Altitude Elegance of The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a gem above the clouds. Nestled amidst the coastal hills, the region is a picturesque hideaway for wine lovers. The maritime influence from the nearby Pacific Ocean brings cool, foggy mornings and sun-kissed afternoons, gifting the grapevines a unique flavor profile. The diverse topography, ranging from 800 to 3,000+ feet in elevation, lends itself to various mesoclimates, enhancing the complexity of the wines.
This hidden sanctuary is home to remarkable Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “It’s a blessing and a curse being able to grow a lot of varietals of good quality in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” says winemaker Ryan Alfaro of Alfaro Family Vineyards. He goes on to describe the geographical differences between the eastern and western sides of the region. In the east, the temperatures are higher and there is a bigger diurnal shift, whereas the western side of the region is closer to the ocean, lending what he believes to be superior conditions for the grapes, showcasing brighter fruit and more acid driven wines. These coastal conditions also contribute to the “curse.”
“It’s not easy to farm here; it’s harder because of the coastal influence,” he says. “The foggy, cold, wet conditions can be difficult, we have high disease pressure.”
The terroir of the Santa Cruz Mountains is an ancient seabed, composed of sandstone and limestone soils. These ancient remnants bestow a distinct mineral essence to the wines, capturing the history of the land in every glass. Adding to the region’s charm lies that sharp diurnal temperature shift—a hallmark of its climate. Warm sunny days are followed by cool nights, comforted by a blanket of fog. “You’ve got the sunshine of Sicily but also the coldest place to grow grapes in CA– great for acidity in the wines and ideal conditions for a classic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon,” says winemaker Ted Glennon of Vocal Vineyards. This temperature dance results in fruit brimming with flavor and complexity, all while retaining a refreshing edge. Additionally, the mountaintop vineyards benefit from an inversion layer, trapping warm air above the fog during winter, a rare occurrence that protects the vines from frost.
In this hidden gem of an AVA, the emphasis is on quality over quantity. Wineries like Ridge Vineyards, Mount Eden Vineyards, and Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards exemplify this ethos, showcasing the brilliance of a dedicated few who have chosen passion and precision over mass production.
Wind-Kissed & Sunlit Splendor of Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
The defining feature of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is the relentless wind, guided by Monterey Bay. Every afternoon, strong winds roar down the valley, sweeping through the terraced hillside vineyards. This maritime wind, infused with the cool essence of the coast, gently caresses the grapevines, influencing their growth and the very essence of the wine they will become. “We are a true cool climate region, which is becoming more rare and more special,” says Mark Pisoni, a third-generation farmer in Santa Lucia Highlands. “The Monterey Bay is a big air conditioner; add in the proximity to the ocean and you have ideal conditions for the grapes.” The coastal wind has the unique ability to shut down photosynthesis each day, extending the growing season. This means the grapes have more time on the vine, allowing them to fully ripen, infusing the wines with a bouquet of flavors and complexity.
The consistent sunshine during this prolonged season ensures the grapes ripen to perfection while retaining a refreshing acidity due to the cooling effect of the wind. The grapes in Santa Lucia Highlands struggle against the elements—the wind, the cool coastal air, and the unique terroir. These struggles result in smaller clusters, where time becomes a luxury. Even with this year’s harvest starting much later than last year, the fruit is fantastic. “It’s been a great harvest,” says Pisoni. “We got a lot of rain; we started much later than normal; but we are a narrow region, a tempered region with no big diurnal swings—that’s not bad, just different.”
Whether you want to climb the heights of the Santa Cruz Mountains or chase the winds of Santa Lucia Highlands, one thing is for sure; these hidden gems will leave you with a crush you can’t stop thinking about. It’s not just the wine; it’s the story of the land and the dedication of those who craft these extraordinary treasures. “There is an authenticity here you don’t get in other wine regions,” says Glennon. It’s more genuine, rugged, European [in] style…The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is set to be a superstar for California.”
Eight Wines to Try
Santa Cruz Mountains
Sandar & Hem 2021 Chardonnay
White flowers, crushed rocks, lime, graphite, white pepper interplay with chalky and savory notes with an intensely saline finish. Get it here.
Vocal 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon
Depth, structure and elegance with notes of ripe black berry jam, sweet oak with just a hint of spice. Medium bodied and quite elegant on the palate, sweet tannins with a long elegant finish. Get it here.
Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery 2021 Pinot Noir
Abundant floral and spice elements up front, lead to a ripe bing cherry and blackberry core on the palate. Rich, velvety texture with well-integrated tannins and acidity. Get it here.
Ridge Vineyards 2020 Jimsomare Zinfandel
Ridge has produced mountain Zinfandel from a small, old vine parcel at the Jimsomare Vineyard since 1968. While traditionally full-bodied and jammy, this particular vintage is more structured and elegant in style, with bright, prominent fruit and beguiling spice thanks to fourteen months in barrel. Drinkable now but also a wine to lay down for a few years. Get it here.
Santa Lucia Highlands
Lucia by Pisoni 2021 Estate Chardonnay
Rich notes of spiced red apple, honeysuckle, peach blossom, and crème brulée. Mineral driven notes of crushed rock and citrus flavors of lemon peel, while a phenolic texture and concentrated notes of Bosc pear and white peach. This balanced Chardonnay finishes spectacularly with crisp acidity, hints of toasty brioche, and undeniable texture from 10 months of aging in 35% new French oak. Get it here.
Terratorium 2021 Riesling
This 2021 Riesling’s electric freshness is balanced with touch of fruit for texture. This bright wine is primarily characterized by zippy lemon complemented with layers of beeswax. With each sip, the fresh acid profile cleanses your palate and leaves you wanting to come back for more. As the wine evolves in the glass it reveals complex flavors of lime and rosemary, among others, that are typical of the Riesling variety. Get it here.
Mer Soleil 2021 Reserve Chardonnay
Taking its name from the sea and sun – the two forces of nature that shape its exotic character – this wine is as dramatic as the place where it is sourced.Thanks to extended hang times, this wine offers intense aromas of baked apple and apple blossom, custard and toasted almonds, rich stone fruit flavors and bright lemon-lime zest. Get it here.
Cattleya 2021 Syrah
A savory profile of olive tapenade and fresh herbs that gradually transform into profound notes of juicy dark berries, fresh violets, and spicy white pepper. Undertones of scorched earth and roasted meat are soon followed by firm, yet fine-grained tannin and lifted, youthful acidity. Get it here.