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Quality Over Quantity in the Rugged Santa Cruz Mountains

Quality Over Quantity in the Rugged Santa Cruz Mountains

Rhys Vineyards - Santa Cruz Mountains

Winemakers in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, a place of rugged terrain and coastal beauty, are making significant strides in distinctive winemaking despite the challenges presented by their diverse geography.

The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA), established in 1981, is a wine region like no other. Spanning 480,000 acres (194,249 ha) of Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and coastal forests from Woodside in the north to Watsonville in the south, it offers a unique landscape for viticulture.

However, the vastness of this region contrasts sharply with its limited vineyard area. Due to its intricate terroir, only 1,540 acres (623 ha) of vines grow in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In comparison, the Napa Valley AVA, one of California’s most famous wine regions, encompasses around 45,000 acres of vineyards, while the Sonoma County AVA has approximately 60,000 acres under vine. This stark difference underscores the unique challenges and limited production scale of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

The interplay of geography, climate, and soil plays a crucial role in shaping the character of the wines and is also the primary challenge for the region’s 70+ wineries. Prudy Foxx of Foxx Viticulture explains, “Our diverse topography is shaped by the ongoing collision of two massive continental tectonic plates. This process has folded up the landscape like a rumpled blanket, creating multiple individual hillsides and mountains, each with their unique combination of microclimate, geology, and soils.”

Adding to this complexity, the geological duality of the San Andreas Fault, with the North American Plate on the east and the Pacific Plate on the west, fosters a division within the winemaking community. This results in producers focusing on one side or the other, producing small batches of wine with memorable flavors. The unique conditions on each side of the fault contribute to the distinctive and varied profiles of the wines from this remarkable region.

Understanding the historical context of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA further illuminates the evolution of its distinctive winemaking landscape.

History of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains has a rich history, with pioneers like Paul Masson, Martin Ray, and Paul Draper contributing to its legacy. The viticultural history dates back to the 1800s, when Lyman J. Burrell, the Jarvis brothers, and Dr. Robert Tripp established early vineyards. By 1875, the region had 300 acres of vines, producing 70,000 gallons of wine annually.

Emmet H. Rixford established La Questa Winery in 1883, embodying the dedication to small vineyard quality that characterizes modern winemakers. His 1887 book, “The Wine Press and the Cellar,” was a seminal guide for early winemakers. Further south, the Picchetti brothers and Pierre Klein began cultivating Monte Bello Ridge in the 1870s and 1880s, with Klein winning gold at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Osea Perrone established what is now Ridge Vineyards in 1886. This area, known as Chaine d’Or, became renowned for its excellent clarets by 1980.

A pivotal moment for Ridge Vineyards and the region was the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where Ridge’s Monte Bello red wine triumphed over several prestigious French wines. This victory brought international recognition to the Santa Cruz Mountains as a premier wine-producing area, leading to its official AVA establishment in 1981. It was one of the first to be defined primarily by elevation: down to 800 feet on the east (the valley side) and 400 feet on the west (the coastal side), with peaks as high as 2,600 feet.

With this rich historical backdrop, the unique terroir of the Santa Cruz Mountains continues to pose both opportunities and challenges for contemporary winemakers.

Pros and Cons of Farming Diverse Terroir

Winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains presents unique challenges stemming from the need to find optimal soil sites among hundreds of thousands of mountainous forest acres and the area’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean. This proximity significantly impacts the region’s terroir.

“The cooling influence of the fog banks which nourish the redwood forests is an essential component of terroir in our estate vineyard,” says Bradley Brown, owner of Big Basin Vineyards. “Fog often rolls into our vineyard in the evening through a wind gap into the Pescadero drainage. This cooling slows ripening and allows the vines to recover from the warm, dry daytime.”

Fog at Clos de la Tech / Image from Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association

This interplay of fog, wind, and rocky soils contributes to the aromatic complexity and balance of Santa Cruz Mountains wines. However, the coastal influence that moderates temperatures also creates an ideal environment for fungal pathogens. “It provides the perfect temperature range for powdery mildew, one of the most common fungal pathogens that attack vinifera vines,” explains Foxx, noting that it’s particularly challenging for signature varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

“While it is a blessing,” adds Alfaro Family Vineyards winemaker Ryan Alfaro, “it can also be a curse to plant a varietal that may not be suited for the pocket of terroir it is in.”

The region’s undulating topography means that only small areas are suitable for cultivation, and vineyards are often small, requiring meticulous, labor-intensive care. Brown adds, “Higher labor costs due to remote locations and the need to maintain healthy cover crops through the winter into the spring add to the difficulty.”

These geographical challenges and unique climatic conditions shape the winemaking process in the Santa Cruz Mountains, underscoring the dedication required to produce wines in this remarkable region.

Despite these challenges, the perception of Santa Cruz Mountains wines remains a key area for growth and development.

Perception of Santa Cruz Mountains Wines

Despite over a century of winemaking history, being one of America’s first official AVAs, and boasting one of the most remarkable winemaking geographies in the country, few people know about its wines. 

Brown of Big Basin notes that the Santa Cruz Mountains remain a well-kept secret. “One factor is, of course, the scarcity of SCM wines. With only approximately 1,500 acres of grape vines, we have less wine in the market than other growing regions.”

The production limits highlight the need for greater market education to promote SCM wines. “We have a ton of work to do to spread the word about the AVA’s identity,” states Foxx.

Efforts to educate consumers about the unique qualities of SCM wines are crucial. Alfaro believes it’s important to “continue to educate the market on why the Santa Cruz Mountains can produce exciting and quality wines.”

Alfaro Vineyards / Image from Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association

By raising awareness of the region’s distinctive terroir and the exceptional wines it produces, the local industry hopes to secure a stronger presence in the broader wine market.

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