Wrights Station, Silver Mountain Vineyards, and Bottle Jack Wines are three winery gems in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I got to visit this past Sunday, Father’s Day. I was excited to spend it with my 13 year-old son and thought we would head to the Santa Cruz mountains to stop by maybe one winery and then head to the beach so he could play but, much to my chagrin, he just wanted to go to some wineries with me and have a picnic! I knew I was going to stop at least at Bottle Jack Wines to try their new Viognier (more on that later), but I chose to head to an area of the Santa Cruz Mountains I hadn’t been to – Summit Road. There are many wineries situated along this road but decided to just start at one and go from there. Our first stop was at Wrights Station Winery located at 1800 foot elevation atop Summit Road. The history of the area is very unique, as the winery’s website explains, “…the location that became Wrights Station gained prominence because of the sudden influx of railroad workers, mostly Chinese, who were housed at this now-remote place while boring the 1.2 mile Summit Tunnel through the mountains beginning in 1877…Today, Wrights Station is a ghost town. Nothing is left of Wrights except the ruins of the tunnel’s portal, a bridge, and the name of a road “Wrights Station Road”. The new Wrights Station Vineyard & Winery sits just above where the station and town once stood.” The tasting room is located in the original 1947 farmhouse but has been remodeled into what I believe is one of the most beautiful and comfortable tasting rooms I have seen. We were met by owner and winemaker, Dan Lokteff, a warm and friendly guy who was winemaker at Storrs Winery in Santa Cruz before he found this incredible property. The winery specializes in estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also features other varietals sourced from local vineyards. The tasting featured five wines (2 Chardonnays, 2 Pinots and a Cabernet) and costs a mere $10 which is refundable with a purchase (try finding that deal in Napa!). Both Chardonnays were 2012 Vintage with the first being Unoaked and the second being the Reserve, barrel aged for 18 months. I thought both were really lovely, with beautiful noses, luscious fruitiness, and yet well balanced and not at all buttery like so many California Chardonnays can be. I leaned towards the Unoaked ($25.00) because I found its profile most invigorating to my taste buds; a combination of crisp green apple, light citrus and ever so slight lemon cream. The two Pinot Noirs were 2013 vintage and I found them to be really quite drinkable meaning they were well-balanced and restrained but still held very unique nuanced complexities. The 777 clones Pinot was light in color but not in taste with some dark red cherry and subtle cola undertone with just a hint of white pepper. The Far Away Block Pinot, a combination of 667, 777 and Pommard clones had a deeper berry flavor that was supported by gentle earthy notes. The final wine was a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes sourced from Bates Ranch, which sits at the south east tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA and is one of the oldest active vineyards in the region. The Santa Cruz region is so typically known for Chardonnay and Pinot, but there is some incredible Cabernet being made here and it deserves a LOT of attention! This Cab is certainly still a bit young and could be left alone for several years, however, its also quite drinkable now, with deep dark fruit, cocoa and subtle tannins on the palate. Try getting a bottle of Cabernet like this in Napa for only $44! I can’t wait to return for a picnic out back and a bottle of something extraordinary!
I spoke with Dan about other area wineries and the one that sounded good to us was Silver Mountain Vineyards. Its not too far down Summit Road from Wrights Station but then you go up another 300 feet to 2100 feet where the winery sits atop a hill with sweeping views of the Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The estate certified organic vineyard grows Mount Eden clone Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot and sources additional fruit from dry-farmed vineyards. Because it was a special Summer Solstice event, they had many wines pouring including several Pinots at an outdoor pour station, and in the tasting room, a Rose of Pinot Noir, two Chardonnays, a few of their “Alloy” Bordeaux blends, and a Central Coast Syrah. I love a good Rose so I started here and found it refreshing but a little light for my tastes but it would be nice for a picnic. I was very excited to try their Pinot Noirs and it was great to discover how different they were from Wrights Station and I liked these wines very much for different reasons, primarily their spicy, earthy components. My favorite of all of them, however, was the 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Tondré’s Grapefield ($42). It was spicy and smoky, with dark fruit reminiscent of currant, and a touch of nutmeg and clove. The tannic structure gave it some nice depth but this wine was well balanced and profoundly drinkable and would go quite well with food. After the Pinot I tried their “Alloy” Bordeaux blends which I think I should have tried first. After the spicy Pinot, I found these blends to be a bit too bright and young on the palate. This is not any commentary on the wine as much as it is a realization that my palate was probably offset by the Pinot. I finished the tasting with my other favorite, their 2009 Central Coast Syrah. The grapes come from Wiedeman Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley (at 200′ elevation); and Muns Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains (at 2600′ elevation). This is a dark and rich Syrah with dark fruit, plum and cocoa…Yum! I very much look forward to returning to Silver Mountain Vineyards for a picnic and a bottle or two!
Last, but certainly not least, we headed up and over Highway 17 to Bottle Jack Wines. Unlike the previous wineries, I have visited Bottle Jack before and had drank several of their wines but I was looking forward to trying a couple of their new releases including their first ever white, a Viognier, and an interesting Northern Italian varietal called Teroldego. The 2015 Central Coast Viognier is a delight! When I am pouring wine at a tasting room that makes a Viognier, I often find customers aren’t familiar with this French varietal and I tell them it’s a nice alternative to Chardonnay. Bottle Jack’s is aged in 100% stainless steel and is bright, crisp and aromatic with well-balanced notes of pineapple, green apple and grapefruit. Its a perfect summer wine that will pair well with a picnic, shellfish, or seafood. I then tried their 100% Brunello Clone Sangiovese from a vineyard in Morgan Hill. If you love Sangiovese and you are enjoying trying the California Sangio’s that are being produced, then you definitely will enjoy this one. This wine has that wonderful balance of fruit, acid and spice. Totally drinkable on its own but also perfect for pizza, pasta or a braised veal shank! I then tried their Teroldego, a unique deeply-colored wine, with surprisingly spicy notes reminiscent of a Zinfandel, but this is a very different varietal. I know of one other California winery, Rock Wall in Alameda, that makes a Teroldego from a California vineyard, but I found Bottle Jack’s to be much more rich and complex. If you’ve never tried it, head on down to Bottle Jack and grab a few bottles before its gone because there aren’t many Teroldego grapes in California. I ended with Bottle Jack’s 2012 100% Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon. I actually got introduced to Bottle Jack through their Cabernet, and, like Wrights Station, it really makes me appreciate not only non-Napa Cabernets, but also how unique and supple Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets can be. Winemaker, John Ritchey, describes it as, “Rich blackberry, cassis, bay laurel, mocha, toasted oak & vanilla.” That’s pretty spot-on, and this is SUCH a drinkable Cab right now but it will also benefit from being laid down for a few years. I mentioned Wright’s Station Cab being a great deal at $44, well Bottle Jack’s is a mere $30, so go get some, now!
Make no mistake, the Santa Cruz Mountains are producing some world-class wines from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to wines made with California-grown French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varietals. This is a region that you need to consider visiting the next time you are thinking of heading to Napa or Sonoma. It is close, it is beautiful, it is friendly, approachable and much more affordable.
To learn a little more about the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, here is a new video produced by the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association which spotlights just a few of the area’s wineries, but does so in a beautiful way.