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The Hills & Dells of Santa Cruz & Santa Clara

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The Santa Cruz Mountains are characterized by many small, family-owned vineyards and small- to medium-sized wineries either tucked into verdant valleys or perched with sweeping views atop ridges. Visitors can meet and talk with the winemakers and enjoy the mountain and coastal ambiance. On the west side, dense redwood forests overlook the Pacific Ocean, while the east side looks down upon Santa Clara and what is known as Silicon Valley. Once the land of orchards and vineyards, Santa Clara Valley is now largely urbanized, but pockets of vineyards and wineries can still be discovered.  

Rugged mountains, breathtaking vistas, lush forests, small mountain towns and majestic first-growth redwood trees are the typical landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains. For grape growers and winemakers, the challenges of the region include thin soils, small awkward vineyards, a cool climate, high land prices, Pierce’s Disease and a thick soupy summertime fog. Yet grape growers have figured out how to prosper and even take advantage of these challenges to produce excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

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Young vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Santa Cruz Mountain AVA encompasses the land between Half Moon Bay to the north and Mount Madonna to the south. The appellation is large, crossing the borders of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, but has less than 1,500 acres under vine.

The appellation is also defined by elevations as low as 400 feet in the west and 800 feet in the east to ridge-top vineyards as high as 2,600 feet, with most vineyards at around 2,000 feet. Of the two hundred vineyards in the region, the largest is less than 75 acres. Most are less than ten acres, and there are dozens less than five acres. Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Chardonnay make up 70% of the vines.

Cool nights, warm days, coastal fog and warm breezes allow for a long growing season. Early springtime warm weather typically encourages early bud break, with harvest beginning in mid-September. Some vineyards will harvest as late as the end of October. Fruit can stay on the vine longer, creating grapes with complex flavors and intensity, as well as higher levels of acidity. Because of the small hillside vineyards, all harvesting is done by hand.

The coolest climates are at the lower elevations on the Pacific side. On the inland side, low-lying vineyards are generally the warmest. Soils are varied throughout the region and include clay, loam, decomposed rock and limestone.

Tasting at Soquel Vineyards


New Vines at Hunter Hill

The Santa Clara Valley AVA was once acres and acres of orchards and vineyards, but is now blocks and blocks of homes, wooded business parks, and high-tech industries. A few large wineries still operate here, but they receive their fruit from other regions. The official AVA includes the southern end of Alameda County around Pleasanton, plus the vineyard areas in the Santa Clara Valley around Gilroy, Hecker Pass and Morgan Hill. There are 25 wineries in the area, and Chardonnay is the dominant grape, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

The Santa Clara AVA also encompasses the Pacheco Pass AVA and the San Ysidro AVA. The Pacheco Pass AVA is along Highway 152, with a couple of wineries pouring fruit and grape wines. The San Ysidro AVA is located in the cooler area southeast of Gilroy and grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but has no wineries.

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