SILICON VALLEY SIPPING
“Wine country” has become synonymous with the well-traveled byways of Northern California’s renowned Napa and Sonoma regions, but there are other wine districts great for touring in or near Silicon Valley — a pleasant surprise for most visitors. by Susan Hathaway
The area’s multiple microclimates and outstanding growing conditions result in lots of enticing wines being made in an area better known for its high technology, and local winemakers are delighted to show off their creations to visitors.
The history of winemaking here is a long one, starting in 1802 when Franciscan monks began cultivating vineyards in Santa Clara Valley using fine European varietals. The local wine industry was bowed but not broken by parasitic vine infections and Prohibition, recovering handily by the mid-20th century. Alas, today the booming economy of Silicon Valley has created a new threat to growers as sprawling office buildings and ever-expanding suburbs gobble up agricultural land.
Because of this challenge, a new trend has emerged — urban wineries are carving out little niches in the middle of cities and suburbia where the sipping is dandy. Meanwhile, less intensely developed areas, such as the rolling hill country south of San Jose and the steep Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, are home to many passionate winemaking operations that welcome visitors. For those in the know, all this local enological activity presents abundant wine-tasting opportunities and much shorter drives than the long, traffic-snarled haul to the better-publicized regions north of San Francisco.
Skip ahead to specific regions if you wish:
IN & AROUND SAN JOSE
Remarkably, there are reputable wineries to visit amid the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley itself. These may lack majestic views from rolling vineyards, but they can’t be beat for friendliness and dedication to winemaking, making use of grapes grown in nearby regions.
The oldest and largest of this crew is J. Lohr Vineyards, a family-run operation in San Jose with a handsome tasting room and friendly pourers. The company has abundant vineyards located elsewhere and a large selection of well-priced wines can be tried. A few blocks away, Coterie Cellars offers some exciting pinot noirs, tasty viogniers and other wines in a comfy tasting room entered via that mainstay of the urban winery — a roll-up garage door.
Nearby in Campbell, Travieso Winery is the passion project of a local geologist and plastic surgeon who joined forces to focus on Rhone-style wines such as a mouth-filling syrah and an alluring blend of viognier, chardonnay and roussanne. A few miles eastward, in the rolling hills above Milpitas, Big Dog Vineyards perches on a promontory overlooking Silicon Valley. Grapes from both the estate and nearby regions come together in a big cabernet and other lusty reds.
SOUTH OF SAN JOSE
Cruising south of the valley a few miles on Highway 101 unveils a bucolic region where the area’s farming history comes immediately into view. The towns of Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy are reminders of a time not so long ago when San Jose and its environs were known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” due to the ideal farming conditions.
The third generation of a longtime Morgan Hill farming family now runs popular Guglielmo Winery, which captivates visitors with its elegant courtyard tasting area complete with bur-bling fountains and attractive landscaping. Echoing the family’s roots, tasters can sip intriguing Italian varietals like charbono, dolcetto and barbera, along with more mainstream wines. Another Morgan Hill winery worth a visit is Sycamore Creek Vineyards, with a picturesque environment; the winery produces a range of wines like a fruity grenache and well-crafted sparkling wine.
In a beautifully pastoral corner of San Martin, Lion Ranch Vineyards & Winery is a lovely, friendly operation with views to savor as much as its tasty Rhone-style wines. Nearby, in an equally attractive spot, Clos la Chance offers a rich lineup of wines including those made on the 150-acre estate. Pinot noir and chardonnay are featured at Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy — another location with breathtaking views—while rustic Martin Ranch Winery offers an out-in-the-country atmosphere and tasty wines.
SARATOGA & CUPERTINO
Best known today for pricey real estate and as the headquarters of Apple Computer, respectively, Saratoga and Cupertino actually have a storied history of grape growing stretching back to the 1800s. With their boundaries soaring up into the Santa Cruz Mountains, these bedroom communities have long attracted serious winemakers as well as visitors.
A delightful string of wine-tasting opportunities has emerged recently along Big Basin Way, Saratoga’s main street, rich with top-tier restaurants. Mountain-grown pinot noir and chardonnay are the highlights at Cinnabar Winery’s attractive front patio. Next door, Big Basin Vineyards focuses on rich Rhone-style wines like a lusty syrah with a pinch of viognier for interest.
Shared tasting rooms are a feature of this cute street, including a facility presenting well-made wines by Silvertip Vineyards and Ser Winery that show off terrific fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Close by, the town’s newest tasting stop is a shared room where one can sample complex, Bordeaux-style reds from Lexington Wine along with estate-grown pinot noir and chardonnay produced by Mindego Ridge.
A short drive west on Big Basin Way leads to Savannah-Chanelle, an appealingly rustic winery in a historic property high atop a ridge where visitors can sample rich cabernet or heady port while enjoying a self-catered picnic. Nearby, The Mountain Winery — once the original estate of Paul Masson — has become a renowned concert venue and is also a lovely spot to try chardonnay and pinot noir while enjoying panoramic valley views. Stunning vistas can also be found at nearby House Family Vineyards, a boutique operation that takes cabernet and chardonnay production seriously.
Another noted winery, Ridge Vineyards perches on a Cupertino mountaintop. Bewitching views, lovely picnic facilities and outstanding wines such as cabernet sauvignon and rich zinfandels are well worth the long, twisty drive. Along the way, tasters can stop to try the estate cabernet at R&W Vineyards, a minuscule winery run by a passionate and dedicated husband-and-wife team. Further down the hill, Picchetti Winery’s peacocks, friendly staffers and old-vine zinfandel and estate cabernet make it a picnic heaven.
LOS GATOS & LOS GATOS HILLS
The city of Los Gatos, with its charming downtown filled with superb restaurants and a bonanza of shops, extends far into the adjacent Santa Cruz Mountains. Tasting opportunities abound, from the main drag to the wooded hills, offering many adventures for wine lovers.
On main street, Santa Cruz Avenue, Left Bend Winery pours both a subtle cabernet franc and an intriguing cabernet/syrah blend. A short drive away up a forested hill, a historic Jesuit seminary long dedicated to winemaking is home to Testarossa Winery. Lovely grounds, a cafe, live music and excellent wines are its calling cards.
South of town, sinuous Highway 17 leads up into the redwood- forested Santa Cruz Mountains. Summit Road, which runs along the top of the ridge separating the valley and coastal sides of the mountains, is home to some particularly alluring wineries. With its graceful Tuscan-style main building, bocce court and flower-filled grounds, Regale Winery matches captivating wines with stunning panoramic views as far as the Pacific Ocean, making it a prime spot for weddings and corporate events. Specialties here include the estate-grown pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Next-door neighbor Burrell School Vineyards & Winery has an unpretentious, friendly tasting operation, while, in addition to its wines, nearby Wrights Station Vineyard & Winery offers a nice patio, bocce court and views. The friendly owners of Villa del Monte, another boutique Summit Road operation, proffer big red wines. Venturing further into the forested hills leads you to Loma Prieta Winery, known for its patio, views and pinotage — an unusual red specialty. Several respected wineries occupy the green hills on the northern side of Highway 17. Byington Vineyard & Winery features views, handsome facilities, manicured landscaping and a commitment to fine pinot noir. Fine pinots are also the longtime mission at David Bruce Winery, where guests sip while overlooking lush vineyards.
SANTA CRUZ TO BONNY DOON
The coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains is scattered with scores of small but distinctive wineries. A concentrated taste of their wines can be experienced at the west end of town, with a dozen warehouse-style tasting rooms all within a few blocks of each other, allowing for a leisurely afternoon of tasting without driving.
Just outside downtown Santa Cruz, Storrs Winery has a long history of elegant European varietals, with pinot noirs and intriguing red blends well worth sampling.
The gathering of tasting rooms at the western end of Santa Cruz in Ingalls Street Courtyard — known as the Surf City Vintners Collective — includes MJA Vineyards, which brings some humorous naming to its tasty varietals — Dirty Old Man, Flirtatious and Frisky, to name a few. Here, patio seating and live music on weekends add to the draw. A longtime pinot producer, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards offers sample pours of this complex varietal as well as unusual wines made from Spanish and Portuguese grapes under the Quinta Cruz label. Next door, Sones Cellars provides big zins and complex white blends, while Equinox offers a change of pace with its well-established array of sparkling wines, as well as hearty reds under the Bartolo label. Focused on sustainable pinot noirs and similar varieties, Silver Mountain Vineyards shares its tasting room with Bottle Jack Winery, dedicated to complex wines and intriguing blends.
Across the street, Rexford Winery is known for its delicious merlots and pinot noirs, while a short walk from the Ingalls Street complex, teensy Stockwell Cellars pours mouth-filling reds like syrah and zinfandel.
North of Santa Cruz from the coastal highway, take Bonny Doon Road inland to reach woodsy Beauregard Vineyards for tastings of elegant pinot noirs, tasty fizzes and a yummy sangiovese.
SOUTH OF SANTA CRUZ
Heading farther south along the coast will take you to other tempting wineries, some which are multi-generational enterprises, as well as more recent arrivals set up by entrepreneurs who transitioned into winemaking from earlier, unrelated careers. These are centered around the towns of Soquel and Corralitos, the latter being a less touristy area with rolling green hills and occasional McMansions built by well-heeled Silicon Valley escapees.
Family-run for many decades, Bargetto Winery in Soquel has been spruced up significantly by the newer generation. Its spacious tasting room amidst pretty grounds offers respectable, often well-priced wines such as a special red blend of Italian grapes called La Vita. Award-winning Soquel Vineyards boasts great views from its hilltop patio along with sumptuous reds and chardonnays that will appeal to the pickiest connoisseurs. Also in Soquel, relative newcomer Wargin Wines has a mellow country location and serves nicely crafted Italian varietals.
South of Soquel, the beach town of Aptos is home to ambitious Nicholson Vineyards, a producer of fruity pinot noirs and old-vine zin which can be enjoyed at a shaded picnic table. Further south, a wine trail meandering around the little burg of Corralitos is worth exploring. Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery offers a tasty, forward merlot and fruity rosé de pinot noir accompanied by superb views from the patio. Higher up and with even more expansive views, Windy Oaks Estate Winery makes a lovely sparkling viognier and fruity chardonnay.
WOODSIDE & HALF MOON BAY REGION
Today’s billionaire retreat of Woodside, where horses are rumored to outnumber the human population of the town’s genteel estates, has a history in the winemaking business dating back to 1884 when a local vineyard planted cuttings said to be from the renowned French winery Chateau Margaux.
The truly breathtaking views from Woodside’s Thomas Fogarty Winery display the Bay Area in all its glory, making this venue a popular event site. Tasters can drink in the great scenery while sipping a gewürztraminer or mountain-grown pinot noir. Neighboring Portola Valley, also home to many sprawling mansions, holds tiny Portola Vineyards, a father-daughter operation that lets appointment-only visitors sip on pinot noirs and chardonnays from mountain-grown grapes.
Over the mountains on the nearby coast, the rustic tasting room at La Nebbia Winery has friendly servers and flavorful wines like a mouth-filling zin and unusual black muscat. After the tasting, stay for a picnic or a round or two of bocce ball. A few minutes away in downtown Half Moon Bay, Barterra Winery offers wines from many top California regions. In a small ware-house a few miles north, Trojak’knier Winery specializes in fine varietals from Napa.
The mid-Peninsula wine scene has exploded in recent years. An increasing number of small wineries, relying on grapes purchased from various winegrowing regions, has turned the bed-room community of San Carlos into a burgeoning wine destination. Other nearby cities have also experienced recent openings of similar warehouse-style wineries.
Domenico Winery was an early pioneer of the San Carlos scene. Its spruced-up warehouse location, offering wines crafted from Italian grapes, has been further enhanced recently by a handsome remodeling of the tasting room and the addition of Italian tapas. Nearby, weekend tastings are available at Flying Suitcase Wines, which pours a delicious syrah, while neighboring Russian Ridge Winery showcases some delectable Bordeaux blends. Around the corner, elegant reds are also the focus at Cuvée Wine Cellars.
Weekend sipping is also to be enjoyed in Menlo Park at the tasting room of Woodside Vineyards — the oldest winery in San Mateo County, known for its premium cabernet wines. This may well be the region’s most unusual facility as it also houses an impressive collection of exotic automobiles.