Best Wineries
Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains with Pacific Ocean in Distance.

A Magical Day Visiting Three Wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

By Published On: December 14th, 2022

There are now more than 70 wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they have been making wine in the region since the 1870’s!

As someone who has lived in the Napa/Sonoma wine region for more than 20 years, I try to visit other California wine regions when possible. My background as a wine professor, writer and consultant, as well as a Master of Wine, naturally makes me curious about visiting different wine regions in the U.S. and abroad. This year I had the opportunity to visit some new Santa Cruz Mountains AVA wineries for the first time, and I was completely enchanted. 

What is unique about the appellation is that it is defined by redwood and madrone trees.

When they were mapping it out, they actually discovered that the best place to plant a vineyard is between the redwood zone just above the ocean and up to the ridges of the mountains where the madrone trees live.

Alfaro Winery Vineyards
Alfaro Winery Vineyards. Photo Courtesy: Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Because of this, there are vineyards and wineries scattered across the mountain valleys and ridges. From some of the vineyards you can actually see the Pacific Ocean. The region specializes in pinot noir, but they also produce many other amazing varietals.

Of course, there are also tasting rooms in the charming seaside town of Santa Cruz, where you can wander along the Boardwalk, watch surfers on the waves, and find many shops and restaurants. However, most of the vineyards and actual wineries are in the mountains – thus the name Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.  

The three wineries I visited on this trip are within 15 to 30 minutes’ drive from downtown Santa Cruz, but there are others, such as Ridge, Mount Eden, Rhys, Clos de la Tech, and Thomas Fogarty, that require you to do some fun zig-zag driving up steep mountain roads – but it is totally worth it! 

I drove down from Napa/Sonoma the afternoon before and checked into my hotel so I could have a relaxing evening. I stayed at the Dream Inn, right on the beach.

Beautiful View from Dream Inn Restaurant.
Beautiful View from Dream Inn Restaurant. Photo Courtesy: Dream Inn.

It was fabulous to wake up in the morning and see the sunrise change the water and sky from silver to rose to peach and finally a robin’s egg blue.  

Dream Inn Santa Cruz
Dream Inn Santa Cruz. Photo Courtesy: Dream Inn.

I woke up refreshed and ready for my winery visits the next day. It is important to make reservations in advance, though most wineries in the Santa Cruz area are smaller, family-run, and a little more relaxed. So if you show up unannounced, they still may let you taste.

Visiting Alfaro Winery – Laid Back, Dog-Friendly with Organic Vineyards

The first stop was Alfaro Winery, and I was fortunate to meet the owner, Richard Alfaro, who is a lot of fun. He described their organically farmed vineyards, and showed us the colorful wine label that adorns all of their bottles, which was created by a local artist.  The small tasting room is casual, has an outdoor patio near the vineyards, and is dog friendly.

We tasted some of their award-winning pinot noir, which was magnificent.  They also produce chardonnay, zinfandel, cab, rose, and an absolutely mouthwatering gruner vetliner, which is an Austrian grapes with notes of lemon zest, lime, nectarine and ginger.

Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery.
Alfaro Family Vineyards & Winery. Photos Courtesy: Alfaro Winery.

Visiting Windy Oaks Estate Winery – Serious Pinot Noir and a Picnic in a Casual Setting

The next stop was Windy Oaks Estate winery. The estate pinot noir vineyards surround the small casual barn-like winery, and they have picnic tables scattered along the hilltop where you can see the ocean in the distance. It is a great place to bring your own picnic food, which we did. 

The team is friendly and welcoming, and we were fortunate enough to meet the founder, Jim Schultze, who opened up a couple of very special older pinot noir wines. Windy Oaks is very famous for its pinot noirs, made in a Burgundian style, with some of the top releases selling for $100+.  However, they also have more affordable wines, including some delicious grenache, viognier, chardonnay, and syrah.

Visiting Windy Oaks Estate Winery.
Visiting Windy Oaks Estate Winery. Photo Courtesy: Windy Oaks Estate Winery.

Visiting Lester Estate Winery – Upscale Estate with a Safari Theme

Our final visit of the day was to Lester Estate Winery, which is located in Deer Park Ranch. This is an upscale winery with an impressive entrance, and a road that winds through the vineyards before arriving at the elegant tasting room with a beautiful outdoor terrace. The owner used to go on many African safaris, so there is a safari theme in the tasting room (which is fascinating to visit), and they offer safari, wine and hiking adventures.

The wines are made by a group of top winemaking consultants, and are enticing to taste. Again, they specialize in pinot noir, with many special vineyard designates, but also offer chardonnay, rose, and syrah. We finished our afternoon relaxing with a glass of wine on the terrace and enjoying the gentle breeze that rippled the leaves on the trees and vines.

Tasting Room at Lester Estate.
(left) Tasting Room at Lester Estate with Safari Theme. (right) A glass of wine on the terrace at Lester Estate Winery. Photos Courtesy: Liz Thach.

Sunset on the Santa Cruz Beach With Bubbles

Back in Santa Cruz that evening, we watched the sunset on the beach from our balcony at the Dream Inn, with a glass of bubbles.

Sunset in Santa Cruz overlooking ocean.
Sunset in Santa Cruz. Photo Courtesy: Liz Thach.

The sun sank slowly into the Pacific, gifting us with a magnificent blaze of gold, peach, tangerine and then bright red, before gently moving into pomegranate, pale lavender, and then a sky of stars. 

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