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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Storrs Winery

Storrs Front: Steve Storrs' winery is one of the top stops in Santa Cruz.

Who Needs Napa?

You don't have to go far to get away to wine country

By Stett Holbrook

NAPA VALLEY is great and all, but our backyard wine country has several advantages over the better known and more heavily trafficked winegrowing region to the north.

Obviously, the Santa Cruz Mountains are a lot closer than driving up to Napa. That means less time behind the wheel and more time for wine. But a day trip up into the Santa Cruz Mountains offers more than convenience. These wineries have a low-key, quirky charm that's all but gone from the tour bus-choked byways of Napa. In many cases, the person pouring your wine will be the person who made it. Even though Santa Cruz Mountain wineries are less than an hour away, once you're wending your way down a redwood-lined road with the ocean peaking through in the distance, you'll feel like you're far away from your Silicon Valley existence. And oh yeah, the wineries make some really great wine, too.

If you're a fan of pinot noir, the Santa Cruz Mountains are the place for you. Cool days and cool nights treat this temperamental grape just right, coaxing out luxurious, luscious flavors. Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah fare well here, too. The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation has two distinct climates that allow for the production of a wide variety of grapes: the milder, ocean-cooled western slope of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties and the warmer eastern side of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Because of the region's rugged, mountainous geography, there is no central winery district. There are more than 40 wineries scattered from Woodside down to Watsonville. I'm convinced it's because of the off-the-beaten-path location of some wineries that the area isn't more crowded. It's not as if the wineries are hidden down muddy, tree-blocked roads, but visiting Santa Cruz Mountain wineries does takes a bit of planning.

So here is a suggested route for a day of leisurely wine tasting at four wineries that ends with a picnic in a forest-framed garden. First stop is Bargetto Winery in Soquel. The Bargetto family has been making wine since before Prohibition and founded its winery in 1933. Located on picturesque and frequently babbling Soquel Creek, Bargetto makes some outstanding wine. Do what you have to do get a sip of Bargetto's La Vita wines, a line of estate wines made from northern Italian varietals. The 2000 La Vita scored a "best of class" medal in this year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Bargetto is also known for its mead, a beverage not made from grapes at all but from honey. The Renaissance-era dessert wine is bottled under the Chaucer's label and produced from a blend of orange, alfalfa and sage honey. The wine is not as sweet as you'd expect it to be and can be served chilled or heated with mulling spices for a delicious, cold weather tipple.

Sufficiently warmed up (you do have a designated driver, don't you?), head north on Highway 1 to Storrs Winery in Santa Cruz. Storrs occupies a storefront in the Old Sash Mill, a cluster of wood-sided buildings off River Street in downtown Santa Cruz. What the winery saves on a fancy tasting room it lavishes on its wines. Storrs is consistently one of the Santa Cruz appellation's standouts. Tasting wines at Storrs also offers a lesson in the Santa Cruz Mountains' diverse microclimates and geography.

As a winemaker, Steve Storrs is out to let the terroir of his wines shine through. Terroir is a French term that means "essence of place" and includes factors like soil, climate and geology that contribute to the flavor and aroma of wine. His wine labels tout the source of his grapes and as you're tasting them try to tease out the differences between, say, a Christie Vineyard Chardonnay made from grapes grown in the loamy, decomposed granite soils of southern Santa Cruz County and a Ben Lomond Mountain Chardonnay, a high elevation collection of vineyards located above the fog line that straddle the eastern and western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Wiser in the ways of local terroir, continue your tour north on Highway 1 to Bonny Doon Vineyard, the court jester of the often stuffy wine world and maker of some of Santa Cruz County's best wines. But just before you leave the Santa Cruz city limits, make a pit stop for picnic provisions at New Leaf Market at 2531 Mission St. (Mission Street is the congested stretch of Highway 1 as you head out of town). Pick up a baguette, some cheese and maybe a sandwich or deli item.

Although most of Bonny Doon's grapes are grown outside Santa Cruz County, the winery remains of one the area's marquee names because the quality of owner Randall Graham's wines and the healthy sense of humor that comes across in the colorful artwork and clever, stream of consciousness verbiage on the labels. The tasting room feels like you're in someone's living room who happens to be doling out glasses of great wine. A sampling of eight wines will set you back $3. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and contributes to the casual, easygoing vibe. Wine snobbery and pretence are not allowed.

There's nothing funny about Le Cigare Volant (except the flying saucer on the label) and Old Telegram, the winery's two signature, Rhone-style wines. These are seriously good wines. Bonny Doon also picked up a best of class for its 2004 sangiovese. And don't miss the naughtily delicious, panty-dropping framboise, fortified raspberry liquor. Best to pick up a bottle of this stuff and drink it in the privacy of your home.

You could unpack your groceries here and have a picnic by Mill Creek or head down the hill and across the highway to the beach, but I'd say press on for one more stop: Hallcrest Vineyard in Felton.

Head up Bonny Doon Road, take a right on winding Ice Cream Grade and then continue straight when you hit Felton Empire Road. Dating back to 1945, Hallcrest is another historic Santa Cruz Mountain winery. The winery specializes in small-production (less than 5,000 cases) top quality wine. Its pinot noirs are particularly good. Hallcrest scored a total of eight medals in the Chronicle wine competition for its pinot noirs, four of them gold medals. In spite of its success, the tasting room feels like a country store. It's packed with wine paraphernalia and knickknacks and exudes the laid-back charm that makes visiting Santa Cruz Mountain so enjoyable.

At this point, you've earned yourself a bottle of wine and picnic. You can choose from the deck outside the tasting room under big oak trees or the garden below the winery. As you sip a glass of wine and take in the sylvan beauty all around, ask yourself: Just what are you missing in Napa?

Bargetto Winery: 3535 N. Main St., Soquel; 831.475.2258; Open daily noon-5pm. Storrs Winery: Old Sash Mill, 303 Potrero St. #35, Santa Cruz; 831.458.5030; Open daily noon-5pm. Bonny Doon Vineyard: 10 Pine Flat Road, Santa Cruz; 831.425.4518; Open daily 11am-5pm. Hallcrest Winery: 379 Empire Grade Road, Felton; 831.335.4441; Open daily noon-5pm.

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