Santa Cruz Mountains – California’s Hidden Gem


Tucked into its own little corner of the world, far away from most of California’s better-known regions, the Santa Cruz Mountains is home to a number of world-class estates and equally notable vineyards. Readers who enjoy focused, nervy Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs will find much to explore, as will those who appreciate the more savory, structured side of Cabernet Sauvignon. Although I have not tasted all the wines yet, 2021 is shaping up to be an extraordinary vintage here.

I have written extensively about the Santa Cruz Mountains in the past, so I won’t repeat all the basic information that can be found in previous articles, all linked below. In short, the Santa Cruz Mountains benefits from proximity to the Pacific Ocean, elevation and a complex matrix of soils that result in pedigreed wines of extraordinary nuance, delineation and class.

The region remains largely under the radar because of a unique set of factors that is not likely to change. Although quite easy to reach from many parts of Northern California, most notably the hub of Silicon Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains lacks the infrastructure to support classic wine tourism. Only a few estates are close to others; vast expanses of land separate most. Additionally, a number of the best wines are made by producers in other regions, mostly in Sonoma, who purchase fruit here but who do not have a physical presence.

As a result, the Santa Cruz Mountains is a place where single estates have carved out identities for themselves but where the region remains an enigma for most consumers. All that makes for an appellation full of potential for discovery. This article focuses on the Santa Cruz Mountains, but I also include wines from other, smaller, nearby appellations.

Rhys’ Skyline Vineyard.

Exploring Recent Vintages

Many of the wines I tasted for this report are from the 2021 harvest, a year that is, so far, shaping up to be exceptional here. When all is said and done, 2021 could very well turn out to be one of the all-time great vintages in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the most important factors in 2021 was severe drought. At Rhys, proprietor Kevin Harvey reported that rainfall was 50% of normal. The situation was even more dramatic at Mount Eden, where Jeffrey Patterson reported that the estate received just 1/3rd of its typical rainfall. Patterson added that rainfall these days is rarely the average but rather swings of either very low rain, as in 2021, or well above average, as was the case in both 2019 and 2023.

The growing season was marked by mostly even weather, with no shock events and cooling temperatures at the end of the season. In tasting, the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs marry intense, rich fruit with bright, vibrant acids. Many wines are spectacularly vivid and beautiful. The 2021 Bordeaux reds have not been released yet, so it is too early to have a complete view of the year, but the first signs are very positive.

I also tasted a number of 2020s this year. As readers no doubt remember, 2020 was marked by intense heat, drought and then a series of fires at the end of the season and during harvest. Some of the fires were local, while others impacted the region more through smoke and blocked sunlight rather than the direct effects of the fire itself. Another consequence was a lack of accessibility to vineyard sites and winemaking facilities during what was a period of catastrophic damage.

The wines are uneven at best. Some sites were picked unnaturally early, for some producers, a better choice than risking the entire crop. Those wines are not necessarily tainted or flawed, just light wines made from fruit that was not physiologically ripe. Other wines are muddled and unfocused, clearly affected by conditions, but good for the year. I also tasted a few wines that showed clear signs of smoke taint. There is no way of getting around the fact that every wine in 2020 is affected by fire in one way or another. In some cases, the effects are minor; in others, they are quite significant.

I was not in California during this time, but I got a very good idea of what fire and smoke can do when New York City was affected by wildfires from Canada earlier this year. That smoke, at elevation and from fires many hundreds of miles away, meaningfully affected air quality. To think that far more serious conditions around and during harvest in wine-producing regions did not have an impact is simply not realistic.

A handful of 2019s in this report confirm my earlier impressions of an attractive but lighter vintage. Higher than average rainfall yielded wines that are quite pretty aromatically but that also have less density than the very best years, vintages like 2021 that are more complete.

I tasted the wines in this article in September and October 2023.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Santa Cruz Mountains: The Compelling 2018s & 2019s, Antonio Galloni, May 2022

Santa Cruz Mountains: Wines of Breathtaking Pedigree, Antonio Galloni, September 2020

A Conversation with Kevin Harvey and Jeff Brinkman of Rhys, Antonio Galloni, July 2020

Exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains, Antonio Galloni, October 2019

Santa Cruz Mountains – The Gorgeous 2016s, Antonio Galloni, August 2018

Santa Cruz Mountains – The 2015s and 2014s, Antonio Galloni, August 2017