It is difficult to hop from winery to winery e in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but those willing to brave steep dirt roads, 2,500 foot elevation climbs and winding mountainous terrain will find themselves in a fascinating appellation filled with high quality wines. The soil types here are some of the most diverse in California, with the San Andreas fault cutting right through the middle of the mountain appellation (you can see the fault rift right below Ridge’s Monte Bello Vineyard). The grinding of the tectonic plates is what created this area and gives Santa Cruz’s steep mountain vineyard slopes a rocky soil diversity filled with decomposed granite, limestone, schist and shale. The soil produces grapes of unique spice and intensity, and the vineyards’ high elevation keeps the grapes cool. It's the perfect recipe for world class viticulture, and this AVA has some of the most renowned Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir around. Thanks to Big Basin vineyards, Santa Cruz is also home to some of California's best Syrah.
As we were driving through this AVA (our cars covered in dust, our tires squeeling around tight turns and on large rocks, our traction slipping as we climbed steep mountain roads) I couldn't help but think about the insanity/tenacity of the people who first planted vines here about 150 years ago. Lincoln's homestead act of 1862 gave settlers the ability to own land in the west if they cultivated it for use. This inspired French pioneers to haul everything they needed up to the tops of these mountains, painstakingly clear away sloped fields of ancient trees, and plant the first vines of Santa Cruz. Big Basin’s vineyard is a six-acre lot surrounded by redwoods and thick forest right next to Big Basin State Park. First cleared and planted in the late 1800s, it was purchased by owner Bradley Brown in 1998 and planted entirely to Rhone varietals.
Thankfully, we didn't have to drive all the way down into Big Basin to taste these wines. They have a great tasting room in downtown Saratoga, along with several other wineries, and I suggest stopping by their room as a great start to your Santa Cruz Mountains tasting experience. While the Pinots they make from various vineyards are bright and delicious, including the Big Basin Vineyards "Alfaro Family Vineyard" Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($44.99), their real success is their Syrahs. Brad learned winemaking from Alban, and he took budwood from Alban to plant his vineyard: the only one in Santa Cruz planted 100% to Rhone varietals. Their 2010 "Old Corral Block" Estate Syrah ($49.99) is dark and brooding, dominating the palate with dark earth and pepper. This is real deal, big, structured Syrah with loads of tobacco, blackberry and beef stew flavors. The 2010 "Rattlesnake Ridge Block" Estate Syrah is my personal favorite and a little more user friendly: with those gamey and peppery flavors softened by lush flavors of cassis and cherry. Their 2009 "Frenchie's Ranch" Syrah is probably one of the best Syrahs in the country: a four barrel vineyard selection packed with dense cassis, strawberry, cedar, pepper and leather, with a big finish of mole and chili. Sadly, you can't get it from us; this wine is tasting room only!
The 2011 Big Basin Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon ($38.99) is a one-time bottling and worth a taste.