If vibrant, multicultural San Francisco is not playground enough, it is surrounded by more playgrounds on the coast south of the city. Every Friday afternoon, the cream of corporate America stream out of their Silicon Valley/financial district cubicles seeking adventure atop their Harleys and Beemers on the pavement of Highway 101 heading toward Monterey Bay.
Blessed with great natural beauty and a storied history of culture clash seeded by seafaring, immigration, and the rush to make fortunes on the golden coast, the central California beach towns of Monterey and Santa Cruz are also vacation destinations for much of the world. So be prepared to share if you pay a visit.
Of that glorious and colorful past there are still remnants. If you peak around the parked cars you can find a little flavor of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in the refurbished buildings that house the museum and shops. There is real funky,neighborhood charm in Santa Cruz just up the street from their really tacky amusement park that can best be called “gentrified cheese”, lots of new paint on old ideas of fun. If you win a stuffed animal it might be worthwhile. The fog-shrouded opulent beauty of the 19-mile drive scenic drive in Carmel is always inspiring.
But when the crowds come I prefer to get out in the hills to enjoy a quiet redwood forest hike and then pay a visit to some of the extraordinary wineries here.
Santa Cruz Wineries
Although not one of the high production wine regions in California, the Santa Cruz mountains have long been known for quality. The weather is moderate during the day and cool at night slowing the ripening process and keeping acidity in the grapes. Mountain terrain that shows a diversity of microclimates and soils make for wines of great individual character. But this mountain terrain also means wine lovers will have to travel rugged mountain roads. The wineries are often remote and not clustered along a wine trail. Plan for some time in the car between tastings and use a good GPS.
Of course Ridge Winery is legendary for its Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, an elegant and age-worthy wine that has garnered high praise from critics for years. This is a must taste for those who prefer Cabernet with finesse. The 2011 is rich, powerful, and deep on the nose with pure fruit expression on the medium bodied palate and a long, graceful finish that features fine-grained tannins. For $50 you can do a vertical tasting of several vintages. The Merlot, Estate Cabernet, Zinfandel and Chardonnay on the reserve tasting list are also impressive. The Chardonnay is mildly oaked and silky on the palate. All the reds have eucalyptus and herbal flavors that sustain your interest. None are fruit bombs; each has balance and complexity. The road to the winery is long and winding but the grounds are attractive and the view is lovely. This is a great place for a picnic.
If you love Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Thomas Fogarty Winery is the place to go. The single vineyard tasting lineup is especially interesting. Their 2011 Estate Chardonnay is unique and compelling with focused citrus aromas and a refreshing mineral finish, and the 2012 Estate Pinot Noir from their Razorback vineyard is light and fresh with distinctive earth notes and persistent, fine-grained tannins. This is a very refined wine. The 2009 Estate Syrah is one of the better California Syrahs I’ve tasted. Fleshy but refined with berry and black pepper notes and an herbaceous finish, this has one foot in the old world Syrahs from Northern Rhone. The Lexington Cabernet and 2008 Meritage are also full of finesse. The herbal and floral influence of Cabernet Franc on the Meritage is especially delightful and, at 7 years past its vintage date, all components are fully integrated. And if you like new flavor sensations, try their 2013 Estate Sansum Chardonnay, an orange wine made by allowing the white wine to macerate on the skins. It has the aromas of a white wine but some of the texture of a red, with a firm body and prominent tannins with some bitterness on the finish. Thomas Fogarty wines aim for the elegance and structure of the French wine tradition and largely succeed.
The David Bruce Winery has played an historic role in the development of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation. Bonded in 1964 with its stated mission “to make the world’s greatest Pinot Noir” it has now grown to a production level of about 60,000 cases per year. And they make a lot more than Pinot Noir. Their tasting lineup includes Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese as well. Their Zinfandel was especially unique and impressive. But Pinot Noir is what they are known for and we tasted several versions with grapes sourced from the Russian River, Santa Maria, and the Santa Lucia Highlands. Unfortunately, their estate Pinot Noir is reserved primarily for club members and is not part of their tasting room lineup. All were very well made and expressive with balance and focus. This is a great opportunity to taste the differences between Pinot Noir from various appellations made by the same winemaker.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Because in the end I like originality and innovation to go along with flavor. To find originality and innovation in the wine world, all roads lead to Bonny Doon where Randall Grahm holds court. Whenever there is something new going on in the wine world—the introduction of Rhone varietals, the use of screw caps, ingredient labeling, bio-dynamic winemaking etc.—you will find Grahm not only experimenting with it but telling the world about it. So if you want to find out what’s new in the wine world visit the Bonny Doon tasting room where his employees are kept up to date with his grand experiments. The winery is not open to the public but the tasting room is on Rte 1 just North of Santa Cruz. You will leave thinking you just tasted wine for the first time.
I’ve always enjoyed Le Cigare Volant, Grahm’s signature wine that first made an appearance in 1984. The 2010 Reserve, a blend of several Rhone varietals is dense, with cherry and leather aromas punctuated by a meaty, bloody aspect that screams European until you taste how dense it is pulling you right back to new world power. A silky texture and long finish, this wine is aged on the lees for two years in 5 gal. glass bottles called “carboys” that the staff must turn every two weeks by hand. This is probably not their favorite wine. There are a variety of wines on their tasting menu, all of them interesting and unique–California fruit concentration with a French flair for wild, funky flavors that you’re surprised to find in a wine. This is a quintessential Santa Cruz experience.
Santa Cruz Eats
As for the food in Santa Cruz, its regional quality comes from fresh fish and seafood from local fishing and the many small farms in Watsonville just East of the town that supply fresh produce. There are plenty of farm stands and small local businesses doing interesting things with food such as this producer of flavored sauerkraut. Downtown, Verve Coffee Roasters is top notch with beans roasted daily and sourced from many parts of the coffee world. They have a small selection of really delightful pastries.
The restaurant with the buzz is Assembly, fresh farm-to-table cuisine with flair and creativity. For lunch I adored the sautéed yellow corn with Maitake mushrooms, caramelized fennel polenta, sherry brown butter, hazelnuts and poached egg. As you might expect, restaurants on the pier serve a tourist crowd. Riva Fish House is quite competent as is the FireFish Grill. In both, the view is lovely if you get a window. But the Santa Cruz restaurant that best typifies this bohemian town is a little hole-in-the-wall Hawaiian place called Pono Hawaiian Grill. The cooking area occupies one side of a bar with seating both indoor and out. There is no table service, you order at the front counter, and the décor is tattered, surftown, psychedelic, accented by indy rock or live local performers. You can sure get your fix of poke here—they offer about 20 flavor combinations. Poke is a raw fish salad—cubes of raw ahi tuna marinated in salt, soy sauce, seaweed and other condiments. I ordered the creamy wasabi poke. Of course no Hawaiian street food menu is complete without Loco and spam musubi. Both appear on the huge menu.
This is one of my favorite beach towns but I’m a sucker for laid-back California bohemia.
Monterey Food and Wine
Monterey sits on the South side of the bay—it is larger, less quaint, and less bohemian than Santa Cruz and a more active tourist destination. Fisherman’s Wharf’s seedy souvenir shops, street food vendors and the “parrot guy” vaguely gesture in the direction of the old swashbuckling ethos of seafarers, but on Cannery Row the flophouses, weedy lots and corrugated iron cannery buildings from Steinbeck’s novel have been converted into more upscale shops—feeling the vibe of Steinbeck’s depression era cast of characters requires a real act of the imagination. Its main attraction is the aquatic museum. But the walk along the shore and wildlife sanctuary in nearby Pacific Grove gives you a beautiful view of the bay and allows you to escape some of the crowds.
We had time for only one noteworthy restaurant meal during our short visit to this side of the bay. If you’re into some adventurous eating try Lokal, specializing in innovative small plates using, as much as possible, local ingredients. The Sardine Bocadilla, local sardines with bread and mojito aioli, were a wonderful evocation of local seafood, the fried mac and cheese balls were ordinary, but the Fat Albert sliders with pork belly, negro chile sour cream on a steamed bun were succulent and interesting.
Many of the wineries from the Santa Lucia Highlands and Carmel Valley have tasting rooms near the downtown tourist destinations or in Carmel, good for a quick sampling but without the atmosphere of wine country. To taste the wines “in situ” you have to take a drive down 101 through the Salinas Valley to the Santa Lucia Highlands where most of the Monterey area wineries are located. My favorite winery in SLH is Talbott Vineyards. Their tasting room in Carmel Valley is fun but busy; better to visit the winery where you can taste unhurriedly and really concentrate on these elegant wines. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country and that’s all you will find at Talbott. Order their single vineyard tasting to really understand how small differences in soil and climate make a big difference in the finished product. The salty minerality of their Diamond T 2012 Chardonnay was a standout as was their 2013 RFT Pinot Noir from the same vineyard. I scored all these wines in the low 90’s.
A few miles down the road from Talbott is Wrath Wines. A lovely property overlooking vineyards and a marshy pond, their mainstays are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but they also make Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, and Syrah. Again opting for their single vineyard tasting, their Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir is big, ripe, and spicy with a round, full texture and soft finish (92 pts). But the San Saba is for me the show stopper; spicy, dense and complex but full of finesse and depth and very refreshing on the palate, this was my single favorite wine of the day. (93 pts.) Their Syrah from Doctor’s vineyard is also surprisingly good. It is dominated by blackberry and black pepper with a little meat and a very strong, tannic finish that will complement a good steak. (90 pts.)
No visit to this region is complete without a visit to Hahn, a pioneer of winemaking in the Santa Lucia Highlands and one of the larger producers at 400,000 cases per year. Sourcing grapes from their vineyards in Arroyo Seco as well as the Santa Lucia Highlands, Hahn produces many varietals under both the Hahn and Lucienne labels including a solid Malbec and intriguing Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles fruit. But I loved the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their Lone Oak vineyard—elegant, full of finesse, with a judicious use of new French oak, (92) pts. there is great quality at the high end of their list. The view is spectacular.
And when you tire of wine tasting (huh?) and need something to eat, head to La Casa Del Sazon in Salinas. Their specialty is Molcajete Michoacano, a huge mortar filled with chicken, beef, nopales, cheese and salsa. That’s too much food for me. I ordered the best Steak Ranchero I’ve had in a long time. Tender beef with a rich sauce of tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and freshly-made tortillas.
Nothing like some good Mexican food to remind you of the farmworkers that make all this possible.