Vintage California

South of San Jose, follow Highway 25 to great wine and sublime scenery

Samantha Schoech

You'll find lots of reasons to explore State 25 between Hollister and Pinnacles National Monument, and some of the most compelling are the detours.

This old, little-used highway in San Benito County starts just an hour south of San Jose, an easy side trip for anyone traveling between the Bay Area and Southern California. Yet it offers a glimpse of a Golden State before there were commuter lanes and urban sprawl or anything resembling a mini-mall. You start out in the mission town of San Juan Bautista, then sidestep west to the wine region of the Cienega Valley. You'll drive past oak trees and tender green vineyards, cow pastures and garlic fields, crumbling barns and blankets of wildflowers, into a gentler California.

Poking around a mission town

The area's personality is best captured by San Juan Bautista, where chickens roam the streets, lazily picking their way through courtyards lined with antiques stores. Anchored by the Old Mission San Juan Bautista, founded in 1797, the town seems magically stuck in time. Its historic heart is filled with 200 years' worth of architecture ― everything from adobes to Queen Annes.

Start with a visit to the mission, where you can attend a mass or roam the grounds at your own pace. On the first Saturday of each month, docents from nearby San Juan Bautista State Historic Park demonstrate traditional activities like blacksmithing and weaving on a loom.

The Cienega Valley wine route

From San Juan Bautista, you can follow State 156 southeast toward Hollister, then take Union and Cienega Roads into the Cienega Valley. This little-visited wine region is an antidote to the commercial aspects of the Napa Valley. Whereas Napa is often bumper to bumper with visitor traffic, this route, which winds along the San Andreas Fault and beneath the Gabilan Mountains, is usually an empty road that offers rolling hills and family-run wineries that reveal both a passion for winemaking and the quirks of their owners.

DeRose Vineyards, about 7 miles down Cienega Road, is housed in a cluster of gunmetal gray warehouses built directly on top of a fault line. If you call ahead, Pat or Al DeRose, the father-and-son winemaking duo, will let you in and pour you some wine. Al, now 24, was making wine before he was old enough to legally drink it. His approach is careful but casual. You might find him in a "Got Wine?" T-shirt, but you will never find him putting on airs. "I know what I like to drink, and that's how I make wine," he says, sniffing a glass of Négrette, a red wine better known in warm, dry parts of southwestern France.

In addition to their old-vine Zinfandels and crisp Viogniers, the DeRoses produce a signature blend named "Hollywood Red" after the 1940 Graham Hollywood. This and other cars, including a 1957 Lincoln Continental once owned by Debbie Reynolds, are on display at the DeRoses' car museum, next door to their winery.

If DeRose Vineyards is all down-home, the neighboring Pietra Santa Winery is all uptown. After entering through an ornate metal gate and winding past owners Joseph and Deanna Gimelli's 1906 Frank Lloyd Wright house, you arrive at the stately Tuscan-inspired Pietra Santa. The roof tiles are antiques imported from Italy, and the tasting room is stocked with Italian delicacies and fun knickknacks. In addition to Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, and the seldom-seen Dolcetto, Pietra Santa makes olive oil from its own groves.

Joseph has big plans for his winery and the entire Cienega Valley. Picnic and wedding facilities are in the works, as are a bocce-ball court and 36,000 square feet of wine caves in the side of a hill. "I want people to know," he says, taking a sip of the winery's Sassolino blend, "that what we have out here is as good as Napa Valley. Better."

Calera Wine Co., a mile past Pietra Santra on Cienega Road, doesn't bother with comparisons to the more famous appellation to the north. In 1972, when Josh Jensen decided to start a winery in California using what he had learned in Burgundy, he went searching for limestone, a beneficial soil element in that part of France. He found his mineral deposits at 2,200 feet on a steep hillside in the Gabilan Mountains.

Thirty years later, Jensen's Calera label has become one of the most prestigious in California winemaking, with an impressive list of awards. What the winery doesn't have is a tasting room, but if you call ahead, you can take a tour of the gravity-flow facilities―where the steps in the winemaking process take place on descending floors―and taste wine from the barrel. "It's more fun, anyway," says winery manager Diana Vita, as she dips into a barrel of Pinot Noir that won't be ready for bottling for another year. "This way, people can really taste the aging process."

Other area wineries include the recently opened Léal Estate Vineyards in Hollister and the tiny but respected Flint Wine Cellars on Cienega Road.

Several miles beyond Calera, Cienega connects to State 25 just south of Paicines, population 100. There are two reasons to continue south toward Pinnacles National Monument: the journey and the destination. This stretch of State 25 is all but unpopulated, and while you will see hanging Spanish moss, carpets of poppies, lettuce fields, fruit trees, rusty pickups, and scurrying quail, you will not see much evidence of the 21st century. The drive from San Juan Bautista to Pinnacles is so empty, so leisurely and relaxing, it harkens back to the days when the Sunday drive was still in vogue and cars like the DeRoses' Hollywood still navigated the roads.

Then, at last, you will come to Pinnacles. Especially at this time of year, when the area bursts with its famed display of wildflowers, it's a stunning place to spend a few hours or an afternoon. Take a hike―the Moses Springs-Rim Trail Loop is a good introduction to the park's eerily eroded rock formations. When it's time to go, you can relax knowing that you have that beautiful drive home ahead of you.

For more information, contact the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce ( or 831/637-5315)


All the wineries listed offer free tastings. Except where noted, they require appointments.

Calera Wine Co. 11300 Cienega Rd.; (831) 637-9170.

DeRose Vineyards. 9970 Cienega; (831) 636-9143.

Flint Wine Cellars. 13160 Cienega; (831) 636-8986.

Léal Estate Vineyards. 300 Maranatha Dr.; (831) 636-1023.

Pietra Santa Winery. Open 11-5 daily. 10034 Cienega; (831) 636-1991.


Old Mission San Juan Bautista. Mission and museum open 9:30-4:45 daily; $2 suggested donation. Second and Mariposa Streets, San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-4528.

Pinnacles National Monument. Open dawn to dusk (day-use only); $5 per vehicle. 5000 State 146; or (831) 389-4485.


The Cutting Horse. Many locals think this elegant Western-style restaurant serves the best steak in San Benito County. Tue-Sun (dinner only). 307 Third St., San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-4549.

Don Ciccio's. Risotto, fettucine, and other Italian favorites. Tue-Sun (lunch and dinner). 107 The Alameda, San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-4667.

Inn at Tres Pinos. Excellent Italian food in a classic roadhouse setting. Tue-Sun (dinner only). 6991 State 25, Tres Pinos; (831) 628-3320.

Jardines de San Juan. A lovely Mexican restaurant with a garden courtyard. Open daily (lunch and dinner). 115 Third, San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-4466.


Posada de San Juan. A Mission-style motel in the historic heart of town; each of the 34 rooms has a fireplace. From $98. 310 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-4030.