Wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Wild parks and shimmering views converge in the hills south of San Francisco, California

Sara Schneider and Lisa Taggart

Santa Cruz Mountains travel planner: wine tasting, dining, lodging, and more

The two of us are sitting at what feels very near the top of the world, with a picnic before us and the vast expanse of Silicon Valley far, far below. Munching on salads and sandwiches, we see beyond the chaparral-covered hillside to a valley of trees and office towers punctuated by the flat, hazy, blue stretch of San Francisco Bay and the red-roofed buildings of Stanford University.

The summer sun gives the hills an ethereal golden sheen. We shade our wineglasses under an umbrella. We wouldn't want to mar this moment by a single degree, since we've come to this mountain spot to pay homage to the world's best wine. Yes, you read right: world's best. As in, unsurpassed. Number one. Top dog.

Ridge Vineyards, here on a slope called Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has been judged by the world's top tasters to make the best Cabernet on the globe; ranked above some famous Bordeaux at the ground-breaking 1976 Paris blind tasting, the same Cabernet placed first in a rematch last year.

The best wine in the world ― not from France? Nor Napa? You'd never guess the source to be the Santa Cruz Mountains ― unless you already know this place harbors not only great wineries but also good food and plenty of room to roam.

Of course, today we can't afford the current vintage of that lauded Cabernet (starting at $160 a bottle), but we more than make do with some excellent Chardonnay.

Top-of-the-world wine, with a top-of-the-world view: We pronounce it a perfect pairing.

Challenging wines, challenging roads

How, we wonder, have we gotten so lucky to have this place all to ourselves?

While a number of wine aficionados know and love the region, few wine lovers come for a visit. Granted, the landscape is not easy for visitors: Wineries are tucked into mountain folds and behind evergreens down dirt roads. Many are small and open to visitors intermittently. And there is no quick way to get anywhere from the tops of these hills.

So we drive, and drive, and drive some more in this beautifully rugged terrain, happily hurling ourselves down corkscrew roads. We spend our nights near the ocean in Santa Cruz. In the mornings, when surfers head to the shore and college students pack the coffee shops, we point our car east and head back into the hills for more.

More than 70 wineries operate in the Santa Cruz Mountains region. It's a section of land that follows California's Coast Range from Half Moon Bay and Woodside in the north (about 30 miles south of San Francisco) to Watsonville on the coast and Gilroy inland (30 miles south of San Jose). Towns along the main through street, State 9 (which is anything but straight), offer organic groceries and cafes with hippie roots, funky mountain art co-ops, and the feeling that you're much farther than two dozen miles from urban life.

Hiking with peacocks

The hills also host a huge network of parks, where palm trees neighbor redwoods and boulders have been displaced by earthquakes. Mountain lions are sometimes seen here. Just down the hill from Ridge is the Picchetti Ranch Open Space Preserve, where we stretch our legs amid the live oak- and madrone-filled canyons. But before we get far, we're stopped by a male peacock, in full iridescent display, blocking our path.

The weight of its blue and green feathers at full reach seems to test the bird's balance, and it takes some compensatory steps, first in one direction, then another. It lets out a screech. Odd that such beautiful birds would have such grating voices. We, however, are speechless, until the fellow tires of showing off, closes up shop, and strides away.

We shrug ― just another mountain surprise, like the time we stumbled upon a woman walking a llama in another park up here. The llama was on a leash, just like a dog. We continue on our own hike, switchbacking down to a shaded madrone-filled canyon. We climb up again, to grassy meadows, a seasonal pond, and views of Stevens Creek Reservoir. We could hike out here for days, climbing ridge after forested ridge, running into the next park, and the next, all the way to ocean if we had the time.

Maverick mountains
Hip, historic Los Gatos
Santa Cruz art tour
Post-hike refreshment

After our hike, we stop in the old buildings by the preserve entrance. Turns out this spot housed one of the area's earliest wineries, dating back to the 1890s. One member of the winemaking family liked exotic birds, thus the peacocks, descendants of the original pet flock.

And wine is still made here by Picchetti Winery. We step into a 100-year-old barn to swirl and sip some more.

Our pourer is a recent college grad with shaggy hair who hits the beach with his board on his days off: "This Sangiovese is, like, totally delicious," he says.

Santa Cruz's coastal climate clearly keeps his wine pretension level low. Much like, we think, Santa Cruz Mountains wine in general. We dig the mellow vibe, because who doesn't like a humble winner?