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 betweenHollister and Pinnacles National Monument, and some of the mostcompelling are the detours.

This old, little-used highway in San Benito County starts justan hour south of San Jose, an easy side trip for anyone travelingbetween the Bay Area and Southern California. Yet it offers aglimpse of a Golden State before there were commuter lanes andurban sprawl or anything resembling a mini-mall. You start out inthe mission town of San Juan Bautista, then sidestep west to thewine region of the Cienega Valley. You'll drive past oak trees andtender green vineyards, cow pastures and garlic fields, crumblingbarns 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 throughcourtyards lined with antiques stores. Anchored by the Old MissionSan Juan Bautista, founded in 1797, the town seems magically stuckin time. Its historic heart is filled with 200 years' worth ofarchitecture ― everything from adobes to Queen Annes.

Start with a visit to the mission, where you can attend a massor roam the grounds at your own pace. On the first Saturday of eachmonth, docents from nearby San Juan Bautista State Historic Parkdemonstrate traditional activities like blacksmithing and weavingon a loom.

The Cienega Valley wine route

From San Juan Bautista, you can follow State 156 southeasttoward Hollister, then take Union and Cienega Roads into theCienega Valley. This little-visited wine region is an antidote tothe commercial aspects of the Napa Valley. Whereas Napa is oftenbumper to bumper with visitor traffic, this route, which windsalong the San Andreas Fault and beneath the Gabilan Mountains, isusually an empty road that offers rolling hills and family-runwineries that reveal both a passion for winemaking and the quirksof their owners.

DeRose Vineyards, about 7 miles down Cienega Road, is housed ina cluster of gunmetal gray warehouses built directly on top of afault line. If you call ahead, Pat or Al DeRose, the father-and-sonwinemaking 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. Hisapproach 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 whatI like to drink, and that's how I make wine," he says, sniffing aglass of Négrette, a red wine better known in warm, dry partsof southwestern France.

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

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

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

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

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

Other area wineries include the recently opened Léal EstateVineyards in Hollister and the tiny but respected Flint WineCellars on Cienega Road.

Several miles beyond Calera, Cienega connects to State 25 justsouth of Paicines, population 100. There are two reasons tocontinue south toward Pinnacles National Monument: the journey andthe 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 fromSan Juan Bautista to Pinnacles is so empty, so leisurely andrelaxing, it harkens back to the days when the Sunday drive wasstill in vogue and cars like the DeRoses' Hollywood still navigatedthe roads.

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

TOURING CALIFORNIA STATE HIGHWAY 25
For more information, contact the San Benito County Chamberof Commerce (www.sanbenitocountychamber.com. or 831/637-5315)

WINERIES

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.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

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 State146; www.nps.gov/pinn or (831)389-4485.

DINING

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

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

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

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

LODGING

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

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