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 theworld, with a picnic before us and the vast expanse of SiliconValley far, far below. Munching on salads and sandwiches, we seebeyond the chaparral-covered hillside to a valley of trees andoffice towers punctuated by the flat, hazy, blue stretch of SanFrancisco Bay and the red-roofed buildings of StanfordUniversity.

The summer sun gives the hills an ethereal golden sheen. Weshade our wineglasses under an umbrella. We wouldn't want to marthis moment by a single degree, since we've come to this mountainspot 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 SantaCruz Mountains, has been judged by the world's top tasters to makethe best Cabernet on the globe; ranked above some famous Bordeauxat the ground-breaking 1976 Paris blind tasting, the same Cabernetplaced 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 CruzMountains ― unless you already know this place harbors notonly great wineries but also good food and plenty of room toroam.

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

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

Challenging wines, challengingroads

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

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

So we drive, and drive, and drive some more in this beautifullyrugged terrain, happily hurling ourselves down corkscrew roads. Wespend our nights near the ocean in Santa Cruz. In the mornings,when surfers head to the shore and college students pack the coffeeshops, we point our car east and head back into the hills formore.

More than 70 wineries operate in the Santa Cruz Mountainsregion. It's a section of land that follows California's CoastRange from Half Moon Bay and Woodside in the north (about 30 milessouth of San Francisco) to Watsonville on the coast and Gilroyinland (30 miles south of San Jose). Towns along the main throughstreet, State 9 (which is anything but straight), offer organicgroceries and cafes with hippie roots, funky mountain art co-ops,and the feeling that you're much farther than two dozen miles fromurban life.

Hiking with peacocks

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

The weight of its blue and green feathers at full reach seems totest the bird's balance, and it takes some compensatory steps,first in one direction, then another. It lets out a screech. Oddthat 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 timewe 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 ownhike, switchbacking down to a shaded madrone-filled canyon. Weclimb up again, to grassy meadows, a seasonal pond, and views ofStevens Creek Reservoir. We could hike out here for days, climbingridge after forested ridge, running into the next park, and thenext, all the way to ocean if we had the time.

Post-hike refreshment

After our hike, we stop in the old buildings by the preserveentrance. Turns out this spot housed one of the area's earliestwineries, dating back to the 1890s. One member of the winemakingfamily liked exotic birds, thus the peacocks, descendants of theoriginal pet flock.

And wine is still made here by Picchetti Winery. We step into a100-year-old barn to swirl and sip some more.

Our pourer is a recent college grad with shaggy hair who hitsthe 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 pretensionlevel low. Much like, we think, Santa Cruz Mountains wine ingeneral. We dig the mellow vibe, because who doesn't like a humblewinner?

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