It is not hard to get lost in the mystic of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Giant redwood trees from a different age tower over the road, which is often two and sometimes really only one lane. Combined with deep, thick pockets of morning fog, the visibility is questionable at times. There are moments during sunlight hours when the elements of nature create eclipse-like sensations and you just might find yourself questioning the time of day on your watch. At moments such as these, it is hard to shake the feeling of wandering into a new and distant land.


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Given these instances, it is only fitting that getting a “Passport” is a great way to explore the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the third Saturday of January, April, July, and November, over fifty wineries open their doors to anyone carrying a Santa Cruz Mountains’ Passport, which can be purchased by phone, online (, or at many of the wineries themselves. Once acquired, each person is entitled to one visit to every participating winery, some of which are only open to the public on these Passport days. In addition, the Passports do not have an expiration date, allowing visitors to take their time getting better acquainted with the fabulous mountain wines.

While Napa or Sonoma growers may receive more attention today, that was not always the case. During the 19th century, the Santa Cruz Mountain region was known as a world leader in the quality of its fruit, earning the moniker of the “golden chain”. The appellation, which gained recognition from the Federal Government in 1981, runs the length of the Coastal Range from Mount Madonna in the south up to Half Moon Bay in the north. It begins at an 800 foot elevation on the warmer eastern side, and at 400 feet on the western side, where cooling breezes from the Pacific help keep temperatures nice and moderate. The solids vary throughout the appellation ranging from decomposed rock, clay, loam, and limestone, but the general effect is a freshness and a mineral presence to the wines. With this combination of geography and climate, growers have had great success with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, often producing their wines from commonly low-yielding vineyards on small plots of land. The result is wines that are bright and bold in their flavors, as well as their aromas. I had the privilege of visiting a handful of these mountain wineries during January’s Passport Weekend, and I must say, the world I discovered up in the mountains is unlike anything else I have come across in my travels throughout the state.

Here is just a sampling of the friends we made and the wines we sampled. Detailed wine reviews can be found at the end of each winery description.

Burrell School Vineyard and Winery

At Burrell School Vineyards, they have managed to combine rediscovering childhood with some noteworthy wines. From the outside, the tasting-room looks like an old school house, but do not worry, there arenít any scary teachers inside, only fun. On Passport Saturday, there is a western theme in full stride. The tasting-room is bustling. Cowboy hats and bandanas are quite common. Smiles are, too. There is no need for fancy attire or conversations about acidity and brix. One need not be an aficionado to feel at home here. The only real expectation is to follow the mandate of the vineyard and promise to sip the wine. Most of their fruit is estate grown, and after harvest, winemaker David Moulton works his magic, crushing the grapes in small lots and tailoring barrel selection for each different varietal. The School offers a wide variety of wines and a number of them are quite good, so it is well worth it to listen to their mandate and savor each glass.


A short drive up the winding road, which ascends to the very top of the mountain, is Loma Prieta Winery. From the back patio, the view tretches out across the evergreen treetops all the way out to Monterey Bay. Just the spectacle of the soft afternoon sun glistening on the water is worth the trip, but I would recommend trying the wine, too. Pouring there is Jack Benesi, the vineyard’s Operations Manager. He has a great sense of humor, so laughing and joking makes him equally as happy as discussing the winery. Seek him out if the journey up the mountain has your spirits dragging a bit, and if Jack’s wit is not quite enough, try their 2006 Pinot. It has everything necessary to take you the rest of the way.

Byington Vineyard

Whether you are seeking out a tranquil, romantic setting or seeking out the perfect venue to stage your next event, the grounds at Byington are nicely suited. Nestled on a quiet mountain top, it is possible to look out across the range for miles on a clear day. With the majestic scheme of the architecture there is a feeling of being on an European mountain estate. Bring a picnic lunch, purchase a bottle of their Signature Cab, and dine with their estate vines as a backdrop. At Byington, the main building is a grand landmark, even against the mountain setting. Their upstairs deck and their picnic area both sit just above the sloping, hillside estate vines. It is difficult to imagine a more idyllic spot to enjoy a glass of wine. Inside the tasting room, the sights are nearly as impressive, with towering steel tanks and barrels of wine stacked four high. The experience is well worth the trip.

Fleming Jenkins

For those who prefer the town to the countryside, Fleming Jenkins’ tasting room is located right in downtown Los Gatos. It is a charming little spot, with a small assembly of acclaimed skater Peggy Fleming family collectables decorating the walls. Coffee shops, small cafès, plenty of boutiques, and a small park are all within walking distance. Even if wine is not your main motive for venturing into the town, stop on in. Greg Jenkins is as friendly and down to earth as any winemaker I have met, and his Chardonnay, along with his “Choreography” Cabernet Blend, earned our highest marks.

Whether excellent wine, great personalities, breathtaking views, or simply an escape from everyday life is what draws you out into wine country, the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries offer them all. Since the Passport program grants the opportunity to explore over fifty different wineries, one can discover just what sets each of them apart. My weekend jaunt was only a short preamble into the mountains. A return expedition will be necessary to discover more of the history, traditions, and hidden-gems of the region. I would recommend the trip to anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature or simply a first-class glass of wine.