The area was vastly overlooked until the 1850s; change came with the Gold Rush. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill led to a sudden migration to California from within the United States, as well as Asia and Europe. San Francisco quickly grew into a major city.
The more rural areas outside of San Francisco were slower to develop, but they had been noticed. Over the course of 30 years, the logging industry took over the Santa Cruz Mountains. After the loggers departed, the settlers moved in, using the logger’s roads, building houses, and planting apple trees and winegrapes in areas where Redwood trees once stood.
Others soon followed suit, such as Lyman J. Burrell, who founded the Burrell School—a schoolhouse for prospectors’ children -- and the Jarvis brothers, John and George, whose plantings near Scotts Valley later became the Santa Cruz Mountain Winery.
Etienne Thée, an immigrant from Bordeaux, France, had already settled into the Santa Cruz Mountains by the 1850s; he founded Almaden vineyards in 1852. Like other early growers, Thée experimented exclusively with the Mission grape. Thée’s son-in-law, Charles Lefranc, also a French immigrant, was one of the first to plant quality vinifera vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the 1870s at Almaden. Lefranc briefly worked alongside his protegée and son-in-law, Paul Masson, a young man from Burgundy. Masson would go on to become one of the most important figures in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Ben Lomond Wine Company won prizes at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, then in Chicago 1893, and later in San Francisco in 1894. By 1875, a mere 20 years after serious viticultural pursuits had begun, 300 acres (121 hectares) were already planted to vine. By the 1880s the area under vine had quintupled.
In 1883, Emmett Hawkins Rixford, a San Francisco lawyer, founded La Questa Vineyard in Woodside. Rixford had brought 7,000 vine cuttings from France, and planted vines in his 40-acre (16-hectare) property to resemble the blend of his favorite wine: Chateau Margaux. This vineyard went on to produce what many considered to be the best Cabernet Sauvignon from California.
Three years later Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor based in San Francisco, continued to explore Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Cruz Mountains when he established Monte Bello Winery on the Monte Bello Ridge. Decades later, this estate would form the heart of Ridge Vineyards. A contemporary of Perrone, Alsatian-born Pierre Klein, who was widely considered “the winemaker” in 1880s California, purchased 160 acres in 1888 . Klein’s vineyards were also later absorbed into Ridge Vineyards, and it was his viticultural acumen which caught the eye of an international audience at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Phylloxera was quick to work its way through France, starting in the 1860s. It was American vines that had introduced the destructive aphid to France, and it was French vines that spread the devastation in America. By the 1880s and 1890s phylloxera was working its way through the vinifera vines of California. The destruction, however, was relatively short-lived, as a remedy existed in the form of grafting European vines onto American rootstock.
Masson named his winery La Cresta, and focused entirely on “Champagne” made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay planted in cool climate vineyards on the mountain ridges. He later renamed the winery Paul Masson Champagne Company -- now Mountain Winery. In terms of celebrity, Masson’s “Champagnes” came to rival those of France, and there was a time when the Masson name was known around the world. He continued to produce his Champagne-style sparkling wines for the next 40 years, including a stint making “medicinal” Champagne during Prohibition.
Since Santa Cruz Mountain wines were distributed widely in San Francisco, the bulk of inventory, which was sitting in warehouses in San Francisco, was destroyed in the earthquakes and subsequent fires.
Despite these setbacks, the greatest challenge to the area’s burgeoning wine industry was the Temperance movement and the Volstead Act. Prohibition lasted 13 years, and during this time it nearly destroyed the wine industry in the United States and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Most wineries closed their doors during Prohibition, although a few enterprising ones managed to stay in business by exploiting little-known loopholes in the Volstead act. Paul Masson began to sell medicinal Champagne and Novitiate winery, another historic winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, shifted to become a house of sacramental wines.
A third clause in the Volstead Act, allowing families to purchase grape juice, kept the grape growers in business. All at once people were selling grape juice and shipping it by train all over the country. Delicate varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could not survive these journeys. Many of these vines were ripped up and replanted with heartier grapes like Carignan and Alicante Bouschet.
The first winery to emerge after Prohibition was Bargetto Winery. A few years later Martin Ray purchased Paul Masson’s property with the singular aim of making 100% varietal Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, varietal wines only had to contain 51% of the varietal listed on the bottle, and Martin Ray was determined to up the ante. His wines, which were sold at high prices, were very well received and set the standard for the Santa Cruz Mountains. He sold Paul Masson’s estate in 1943 and purchased land higher up the mountains. This would later become Mount Eden Vineyards, which is known for its ethereal, age-worthy, single varietal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
By the mid-twentieth century the Santa Cruz Mountains began to transition into a series of urban centers. Parks, shopping centers and houses were quickly built, and populations grew. The development of Silicon Valley, with its sprawling campuses, fast changed the landscape. Throughout this period of urban growth the local wine industry remained small and insular.
In 1959 three Stanford scientists at the Stanford Research Institute bought the estate to see what they could accomplish with this unique combination of diversity and somewhat older vines. One of the three, David Bennion, made the first half barrel of “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon in 1959; it was immediately clear that they had something special in their hands. Ridge Vineyards was established in 1962, and by the end of the decade—as production was growing -- the team sought to branch out. They set their sights on fellow Stanford alum, philosophy major, Paul Draper, who took over as winemaker in 1969
Draper had some experience with winemaking, but more importantly he paid attention. He studied classic wine regions and tasted the wines, learning how and why they tasted the way they did. He applied what he learned and quickly earned praise for both the quality of his wines and the consistency across vintages. Draper retired in 2016, after 47 years, with the awards and international recognition that most winemakers can only dream of.
It was Ridge Vineyards and Paul Draper who made sure everyone in the world knew about the Santa Cruz Mountains. When Stephen Spurrier proposed a competition between French and American wines, it seemed a farce. In France, the notion that America could even touch the quality of France’s wines was laughable. And yet, two American wines would go on to win in both categories.
Although neither took first place, two wineries from the Santa Cruz Mountains also participated in the competition. The wines—a 1973 David Bruce Winery Chardonnay and a 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet—both placed in the top ten. Judges later said that although the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, which had placed fifth, was delicious, there were concerns that the wine would not hold up to age. Thirty years later the original vintages were tasted again in a “rematch,” also organized by Stephen Spurrier. This time Ridge’s Monte Bello Cabernet took first place in both the original wine category (1971 vintage) and the new wine category (2000 vintage).
Draper later said that the advantage of the Santa Cruz Mountains lay in warmer days and cooler nights. Bordeaux famously has issues with ripening, and in hot years it has issues holding on to a grape’s natural acidity. The Santa Cruz Mountains has neither of these issues, which means the wines exceed at both.
The Chaine d’Or, the chain of western highland ridges, was the area Masson had considered the heart of the region. With elevations of nearly 3,000 feet (915 m), cool marine breezes on the western side of the mountains, and sun and warmth on the eastern slopes, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a place in which a number of grapes can thrive.
The Ben Lomond Mountain sub-AVA was formed in 1987. Championed by Jim Beauregard, of Beauregard Vineyards, the 9,000-acre (364-hectare) AVA occupies the southwestern portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Its vineyards range from 1,300 feet (396 m) to 2,600 feet (792 m) in elevation, and all the vineyards rest above the fog line. As a result, the grapes enjoy a long, cool growing season, with substantial sunlight.
The diversity of the Santa Cruz Mountains makes it seem like an ideal place for viticulture, but it is also what makes it such a difficult place for growing grapes. Vast differences in exposure, elevation, soil, and microclimates mean that every vineyard is entirely different than the one next to it; even within a vineyard, there are often several disparate microclimates. At higher elevations everything converges. One plot is best for Pinot Noir, while the next—just a few feet away—is better suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. Without any clear plan of attack, it is important for growers to understand their vines and pay very close attention to their vines all throughout the year.
They have worked together to make their region a better place by making a commitment to sustainability. Organic viticulture is widely practiced throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, with many producers now turning to alternative energy sources for their wineries.