(Published by South Bay Accent in April, 2013.)
One of the many perks of Bay Area living is being able to motor up to the Napa or Sonoma wine countries for a dreamy day of tasting and picnicking while the grapevines rustle nearby in the breeze. But imagine all of this and more without the need to drive a few hours and elbow aside the mobs from the giant tour buses at the tasting bar. Close to the Silicon Valley are some lovely “wine countries” fully deserving of the designation that offer good wine, friendly tasting facilities, enchanting picnic spots and, often, spectacular views that few Napa or Sonoma wineries can match.
Wine grapes happily grow all over Northern California and there are more than 90 wineries in operation in the two closest wine countries: the Santa Clara Valley — particularly the southern area around Morgan Hill and San Martin, and the Santa Cruz Mountains designation, which includes higher-elevation operations within Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. Within this sizeable list are a number of wineries with a strong visitor focus and enjoyable facilities that take advantage of gorgeous vistas. What invariably surprises first-time visitors to these bucolic locales is that many of them can require just a 20-minute-or-less car trip from bustling urban areas.
In our region, there are more wineries than ever, with the newer ones underscoring the adage that this challenging business is how one turns a large fortune into a smaller one. Super-rich valley titans like semiconductor CEO T.J. Rogers, former tech exec and current VC Kevin Harvey, founder of Rhys Vineyards, and former hardware exec David House (House Family Vineyards and The Mountain Winery) are among those funding local wineries. Indeed, success in a variety of profitable endeavors is usually a requirement to launch a winery these days.
Wine and more
Those local wineries that encourage visitors typically help defray the high costs by utilizing their facilities for more than wine. Weddings, private parties, classes, special events and other activities have become a standard, necessary part of many local wineries’ income stream, which is great for casual tasters because it means these wineries will invariably be attractive, landscaped and well maintained. In fact, a local formula of sorts has evolved, as seen in several newer wineries designed as Tuscan or Tudor palaces with opulent grounds, bocce ball courts and genteel tasting and picnic areas.
Ready to pack a picnic and head off? Hold up there a moment because it’s wise to know a few essentials first. Long gone are the days when wineries offered free wine tasting. Visitors must now pay for likely a small pour of a few wines and don’t be outraged if you’re asked to shell out before a single drop comes your way. Fortunately, many wineries will reduce or eliminate the tasting fee for those buying wine.
Another new development that is particularly frustrating to the get-something-for-nothing crowd is pressure to join the “wine clubs” that almost every winery now offers. This involves a commitment to buy some number of bottles annually, but can deliver advantages like invitations to private parties, waived tasting fees, access to rarer reserve wines and in some cases, use of winery facilities otherwise barred to the hoi polloi.
More rules of the road
Another important thing to know is that visiting popular local wineries during prime warm-weather, weekend hours might not always provide the intimate, educational experience with the hopefully knowledgeable wine pourer that you envisioned as dozens of people belly up to the bar, demanding attention. Go early or consider a weekday visit if that’s possible. It’s also advisable to leave pets at home and perhaps children as well, since many wineries view their offerings as adult rather than family focused.
The list below was curated with beauty, views and — particularly– picnicking in mind. In terms of food, a few wineries have nibbles at the tasting bar. Others sell food items for picnickers, but you might do better to plan ahead and bring your own. Some wineries only allow their picnic facilities — or bocce ball courts, if they have them — to be used by those purchasing wine, so don’t even consider packing a competitor’s bottle in your basket. If you’re stymied regarding picnic foods, see the recipes here from local wineries to help make your tasting visit all it can be.
Wineries in South Santa Clara Valley
Clos la Chance Winery
The queen of this area’s opulent, Tuscan-style winery/event venue facilities, Clos la Chance sits on a slight hill in a lovely corner of open countryside adjacent to its 150-acre, certified-sustainable vineyard. Nearby is the posh CordeValle Resort, which leases land to the winery. Between the resort and the winery, this beautiful area is like a luxurious fantasyland providing both indoor and outdoor eye candy. The tasting room features Old World architecture with hewn stone, tapestries, antiques and elaborate woodwork. Clos la Chance offers paid tours, wine and cheese pairings (for a fee), has a demonstration vineyard and its three picnic areas are quite delightful. Pourers are sometimes not very knowledgeable or helpful, so wine geeks should scale back their expectations and just enjoy the nice surroundings. It’s obvious why weddings and special events comprise so much of the winery’s business.
Launched by former high-tech exec Bill Murphy and his wife Brenda, today’s San Martin operation first began as a vineyard they planted in the late ’80s at their Saratoga home, which later became “a hobby run amok,” as Murphy describes it. Clos la Chance is now a popular destination for locals and others, who enjoy sipping average-quality wine on the terrace overlooking the rolling hills and vineyards. A plus for those inspired to join the wine club is that the bottle prices are moderate.
1 Hummingbird Lane, San Martin, (408) 686-1050
Open 11-5 daily
$5 for tasting of five wines. $10 for parties of 10 or more
Cheese, crackers, salami for sale in tasting room
Three picnic areas and bocce ball court available with wine purchase
Combining unpretentious charm with a serious attitude toward winemaking, Sarah’s Vineyard is a true gem. Located at the foot of Mount Madonna, it offers views of rolling vineyards, nearby hills and an enormous, adjacent wholesale nursery. Those seeking higher-quality wine should head here to partake of award-winning, well-made varietals that, naturally, cost a bit more than what’s found at some other South Santa Clara County wineries. The operation is small — no Tuscan mansions or formal English gardens — but the facilities are still well-kept and attractive. A patio for picnicking, sculptures and a bocce ball court were added in recent years, while the tasting room is comfortable and the pourers engaged and knowledgeable.
Launched back in 1978 by a viticulture-loving woman who sometimes called herself Sarah, the operation was sold in 2001 to prolific tech inventor Tim Slater. Often accompanied by one of the friendly winery dogs, he has laid-back charm and genuine passion for wine and cooking. In fact, he studied the latter in France. Another of Slater’s loves is music, so joining the wine club not only keeps a regular supply of nice wine coming your way and eliminates tasting fees but gives you first crack at some terrific winery parties, like whole-pig barbecues with live bands playing.
4005 Hecker Pass Highway, Gilroy, (408) 847-1947
Open noon-5 daily
$5 for tasting of four wines
A few food items for sale
Picnic area and bocce ball court available with wine purchase
The story of Guglielmo, beginning as a small winery launched in 1925 by an Italian immigrant and growing into the current operation, where weddings and events play a key role, demonstrates a common evolution of the wine business, circa 2013. The savvy third generation of Guglielmos has spiffed up the old homestead considerably, putting in a European-style courtyard and fountain, nice landscaping and other visitor lures. Today, the ivy-covered winery is a popular local attraction.
As one of the Guglielmo boys explains it, “Everyone’s Italian once they get here.” Rather than Tuscan opulence, the tasting room is funky and homey, with lots of bric-a-brac. Encroaching growth over the decades means that the surrounding vineyards are now small, houses have sprung up nearby and there’s a high school across the street but the pretty hills aren’t far away.
One thing that hasn’t changed a lot is the affordability of the wines, which start at around $7. Almond champagne is a well-liked specialty. Sometimes, cheese is served in the tasting room and picnicking takes place mainly on the courtyard, which is a pleasant spot on a sunny day. A tour with tasting requires an appointment and $10 each.
1480 East Main Avenue, Morgan Hill, (408) 779-2145
Open 10 – 5 daily
$5 for tasting about seven wines
Gift shop sells pricey food items
Picnicking on patio and lawn
Other Santa Clara County Wineries
Another longtime Italian winery from earlier centuries has kept some of its historic flavor under newer ownership. The Picchetti brothers kicked things off back in 1896 but the family stopped making wine in 1963 and sold the remaining land to the Mid-Peninsula Open Space in 1977. Reopened as a winery again in 1982, it was leased in 1998 to high-tech escapee Leslie Pantling. The winery — on the historic register — retains its rustic country charm as the old buildings have been spruced up as fitting for a modern winery/visitor venue.
Located in the hills above Steven’s Creek Reservoir, Picchetti Winery is beloved by picnickers and hikers, who stroll through 3.7 miles of adjacent trails in the Open Space Reserve and spread out their feasts on the flowing lawns or picnic tables around the winery property. Renowned for its peacocks and chickens, Picchetti features a big brick tasting room that was formerly a barn and holds various informational signs and memorabilia. Wines are made in a full-bodied style and are quite pricey. Popular is the chocolate fudge served with port at the end of the tasting. A few years ago, a second tasting room was opened near Lake Tahoe.
13100 Monte Bello Road, Cupertino, (408) 741-1310
Open 11 – 5 daily
$10 for tasting five wines
Some picnic items sold in tasting room
Picnicking on lawn; first come, first served for tables
This popular winery breaks the usual mold of local operations in two ways: its founders didn’t start with vast funding from earlier fortunes and its wines are well-regarded by wine critics and connoisseurs. Rob and Diana Jensen worked in high-tech marketing but started making wine in their kitchen years ago. They bootstrapped their winery — reflecting Rob’s Italian nickname, redhead — while continuing their tech careers and Rob didn’t join Testarossa full time until 2001. This slow, organic growth picked up steam some years after they began leasing the former Novitiate Winery space and there was increasing critical acclaim of their wines.
Testarossa Winery sits on a little hill right above downtown Los Gatos, leasing space from the Jesuit Novitiate, which used to make wine for almost 100 years here. Shown is the entrance on College Avenue.
The old stone buildings on the hill built by the Jesuits date from the 1880s and while grapes aren’t grown there today, the Jensens have improved the facilities to accommodate revenue-producing events as well as tasting. The main tasting room is cavernous and old but charming, while pourers are knowledgeable and friendly. There’s a picnic area outside the cellar entrance and a spacious new courtyard for tastings where small bites are sold that are provided by a caterer. The spreading oaks and well-kept grounds are part of an enjoyable experience tasting and picnicking at Testarossa. The other part is delicious wines made from grapes grown in some of the most esteemed vineyards on the Central Coast. This is another winery where joining the wine club is no hardship.
300 College Avenue, Los Gatos, (408) 354-6150
Open 11- 5 daily; courtyard open Wednesday to Sunday
$10 for tasting at least five wines
Picnic tables near entrance; courtyard tasting area sells small bites
Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries
The Mountain Winery
Like those multi-generation, multi-vicissitude sagas that make for engrossing books and films, the Mountain Winery on its softy perch above Saratoga has a long, often-rocky history with a final happy ending. Early local wine pioneer, Frenchman Paul Masson, built this mountain estate in 1906, then rebuilt it after the devastating earthquake that year. Sold in 1936, the winery went through many hands for decades, some treating it well and some not so much. Winemaking stopped a few years before the famed concert series was launched in 1958 but the property’s business ups and downs continued.
The turning point began in ’99, when four business-savvy, wealthy partners including semiconductor executive David House and real estate developer Bill Hirschman bought the winery and its acreage with the goal of restoring the property to its rightful magnificence. With taste, determination and bucks, they have turned it into a gorgeous, effective concert and event venue, also replanting vineyards and bringing back winemaking, which adds wine tasting and sales to all the other activities now taking place. In addition to flights of wines, the tasting room features music to fit the current mood, cheese platters and sometimes antipasto plates for sale. Visitors can sip wine on the outdoor patio with fire pit off the tasting room and there are picnic tables with valley views near the parking area.
Special tastings and wine classes are just the beginning of all the possible activities these days at the beautiful Mountain Winery, a California historical landmark. The low-yield estate wines are the best choices for connoisseurs but less-expensive wines are available whose grapes come from various wine regions.
14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga, (408) 741-2822
Open noon – 5, Thursday to Sunday
$10 for “reserve series” or “estate series” tasting; $20 for both includes souvenir glass.
Picnic tables first come, first served
When it comes to great wine, Ridge, with its jaw-dropping Bay Area views, is the regional superstar. Ridge has no bocce ball courts, wedding grottos or over-landscaped terraces; its focus is on producing fabulous fermented grape juice. From the legendary Monte Bello cabernet to a wide range of old-vine zinfandels and many other varietals, Ridge wines show regional character and are favorites of reviewers and wine lovers of all stripes. While Ridge wines aren’t cheap, budget-minded visitors can pick up a less-expensive bottle to enjoy with a self-catered picnic featuring incomparable vistas.
Wine production up at Ridge’s 2,300-foot elevation first began in 1885 but the modern era was born in 1960 when the winery was bought by four SRI engineers. An enlightened absentee owner — a Japanese pharmaceutical magnate — purchased Ridge in ’86, leaving viticulture and winemaking untouched. Over the years, the winery has spruced up the tasting and picnicking areas, with a newer tasting and sales room that is rustic but comfortable. Not surprisingly, the tasting staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
If ever there was a wine club worth joining, this is it. Members not only get superb wine but access to a variety of release events, tastings and other activities throughout the year. The only downside is the long, twisting road up to the visitor area (the actual winery is further up the hill), which predicates a designated driver.
17100 Monte Bello Road, Cupertino, (408) 867-3233
Open 11-4 weekends; open weekdays by appointment
$5 for “single-vineyard” tasting; $10 for “estate single-vineyard” tasting; $20 includes a Monte Bello cab in the latter
Scenic picnic area is first-come, first served
Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards
With its cowboy-rustic environment and out-in-the-country charm, Cooper-Garrod has special appeal, particularly to horse lovers. The 200-horse equestrian operation is intermingled with the wine tasting and picnic areas, so the happiest guests might go for both. Be prepared for horses everywhere, regardless. However, this pretty spot on rolling hills with some peeks at Silicon Valley below offers a pleasant respite from the burbs.
The homespun tasting room features eclectic decor with a focus on airplane tchotchkes — winemaker emeritus George Cooper was once a NASA test pilot. The property has been in the family for more than a century, with commercial wine production starting in ’94 after a couple of decades of experimental winemaking by Cooper as a hobby during retirement. There are now 28 acres of certified-organic vineyards producing average-quality wines with thrifty prices — many are around $25.
There are picnic tables and a deck for sipping wine with foods you bring or you can preorder a ready-to-go, three-course picnic lunch that will be waiting for your arrival, set up on a table. And don’t forget to learn a little local history from the friendly wine pourers.
22645 Garrod Road, Saratoga, (408) 867-7116
Open noon – 5, Monday to Saturday; 11 – 5 on Sunday
$5 for tasting a few wines; $10 including souvenir glass
Picnic areas first come, first served
Pre-made picnics available
Thomas Fogarty Winery
Located in Woodside’s cool Skyline Ridge area, the Fogarty Winery is as renowned for its incredible event space as for its well-made wines. Whether hosting a happy bride, corporate team-building participant or a wine taster, the winery’s panoramic views of the Peninsula and Bay Area are well worth the trip. Visitors pass a bucolic duck pond, then arrive at a handsome, stone-fronted winery, where the tasting room includes a balcony overlooking the wine fermentation and production area. Picnics and wine consumption are relegated to an outside patio or on chairs in a hallway with windows overlooking the bay.
Owner Tom Fogarty is a vascular surgeon, medical professor and inventor with many patents to his name. Intrigued with winemaking, he bought a 325-acre mountain property and had some vines planted in ’78, launching a winery under the capable direction of winemaker Michael Martella three years later. In addition to grapes from the estate’s 25 planted acres, the winery purchases grapes for several varietals from vineyards in other areas. In the pleasant tasting room, pourers are friendly and knowledgeable but it’s hard for anything to compete with the amazing views.
19501 Skyline Blvd., Woodside, (650) 851-6777
Open 11 – 5, Wednesday to Sunday; noon – 4 on Monday
$8 to taste three wines (free on Wednesday); $12 for five-wine tasting; $18 to taste five single-vineyard estate wines
Picnicking first come, first served
Byington Vineyard & Winery
The fortune that launched this winery came from Byington Steel Treating in Santa Clara. Founder Bill Byington built a family retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains high above Lexington Reservoir, later planting grapes and building a winery that sold its first wine in the late ’80s. The imposing stone mansion/winery, manicured gardens and lawns and views of the mountains and Monterey Bay invariably impress visitors, which is one reason why Byington began using its property for weddings and events before many other wineries heard the profitable call.
The tasting room is attractive, naturally, but don’t expect great knowledge from the staff. Wines are moderately priced and average quality but purchase isn’t a requirement for groups below 10 to use picnic facilities, which are quite terrific. Located on patios and decks in various beautifully landscaped spots, the picnic offerings include fee-based use of gas and charcoal grills; BYO tools. In addition, a bocce ball court is available.
Given the beauty of this estate, many guests opt for the by-appointment, $15 per-person tour and tasting, which takes you on a guided walk through the vineyards and winery, glass in hand. Anyone with a spare $7 million can buy the property, which has been on the market for a long time, and live like a pasha. Make sure your chauffeur drives you up the narrow, winding road, however.
21850 Bear Creek Road, Los Gatos, (408) 354-1111
Open 11 – 5, Friday to Sunday
$8 for tasting about five wines
Picnic areas first come, first served except for parties above 10
Bocce ball court available
Loma Prieta Winery
A local star among newer wineries in the region is this gorgeous spot high in the mountains that boasts breathtaking views of Santa Cruz and Monterey. Small in size and serious about winemaking, Loma Prieta is the passion of successful personal-injury lawyer Paul Kemp and his wife Amy, who puts on an unprecedented free spread for tasters that includes cheese, olives, bread, crackers, salami, cookies and various antipasto. These treats nicely accompany the fruit-forward, award-winning wines highlighted by pinotage, an increasingly popular red South African grape that produces big, elegant, exciting wine.
The Kemps live on the property, where there’s a three-acre vineyard. The lovely, Tuscan-style tasting room with patio is a magical place to sip nice wines and receive warm, engaged assistance from pourers. The stone patio, in particular, is divine, furnished with comfy couches, umbrellas, an outdoor fireplace, tables, a fountain and out-of-this-world views. While there’s a bocce ball court, Loma Prieta focuses on winemaking rather than weddings. However, members of the wine club can partake of various events throughout the year — a perfect excuse to spend time in this wonderful location. Unaffiliated tasters doing a local wine tour should make Loma Prieta the first visit of the day because of the hair-raising drive up to the winery.
26985 Loma Prieta Way, Los Gatos, (408) 353-2950
Open noon – 5 weekends
$5 to taste about five wines
Free nibbles in tasting room
Spectacular stone patio for picnicking
Regale Winery & Vineyards
This opulent new Tuscan-style operation from real estate developer Larry Schaadt is only a few miles from Loma Prieta but has a very different vibe. It’s much easier to get to, being located on Summit Road, and includes weddings, events and meetings as part of its business plan. It’s also trying to be exclusive, allowing only wine club members to visit the spacious gardens, spiral herb garden, outdoor fireplaces, bocce ball court, outdoor tasting bar and members-only indoor tasting bar. Unaffiliated wine tasters can visit the public tasting room only.
Joining the wine club requires a minimum of six bottles purchased of enjoyable wine that is perhaps higher priced than equivalent wines elsewhere. However, Regale really is quite a place, with extravagant decor and pretty views of rolling hills and peeks at the valley below. The grounds are gorgeous and include olive trees that produce oil sold at the winery. Club members rave about how enjoyable it is to hang out on a terrace or patio, sipping wine and reveling in the scenery. Members can use grills for cooking picnic food or buy pate, cheese, charcuterie and other items sold in the tasting room for an impromptu meal. Plentiful member-only events are also held. Soon, a Regale tasting room, wine bar and restaurant will open in the historic Gaslighter Theater building in Campbell.
24040 Summit Road, Los Gatos, (408) 353-2500
Open noon – 5 weekends
$10 for tasting about six still wines or $15 for three sparkling wines
Use of the elaborate facilities, indoor and outdoor, for picnics limited to wine club members.