A Very Local Wine Country

Urban wineries are a major trend in several areas, including a growing number in the South Bay.

(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine.)

The concept of a “winery” has definitely evolved in recent years and need not include bucolic vistas of vast vineyards or even a single grapevine swaying in the breeze. San Francisco, in particular, has around two dozen operations where winemakers do their fermentation thing in warehouses and other roomy buildings smack dab in high-density environments, with other so-called “urban wineries” scattered around Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. This trend is also thriving elsewhere, such as in Portland, Seattle — even in landlocked Denver — and has come to the South Bay, too.

Prime vineyard property in Napa can easily reach $350,000 per acre, making the cost of launching a winery prohibitive for all but the super rich.

Locals need not drive a few hours to the Napa/Sonoma wine country anymore to taste wine and hang out with passionate winemakers.  There are now urban wineries here, including little clusters of wineries in some of our towns that cater to wine lovers where the sipping is dandy. In addition, some winemakers in the region whose operations are located in hard-to-find corners of the mountains have been opening friendly tasting rooms, particularly in quaint Saratoga,  where sippers can stroll along the main drag and belly up to the tasting bars.

The economics of owning a winery in 21st century California is a prime driver of the urban wineries trend.  Good vineyard land can easily exceed $100,000 per acre — $350,000 per acre for coveted parcels in the Napa Valley — while the stratospheric costs of building and outfitting a winery, establishing and marketing wine and all the other financial barriers limit this golden dream of would-be winery owners to those with vast personal wealth or deep-pocket investors on speed dial.  In short, this challenging business is for those who shouldn’t care about profits, which can be low or nonexistent.

Downtown Saratoga’s main drag is a picturesque place to find winery tasting rooms of late.

But the passion persists and those who use purchased grapes, buy used equipment and find less costly space in a warehouse district or other city locale can feed their fervor without the scary price tag.  For wine-loving visitors, the appearance of these urban operations delivers the fun of exploring a local winery’s offerings in simpatico surroundings without even hitting the highway in many cases. After grabbing some friends and checking out the South Bay’s urban winery scene, sippers will be sold on this very local wine country.

San Jose and Campbell

 J. Lohr is a longtime local winery with vast vineyards elsewhere that operates a San Jose tasting room.

Close to downtown San Jose and the international airport, J. Lohr Vineyards is a family- run operation that’s grown into a reasonably large producer of enjoyable, not-costly wines during its half-century of life. The production facilities are elsewhere, as are the vineyards, but guests to the pleasant tasting room rave about the unheard-of free tastings for most of the wines and the amiable environment. Many varieties are available with highlights being some of the higher-end cabernets, a lush Central Coast chardonnay and a semi-rarity, a forward Monterey valdiguié, a red French Rhone grape. http://www.jlohr.com; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. No tasting fee for most wines.

Nearby J. Lohr is much smaller Coterie Cellars, making tasty wines.

A relative youngster compared to J. Lohr, Coterie Cellars is just a few blocks away and is as small as its neighbor is large, production wise, with the delicious wines tending to sell out quickly.  The handsome, modern tasting room has a roll-up garage door, a common feature in Pacific Northwest urban wineries. Cherry-picking fine grapes from all around California, Coterie specializes in pinot noirs and interesting Rhone-style wines. Don’t miss the superb viogniers and follow up with a tasting of pinots from various prime regions. http://www.coteriewinery.com; open Thursday-Friday, 5-8 p.m., and weekends, 1-5 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

Two pals launched Travieso Winery after having success as home winemakers.

Originally launched as a home-winemaking project by a local geologist and his pal, a San Francisco plastic surgeon, Travieso Winery now inhabits a Campbell warehouse and might well have some of the coolest wine labels around. A noted winemaker friend got the two interested in Rhone grapes and they now make some lovely wines like a mouth-filling syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands and a delicious white blend of viognier, chardonnay and roussanne. But the two wine nuts also make cabernet and sangiovese, served in a tiny, exceedingly genial tasting room. The affordable prices belie the wine quality.  http://www.traviesowinery.com; open Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

Los Gatos and Saratoga

Cinnabar is like several other tasting rooms in Saratoga in that it specializes in grapes from the adjacent Santa Cruz Mountains.

Add wine tasting to the allure of small, quaint downtown Saratoga, with a string of tasting rooms having opened along Big Basin Way by wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains that find it convenient to host tasters here rather than requiring twisty drives on hilly roads. Cinnabar Winery is a local operation now run by the adult children of late founder Tom Mudd, a research scientist, wine aficionado and wealthy heir of a mining fortune. The attractive tasting room and front patio are ideal for sipping tasty pinot noir and chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Snacks for sale and live music on Sundays add to the appeal. http://www.cinnabarwinery.com; open Tuesday-Thursday, noon-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.. Tasting fee: $15.

Next door is Big Basin Vineyards, Rhone wine specialists.

Next door is Big Basin Vineyards, a friendly purveyor of well-made Rhone-style wines whose mountain vineyards have a winemaking history going back to the early 1900s. Focused on sustainable, organic winegrowing, Big Basin operates a lovely modern tasting room with a comfy front patio in Saratoga. Try the tasty blend of cabernet and syrah and the intriguing syrah with a touch of viognier. A monthly music and library wine tasting event is a must-do. http://www.bigbasinvineyards.com; open Monday, Sunday, Thursday, noon-5 p.m., and Friday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m.. Tasting fee: $18.

Ser’s female winemaker has lent her talents to other local wineries.

Shared tasting rooms are a thing in town, such as the one run by Silvertip Vineyards and Ser Winery in a cozy little building with amenable staffers. Both small operations offer well-made wines that show off terrific fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains, with Silvertip once a Christmas tree farm while Ser is a passion project by a respected local female winemaker who also makes wine for Bonny Doon Vineyards. Try the chardonnays and pinot noirs made from mountain fruit produced by both wineries or sip the unusual dry orange muscat from Ser or Silvertip’s muscular syrah. Tastings can cover wines from either or both wineries. http://www.silvertipvineyards.com, http://www.serwinery.com; open Thursday-Sunday, 2-7 p.m.. Tasting fee: $12.

The gorgeous mountain vineyard at Mindego Ridge produces excellent pinot noir and chardonnay.

Wine nuts made a beeline for the shared tasting room of Lexington Winery and Mindego Ridge after it opened; both specialize in fine wines made from local mountain grapes. The buzz over Lexington is due to its mission of making serious Bordeaux-style wine from a storied mountain vineyard perched at 2,400 feet, since these red varietals from the Santa Cruz Mountains have wide renown. (Think Ridge and Mount Eden.)  A project owned and run by the crew at Thomas Fogarty Winery, Lexington makes stunning wines, with its luscious Bordeaux blend appropriately named Apex. Roommate Mindego Ridge is also a well-regarded operation, launched by a high-tech executive whose winery makes terrific chardonnay and pinot noir from a breathtakingly lovely small mountain vineyard whose wines are crafted by star winemaker Ehren Jordan. http://www.lexingtonwines.com, http://www.mindegoridge.com; open Monday, Thursday, Sunday, noon-5 p.m. and Friday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m. Tasting fee: $22.

Testarossa’s delightful courtyard is a great place to taste wine, listen to music and consume light snacks.

Conveniently located on a hill overlooking downtown Los Gatos, Testarossa Winery has a long history stretching back to the Jesuits that established the “Novitiate” property in the 1880s, making and selling wine while also training seminarians like — more recently — Jerry Brown in his pre-governor days.  The modern era started when a Silicon Valley couple leased the estate and up-leveled the winemaking considerably, now making many wines but focused on chardonnay and pinot noir mostly from esteemed Central Coast vineyards. The old, cavernous tasting room is quite large but visitors can also sip and sometimes listen to music on the patio nearby, with purchased snacks available.  http://www.testarossa.com; open daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tasting fee: $10 or $20 depending on the flight.

Friendly Left Bend Winery is located right on the main street in Los Gatos.

Down on the main drag in Los Gatos, Left Bend Winery has become a happening, attracting visitors to the convivial, informative tasting room. Dedicated to high-quality wines made from small mountain vineyards, this operation is run by a couple of cycling pals who love the fruit of the vine. Don’t miss the delightful syrah/cabernet blend and well-rounded cabernet franc. Being a geologist, the winemaker half of the pair named Left Bend for a kink in the nearby San Andreas Fault. Self-serve snacks are available. http://www.leftbend.com; open Thursday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Tasting fee: $12. 

San Carlos

The mid-Peninsula wine scene has been exploding in recent years, with a number of small wineries that rely on purchased grapes locating in cute San Carlos. Remarkably, there are at least eight such wineries in town at present but not all of them run wine tastings. However, enough do to lure visitors to this very urban wine region, with many tempting restaurants in town that make a nice conclusion to a day of touring, perhaps along with shopping in some appealing downtown boutiques as well.

In high demand as an event space, Domenico is one of the early winery operations in San Carlos.

One of the pioneers of the town’s urban operations is Domenico Winery, located in a spacious warehouse often rented for parties.  The owner/winemaker honors his Italian heritage by making varietals like sangiovese (the grape of Chianti), nebbiolo (Piedmont), Nero d’Avola (Sicily) and more. Try the mouth-filling primitivo, an ancestor of zinfandel, or an opulent “super Tuscan” blend. http://www.domenicowinery.com; open Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

The partners at Old Country Cellars started off as home winemakers.

Another destination in what has become an urban wine trail is Old County Cellars. Like some other local operations, it was launched after the four founders had success as home winemakers.  They source their grapes from small parcels and make tiny lots of a surprisingly large number of varietals. Try the pinot noir from Napa’s Carneros region or the fragrant albariño, a citrus-scented Spanish grape, along with the snacks provided.  http://www.oldcountycellars.com; open (usually) Saturday-Sunday, 1:30-5:30 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

Boasting a quite nice tasting area, Russian Ridge offers snacks as well as wine.

Russian Ridge Winery has an attractive little tasting room with a curved bar and some delicious cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, great accompaniments to the crackers and cheese provided. Like its neighbors, this is a micro-winery making teensy lots of varietals single-sourced from individual vineyards. Guests who are into wine will likely be served by the congenial winemaker, thus there are abundant learning opportunities. http://www.russianridgewinery.com; open Friday, 5-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

Launched by a Danish biotech executive, Flying Suitcase has a small, modern tasting room.

Nearby in the San Carlos industrial area that’s become home to so many itty-bitty wineries is  Flying Suitcase Wines, whose owner is a biotech executive born in Denmark who was so inspired by California’s wine industry that he decided to join it on a tiny scale.  The spacious, attractive tasting room has many fans, as do the well-made wines, which include whites, roses, reds and Italian varietals. Don’t miss the sangiovese and syrah. http://www.flyingsuitcasewines.com; open Friday, 4-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

Tasting right next to resting wine barrels  at Waxwing is a common thing at local urban wineries.

Food-friendly wines are the goal of Waxwing Wine Cellars, whose elegant vintages have received praise from some wine critics. The name comes from the handsome songbird that often flies over California vineyards and might soar in for an occasional snack. The owner/winemaker is a trained professional and sources his grapes from cool vineyards near the coast. Definitely try the pinot noirs as well as a complex syrah.  http://www.waxwingwines.com; open Friday, 6-9 p.m.; Tasting fee: $10.

The cute building housing Cuvee Wine Cellars is a great place to find food-friendly wines.

The goal at Cuvée Wine Cellars is to craft lovely Bordeaux-style wines with rich California fruit.  Try a couple of cabs made from vineyards in different regions to experience the terroir differences, nourished by the appetizers offered that help the wine slide down. Besides these big reds, the operation crafts syrahs and the winery’s offerings seem to get repeated medals at wine judgings. http://www.civeewinecallars.com; open the first and third Saturdays of each month, 1-4 p.m. Tasting fee: $10.

 Santa Cruz

A drive to the beach in Santa Cruz can now deliver more than sand and boardwalk cotton candy thanks to a popular destination space where a slew of wineries operate adjacent tasting rooms.  An urban renewal project turned former Brussels sprouts packaging plants into the Swift Street Courtyard and neighboring Ingalls Street Courtyard, where more than a dozen wineries from the Santa Cruz Mountains offer tastes amidst boutiques, restaurants, housewares stores, a brewery, yoga studio, top-notch bakery, heralded butcher and more. With its vibe of laid-back hipness, these complexes justify a long interlude not involving sun screen.

Located in former Brussels sprouts factories, the Swift Street and Ingalls Street Courtyards offer one-stop-shopping for Santa Cruz wines, food and much more.

These appealing centers of sipping and shopping have spawned a few more tasting operations nearby, creating a vortex of wine tasting near the ocean. This arrangement makes life easy for wineries that are often located in hard-to-find corners in the adjacent mountains but is particularly convenient for wine lovers that might have heard about this outstanding wine region and can now get a taste of the vinous product in one place.

Steadfast, determined visitors could conceivably hit all of the winery tasting rooms in one trip but these courtyards/centers are so appealing that several visits are in order. Don’t miss Silver Mountain Vineyards, a small, sustainable operation whose mountain-grown pinot noirs should be sampled. MJA Vineyards was launched by a former Hawaiian coffee grower and delivers aloha spirit in some assertive cabernets and various humorously named varietals. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard was launched by a pinot noir fanatic in 1975 and in its latest incarnation, the winery still produces elegant pinot noirs from mountain-grown fruit but has expanded to a second label called Quinta Cruz that focuses on some of the lovely grapes like albariño, verdelho, tempranillo and souzão originating in Spain and Portugal but now being cultivated in California.

As is usually the case at urban wineries, visitors will meet and talk to the actual winemakers at the Swift Street and Ingalls Street Countyards.

Storrs Winery has long been making elegant European varietals from mountain fruit and among quite a few wines available, the pinot noirs and some intriguing red blends are well worth sampling. Taste and affordability are the marching orders of family-owned Sones Cellars, best known for delicious white blends and big zinfandels. Rexford Winery makes wines from various California regions but its mountain-grown merlot and pinot noir offer a sense of the area’s capabilities.

An urban winery that’s also part art gallery has been producing fans for tiny Stockwell Cellars, whose claim to fame is some mouth-filling reds like syrah and zinfandel. While friendly Equinox is a longtime producer of nice sparkling wine — try the brut reserve — it offers some hearty red wines, too, under the Bartolo label. Odonata is a small family operation that focuses on organic, sustainably grown fruit and makes appealing pinot noir and chardonnay along with Rhone varietals and even a sparkling riesling with floral fizz.

Trout Gulch is a longtime local producer dedicated to noble Burgundian varietals that has also branched out to unusual offerings like grenache blanc and cinsault. Finally, Ser Winery has a second tasting room here, joining its spot in Saratoga, where lovely mountain pinots and chardonnay can be sipped.

Contact info, hours and other facts can be found at http://www.surfcityvintners.com.


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