On any given day, the smell of redwood permeates the crisp, cool and foggy morning air. My recollections of past visits to Monterey Bay were in January, when mild temperatures took me out of winter’s brisk weather. But on this visit, I left behind summer’s smothering humidity and 90-plus degree days; it was a welcome surprise to arrive in the eternal spring of Santa Cruz, Calif., at the end of July, when mornings temperatures hovered around 50 degrees until about noon, at which time the sun warmed to the low-to-mid 70s, and come sunset back again to cool and crisp temperatures.
With these daily fluctuations, it’s no surprise that wine grapes grow well here.
From the San Jose airport, it’s a one-hour drive to Santa Cruz, located on the north side of Monterey Bay and south of San Francisco. Just outside of downtown Santa Cruz is The Hotel Paradox (www.thehotelparadox.com), sited along a strip of diners and such that doesn’t match the hotel’s interior design at all. Inside, the entrance boasts ecology: bird’s nest light fixtures and transparencies of a redwood forest in life-size images on ceilings and as a wall in the private dining area. I hunker down for the next few days, sleeping on a bed behind a wall of repurposed raw wood, and I conclude that all in Santa Cruz is a paradox; my hotel is aptly named.
Just around the corner from Hotel Paradox, a short walk leads to downtown Santa Cruz, where organic food is sold at kiosks everywhere and the area is peppered with downtown owner-operated artisan stores. There’s a nut store (www.nutkreations.com) that offers a wide variety of gluten-free, vegan, paleo, non-GMO, organic and all natural items (120, in fact) for sale, and an olive oil store that offers tastings (www.trueoliveconnection.com). This area is no tourist trap. In fact, if you arrive early enough, you’ll view a multitude of homeless people, and at all times you’ll witness the hippie culture. Yet, this is an upscale area, keeping in line with the Santa Cruz paradox.
The wines of Santa Cruz are plentiful, courtesy of vineyards that run alongside mountainous terrain. Many of the winemakers I meet here consider the area to be wine country. The proof is in the amount of wineries everywhere, including Loma Prieta, whose name and label on its wines depict the mountain of its origin and the earthquake that once shattered its earth.
As I drive the Sea Wine Trail, I ascend the steep slope that leads to Loma Prieta Winery (www.lomaprietawinery.com), owned by Attorney Paul Kemp, the largest producer of South African pinotage grapes. Kemp is a trial lawyer who took his lofty earnings from a winning case and built a chateau next to his home. Loma Prieta Winery has been open on weekends since last year, and visitors are welcomed on weekends to enjoy a picnic on the premises, if not a game of bocce ball on the newly built court, or to play checkers or chess with life-size figures.
Page 2 of 3 - Off-mountain, an industrial area turned wineries and specialty shops boasts everything community; Santa Cruz prides itself in keeping it local.
Surf City Vintners (www.sonescellars.com) opened approximately six years ago and includes a chain of wineries: Sones Cellars, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Silver Mountain Vineyard tasting rooms, to name a few. The latter, a winery in place for 34 years, but since November 2009 with Jerold O’Brien, is where I discover O’Brien’s expertise as a well-traveled (Air Force) oenophile who prefers wine education as adventure.
His vocation is confirmed while I taste his 2012 Pinot Rose, a light, refreshing wine that pairs well with the Sones’ cousin Ben’s artwork that surrounds the perimeter. Award-winning wines include chardonnay, pinot noir and alloy, a rich complex Bordeaux blend from local vineyards. Sones’ 2010 Song of the Sea is a mix of dry and sweet, a paradox, as is the essence of Santa Cruz. And their 2008 syrah comes from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains from vineyards in Zayante. It tastes quite nice with cheddar cheese.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard offers an oak-less 2012 Grenache Blanc that is dry, crisp and sweetly aromatic with a mandarin orange flavor. "Oak is a tool," says Jeff Emery, winemaker, "and shouldn’t be a sledgehammer." His 2010 pinot noir from Branciforte Creek ($39) has lots of character and is crafted in the most French-style of the pinot noir offerings.
On my last morning in Santa Cruz, breakfast at Solaire is incredibly healthful and delicious. My recommendation would be to order the garden eggs Benedict with local Castroville artichokes, Swiss chard and tomato. Solaire is inside Hotel Paradox, where I’d previously enjoyed dinner that included a tasty artichoke risotto with cheese. Since I could not recreate this complicated recipe, I will not be able to share. You’ll just have to go there and taste the freshness firsthand.
A drive on Highway 1 will get your taste buds salivating for the freshest avocados and artichokes you can buy — 10 for a dollar at local farm stands. Or you can stop at the Westside Farmer’s Market (www.santacruzfarmersmarket.org), where I was introduced to the sweet and flavorful Jersey Wakefield cabbage, an heirloom cabbage from the mid-1800s. Everything at this farmers market is organic, and the market is open year-round, offering grass-fed beef, artichokes, wines and quality music played by talented musicians. There are tables placed for patrons to enjoy breakfast from one of several booths, one offering coffee with saffron-infused milk, and another serving breakfast tacos extraordinaire. And six times last year, Pop Up breakfasts were held.
If food and wine isn’t at the top of your list, family activities in the area include a stop at Mystery Spot, where physics takes a front seat to a mind-boggling experience (wear comfortable shoes and do not enter if you have Vertigo), and a stop at the amusement park on the beach boardwalk, rated the No. 1 amusement park on a beach where the barking of sea lions and spotting of surfers is a continuous sound and sight. With 10 minutes to spare, Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is located just before you enter the boardwalk and offers free admission in its semi-circle of artifacts, photographs and historical documentation — a quick synopsis of how the area became known as the surfing capital of California (www.santacruzsurfingmuseum.org).
Page 3 of 3 - For all things sun, surf and healthy living, you’ll want to experience spring in Santa Cruz, but if you want summer, it’s best to head there in November, when you’d be more likely to enjoy weather in the low 80s.
Charlene Peters is editor of special features at GateHouse Media New England. She can be reached at email@example.com.