Passport Day. I have been waiting for this for two years. Every time I’ve tried to attend, something has stood in my way. Funds. Work….Work. But behold! Finally, I have Saturdays off! So on November 16th, I trekked my way across the Santa Cruz Mountains in pursuit of excellent wines!
The nicest thing about the Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries Passport is that you don’t have to use it on Passport Day. It is good for two years at any of the wineries included, any day that they are open. Ah, but that is the tricky bit: many are open only once a month, some only on Passport Day. Thus, I tried to prioritize our Passport schedule based on winery availability, visiting those that are rarely open to the public on Passport Day and saving the others for a normal day.
We began our trek at Dancing Creek Winery, immediately breaking the “only visit wineries that are rarely open” rule. But here’s why: this location hosted two other, smaller wineries so that our first stop encompassed three whole wine tastings! Don’t worry, we ate a large breakfast.
Stepping out of the car was like stepping into a fairy tale. The sun shone brightly through the tress, alighting on scenic benches and patches of forest floor. The trees rose majestically around us, evoking a sense of eternity in peace.
It was the kind of place to make you forget about the wine all together and just enjoy the beautific surroundings.
Of course, we didn’t. We were here for wine! Narry a beautiful tree could deter our determination!
Let us just say that Dancing Creek Winery’s offerings did not match its surroundings though it did exceed its fellow winery, Villa Del Monte. Both wineries produced earthy, bold reds that really just did nothing for me. Granted, that is exactly the kind of wine in which I find the least pleasure. There were a few exceptions: Villa Del Monte’s Cabernet Sauvignon was surprisingly palatable for one who avoids the varietal, and Dancing Creek’s late harvest Zinfandel, Late for the Dance, turned out to be my only purchase for the day. On the whole however, the wine was hardly noteworthy. Which is really too bad considering its grounds.
But a third winery had set up on the grounds just as we were about to leave, and Clos Tita turned out to be one of the day’s gems. A new winery, it was only serving three wines and wasn’t even in our passport book, but god was it worth the stop! Each wine was highly flavorful and completely unique. The Pinot Noir Cuvee was fruity but not sweet with perfectly balanced flavor. Yet their Estate Pinot Noir was the real find: one of the most interesting wines I have ever experienced. “Pepper” is a word often used to describe bold reds, but it is usually not a literal description, more an indication of spice. In this wine, you could actually taste pepper. At the same time, they balanced it with an earthiness, creating perhaps the most unique wine I have ever tasted.
Once we had finished marveling over Clos Tita, the time came to move on. The owner of Dancing Creek suggested we head down the road to Bruzzone, and I am very glad we followed her advice because their Chardonnay was exquisite. Though I prefer whites, I generally do not love Chardonnays. As I have made my way across the Santa Cruz Mountains, it has become very clear to me that the varietal just isn’t my thing. I don’t know what exactly Bruzzone does to their Chardonnay, but I really wish everyone else would follow their example. Their 2010 Estate Chardonnay was so light it was almost carbonated, and while I could not taste the oak, the wine retained a depth of flavor that was just delightful. Plus, they had food! And by that time, we were starting to need it.
By the time we got to Nicholson Vineyards, it was definitely time for lunch. It may perhaps have been smarter to eat at the beginning of our time there instead of the end, but my cohorts were determined to get in another tasting before breaking. I did at least get to sample some of Nicholson’s yummy cheeses before we began.
I must say that after the 20+ wines we had had so far, my taste buds were beginning to complain about overuse, so I can’t say that I was able to fully experience any of the wines from this point on. That said, most of Nicholson’s wines seemed to me to be pretty standard to the area with the exception of their Old Vine Zinfandel. They must know they were on to something with this Zin because it is a limited release, and it was a strain not to buy a bottle for this fruity, flavorful wine.
Instead, we brought our tastings to a picnic table and feasted on cheese, bread, fruit, and cookies in classic wine-tasting fashion. Nicholson was not as idyllic as Dancing Creek, but surrounded by vines and trees with the sun basking on the walls, it was still a nice place for lunch and a much needed palate cleanser.
Despite the rest, as we arrived at Martin Ranch, I was done. I had exceeded my tasting capacity for the day, and I really didn’t want any more. All my taste buds wanted was water. This may, just possibly, have contributed to how much I did not care for the wines at Martin Ranch. Though to be perfectly honest, I doubt I would have enjoyed them anyway.
Most of the wines they were tasting were pretty standard reds, and by that time, I had had so many of them that all I wanted to taste were the whites. The really frustrating thing was that Martin Ranch, unlike most Santa Cruz Mountain wineries, actually had whites. A variety of them even! But they wouldn’t let me taste them which made me like them even less. I finally convinced one of the pourers to open a Sauvignon Blanc for me, and it was like a breath of fresh air. It was light and crisp, a little grassy flavor, but certainly a relief after so many reds.
As we walked away from Martin Ranch, there was still time to visit one more winery, and one of the ones I was most interested in was just around the corner. But by this time, we were all pretty beat. There was talk of quitting. Dare we put our livers through any more trauma today?
Dare we did. And it was so worth it.
Fernwood was not as flashy as most of the other wineries we visited. There were no spacious picnic grounds, no vines climbing sun-drenched walls, no sunlight peaking through redwoods. It was just a metal storeroom in the middle of nowhere. We drove past it on our first try because it looked so little like a tasting room.
But in my experience, the simplest of tasting rooms can bring forth the tastiest wines. This was certainly the case for Fernwood.
Like I said, I like whites, and my favorite varietal is the Riesling. Sweet yet light, it complements my taste buds more than any other wine.
Fernwood had more than just a Riesling, it had two! A dry and a late harvest! Generally, late harvest whites are a little too sweet for me, but this one was so smooth and sweet without overdoing it. It was fabulous. The reds were good too, particularly the Sidecut, a Syrah and Zinfandel blend with a smooth flavor and nicely balanced tannins. My friend bought an entire case of it.
We were lucky we persevered and tried Fernwood because it was one of the best wineries of the day! Proof that you shouldn’t judge a winery by its cover and a fantastic end to our tasting.
Because after that our bodies really were done for the day, we trekked back to Santa Cruz for some Thai food, some chocolate, and lots and lots of water.
I enjoyed the passport experience. We got to try A LOT of wine, but the wineries were spread out enough that no one experienced alcohol poisoning. No one got drunk that day. Our driver didn’t even need to take a break. It worked out rather nicely.
It would be helpful if the region had a little more variety, but each winery had at least one wine that was in some way unique, and there were several places we hope to visit again. In the meantime, I will look forward to using our passports at all of the wineries that are open everyday!