Cruising Santa Cruz and Monterey County A relaxing tour through wine country on California's north-central coast

I began my three-and-a-half-day tour in the heavily forested mountainous hillsides of the Santa Cruz appellation. Strung out and not always easy to find, the wineries are like diamonds in the rough. Actually, getting there was part of the fun. There are also several urban wineries located in the nearly flat, yet equally delightful, downtown area of Santa Cruz. After the first day and a half, I drove about 30 minutes to Carmel and spent two nights in Carmel-by-the-Sea, exploring Carmel Valley Road one day, and River Road the next. I felt I only scratched the surface. There's so much to do in each of the following three areas. Don't hesitate to spend a long weekend in each!

Santa Cruz Nearly 50 wineries are hidden away in these glorious mountain passes, or out in the open in the funky beach hippie downtown of Santa Cruz. The wineries are low key, but the wines are not. The vineyards are generally low-yielding, and they produce wines with full, intense flavors and aromas. Stay at a tidy chain hotel, or better yet, check into Hotel Chaminade, a family-style resort, with a top-notch restaurant overlooking the sea. Unlike many other wine regions, the wineries of Santa Cruz are spread out and not easily visited. And yet, they are well worth the effort. The roads are small and windy, the coastal fogs can drift in, and yet there is something so uplifting about finding a winery and arriving. Yeah! The wineries know you've made an effort, and often reward you with instant warmth, friendship, and wonderful tastings. The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation runs the length of the rugged Coastal Range from Mount Madonna in the south to Half Moon Bay in the north and includes parts of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties. Weekends are great, but if you're lucky enough to be there on Tuesday, bring a bottle of wine to the romantic Gabriella Cafe on Cedar for Wine Sharing Night! Then head to Soif Wine Bar on Walnut to enjoy live jazz and modern piano while you taste yet another distinctive wine.

Don't Miss: Downtown Santa Cruz
Besides several funky urban tasting rooms, the town offers great offbeat restaurants, shops, and a unique California hippie vibe. Check out Santa Cruz Roasting Company where they brew coffee by the cup. And Walnut Street Café, where the breakfast line turns into the lunch line daily and people don't seem to care.

Carmel Valley Road Just five miles west of the enchanting fog-kissed Carmel-by-the-Sea, lies the start of an intriguing trail called Carmel Valley Road. This winding country highway climbs and then dips through high elevations, steep slopes, and well-drained granite terraces that are home to some 300 acres of vineyard. Only Chateau Julien grows all its grapes in this location. The others have vineyard acreage in other parts of Monterey, capturing the multiple terroirs of the region. All make worthwhile stops on the wine tourer's itinerary. Heller Estates has a delightful assortment of gifts, oil tastings, and organic wines. If you're starting from Carmel, plan to have lunch in Carmel Valley Village. Daniel's at Garden Bistro is an excellent choice. The delightful dining room and covered garden area create a peaceful ambience for enjoying California Cuisine with a French and Asian flair. Choose what you like from the long list of panini, fresh seafood salads, and sandwiches, but save room for one of the simply decadent desserts, like the Triple Chocolates Mousse sitting in blueberry coulis (puréed sauce).

Don't Miss: Earthbound Farms Organic Kitchen
This 30-acre organic farm is open year round, offering unique fresh produce, flowers, gourmet groceries, plus a cut-your-own Herb Garden. You'll also find one of the country's few certified organic kitchens serving delightful seasonal dishes. Contact the farm in advance to join a Chef Walk, where you can walk through the farm with farmer Mark Marino and a guest chef and learn more about organic farming and cooking with fresh ingredients. If you're touring with children, look into the Bug Walk and various farm stand workshop programs.

River Road It's an easy shoot down from Monterey Bay, or from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Highway G17, more commonly known as River Road. This is the start of the legendary Salinas Valley with its fertile vineyards that benefit from the cooling fogs and fresh breezes from the bay. If you're driving from Carmel and feel like having a bite, make your first stop on the Monterey-Salinas Highway 68 at Tarpy's Roadhouse for a wood-grilled hamburger or hearty salad. Then walk over to the Ventana tasting room, where they don't charge for tasting and proudly display out front an updatable sign showing how many medals their wines have won. The River Road runs past the farm towns of Chualar, Gonzales, and Soledad, to Greenfield. Located about halfway is Pessagno Winery. The tasting room is open on weekends, but they'll greet you on weekdays, if you call ahead. Owner/Winemaker Stephen Pessagno is an eloquent host. He has started an advanced-reservation-only restaurant and named it 1645 River Road, which will soon be located in a roadside building once used as a dairy barn. Further along the road and up a steep dirt lane stands Hahn Estates/Smith & Hook Winery. If Winemaker Paul Clifton drifts by, ask him to point you to Pinnacles National Monument, where there are scores of trails and walls for rock climbing. Or better yet, contact the Sanctuary Rock Gym in Sand City and ask about their guided tours to the area.

Don't Miss: Highlands House
This private vacation-home rental is located on the Pessagno Winery property. It's a fully furnished two-bedroom/one-bathroom house with a shiny new kitchen and private backyard. The cozy home gives a unique home base to explore all the county has to offer.

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