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Wild boys

Visiting Santa Cruz vintners

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Having experienced the grueling Napa traffic, I'd begun to think Northern California's wine country had morphed into one giant, overcrowded suburb. But then I discovered dreamy Santa Cruz. Its elegant rolling hills, renegade winemakers and earnestness coalesce into a beautiful drink, leaving you confident someone still cares.

Each of the 60-some small and midsize wineries in Santa Cruz span two growing regions separated by rugged mountains and a busy super-highway. At the top of one of these steep peaks resides legendary Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon producer Ridge Vineyards. In an unassuming, turn-of-the-century winery, winemaker Eric Baugher creates magic with grapes free from earth-depleting pesticides. Ridge's Santa Cruz outpost is called Monte Bello, 140 acres dotted with stumpy 100-year-old Zinfandel vines and brimming with healthy Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Rows of oak barrels brim with the glorious, smooth 2001 Monte Bello Bordeaux blend ($120 per bottle). Like its sister winery in Sonoma, Monte Bello Ridge remains low key, concentrating on crafting amazing wines rather than marketing. Sure, their product isn't low price, but any Ridge lover can still find Santa Cruz gems under $30, like their delicious Chardonnay or Cabernet.

David Bruce Winery is one of the early pioneers in Santa Cruz winemaking. Highly respected for their remarkable Pinot Noirs, they have been around almost 40 years, longer than most Napa or Sonoma houses. The modern winery is perched at 2,200 feet, overlooking Monterey Bay. Eyes twinkling and emotions stirred, Bruce talks about his Pinots as if they were his children, and proudly visits the sleeping wines in their barrels on a daily basis. Although he loves Pinots, his repertoire includes other grapes like Petite Syrah, an intense, dark grape from France that yields grapey, sometimes peppery wines. His wines cost between $18 and $40, and are widely available.

Randall Grahm, the hyperactive wild child of Santa Cruz winemaking, rules Bonny Doon Vineyards. His twisted experimentalist attitude is motivated by his goal of making what he calls "an original wine that matters." Grahm spent years releasing obscure wines and exploring what his 140 acres of 80 different types of grapes would yield. But now, like a kid grown-up, he wants to create wines where you can taste personality. Although he says he hasn't reached that level yet, his fun, wily wines have certainly garnered attention. This is the same guy who is converting all his bottling plants to screwtops because he considers them superior. He takes chances, and succeeds quite often at doing so. Counted in his stock are successful wine names designed to thumb the nose at the establishment: Bouteille Call, Big House Red, Le Cigare Volant and Heart of Darkness. His wines range from $8 to $30 in wine stores everywhere.

Other wineries of note in the Santa Cruz region are Bargetto, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards and Cinnabar. Although they aren't necessarily widely available, they're worth seeking out, especially if you're in the vicinity. Like Ridge, David Bruce and Bonny Doon, their wines are refreshingly original and unpredictable -- the way wines should be.

corkscrew@creativeloafing.com

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