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Natural Bridges State Beach
© Santa Cruz County CVC/Denis Jockmans

California is famous for its wine meccas — especially the pastoral hills of Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. But it’s the small Golden State towns found off the beaten wine-tasting path where some of the best wines await.

Santa Cruz, Calif., a quirky town sandwiched between redwood-forested mountains and the deep-blue Monterey Bay, boasts many draws for tourists. Until recently,­ though, wine hasn’t typically been counted among those draws. Then the Surf City Vintners, a group of 12 local wineries, poured into the city’s Westside neighborhood, transforming the former industrial district into a hip, urban wine haven (or “wine ghetto,” as the vintners say).

Anyone interested in a funky, ego-free place to enjoy a plethora of mellow, European-style wines should get themselves to Santa Cruz fast, before word gets out and it’s overrun with oenophiles. The Westside’s recent renaissance also means that you can dine at memorable restaurants, walk along the beach and stay in top-notch hotels, all without getting in a car — making it ideal for eco-minded travelers and eliminating the need to designate a driver.
Take note of these Westside wineries to get your taste buds prepped:
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An offering from Bonny Doon Vineyard

Bonny Doon Vineyard
Step into this impressive tasting room and be transported into the Dooniverse, which winemaker and president-for-life Randall Grahm describes as “an attitude of openness to exploration and possibility, and an understanding that not only is life too short to drink bad wine, [it’s] too short to drink the same wine.” Be warned — once you’ve entered the Dooniverse, you may never find your way back.

The Wine: Bonny Doon sold off its big labels a few years back in a quest to focus on quality, not quantity. Luckily, it still offers its beloved flagship wine, Le Cigare Volant, a Rhône blend that Grahm has made since 1984.

Silver Mountain Vineyards
Not only do these wines taste good, but they’re also good for the planet. Founder Jerold O’Brien started farming organically in 1988, “before I’d ever heard the term organic farming,” he says. O’Brien has also implemented remarkable sustainability efforts at his vineyard and winery, including the largest solar-panel installation in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Wine: The chardonnay, the winery’s only white wine, has been made from their organic grapes since 1980 and remains one of their best sellers.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard / Quinta Cruz
Known for its pinot noir since 1975, this local brand is gaining recognition for its new sister label, Quinta Cruz, which owner Jeff Emery started in 2008. Emery says it is the first label in the United States to produce wines from only Iberian varietals grown in California.

The Wine: Quinta’s tempranillo is especially memorable, which is perhaps why Emery has had to double production each year just to keep up with demand.