No need to trek all the way to those packed valleys up north when the Corralitos Wine Trail will lead you to world-class wine right here in Santa Cruz County. Laura Sutherland saddles up to give you the roadmap to Alfaro Family Vineyards, El Vaquero Winery, Ferrari Ranch Wines, Nicholson Vineyards, Lester Estate Wines, Regan Vineyards Winery, Storrs Winery and Windy Oaks Estate.
If there was a competition to see which California wineries put you closest to the vines where the grapes you’re tasting were plucked and pressed, the wineries of Corralitos could be grand champions. Relax here at an oak-shaded table and lift your gaze — you’ll stare right into the leaves, canes and, most important, the clusters that skilled winemakers craft into the award-winning wines you’re sipping.
Most of their wines are made from estate-grown grapes, meaning the winery owns the vineyards and controls every aspect of the process, from planting and tending the plants to creating the wines. The eight award-winning, family-run Corralitos wineries that offer tastings — Alfaro Family Vineyards, El Vaquero Winery, Ferrari Ranch Wines, Nicholson Vineyards, Lester Estate Wines, Regan Vineyards Winery, Storrs Winery and Windy Oaks Estate — source their grapes primarily from the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, the only California appellation to be defined by its mountainous topography.
Coastal influences make the conditions perfect for certain grapes. “We have cool evenings and hot days,” points out Richard Alfaro, who has been making wine here for 25 years. “It might be 85 degrees during the day, but thanks to the marine influence, it can drop to 45-40 degrees at night, making it great for growing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.”
Tasting fees are like 1990s Napa — $15 to $25 for three to six pours, and the fee is often waived if you buy a bottle or two of wine. It’s a highly respected wine region that’s considered a bit off the beaten track for global travelers, but for Santa Cruz County residents, all you have to do is head along Highway 1 to Freedom Boulevard, then meander through classic California oak woodlands to the wineries.
You won’t pass many businesses in this rural part of the county, so plan ahead to bring some sustenance, since most of the wineries allow picnics. Stop on your way at Cheese Shop 831 just off of 41st Avenue in Capitola, Deluxe Foods of Aptos or Staff of Life Natural Foods in Watsonville or the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company to grab a bite, or plan ahead and bring a picnic basket from home — many of the people we sat next to brought lavish and impressive feasts.
My listings are in alphabetical order, but it’s best to plan your trip based on proximity. Reservations are recommended at all of the wineries, but drop-ins are always possible depending on space available.
Alfaro Family Vineyards
Founded in 1997 by Richard and Mary Kay Alfaro, patriarch Richard now focuses entirely on growing his exceptional grapes. In 2020, he passed the winemaking responsibilities over to son Ryan, who received a masters in wine science from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. All of their grapes are estate-grown, so the family has their hands on every aspect of the operations. Both Ryan and Richard were there on the Saturday we visited, chatting with guests and providing more in-depth information about the wines — the place is that personal.
A handsome tasting room has plenty of options for seating, but you’ll want to be outside on the shady terrace soaking in the pastoral elegance of the surrounding vineyards. On many weekends, guitarist Brian Fitzgerald (of Kuumbwa Jazz fame) plays bossa nova and jazz — the perfect auditory contribution to the beauty of the surroundings and the artistry of the wine.
The winery is known especially for its pinot noirs, and one of the six wines I tasted was from its Trout Gulch vineyard in Aptos that is totally dry-farmed, meaning that the grapes aren’t irrigated and rely only on rain. “The grapes were planted 42 years ago,” Richard told us. “We bought the grapes for 12 years and then two years ago we bought the vineyard. Because of the rains, this year is four to six weeks behind other years — but the rains should make the harvest really interesting.”
420 Hames Rd., Watsonville | Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. | 831-728-5172 | Website
El Vaquero Winery
The most “urban” of the group, El Vaquero sits at the intersection of Freedom Boulevard and Corralitos Road and is the only winery that isn’t next to vineyards. However, its spacious patio is adjacent to the Alladin Nursery, so one side is flanked by rose bushes and the other by fruit trees. There’s also a dance floor and stage, since this winery hosts regular music and dance party events on weekends, always with a food truck. Music groups include local favorites like Alex Lucero and the Joint Chiefs, and the dance floor can expand for big crowds.
Choose your wine flight from four different possibilities — the fan favorites; all pinot noirs; all reds; or roses and whites. El Vaquero’s flagship cabernet franc, a smooth and mellow red, just won double gold in the 2023 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, as did its carignan, which you can taste in its flights but is sold out for purchase. Owned by Bob and Dean Prikazsky, this winery is also a family affair, and daughter Alex is the winemaker.
El Vaquero was just named business of the year by the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce because of its service to the community.
2901 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville | Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday 3-6 p.m. (later on music nights), Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. (later on Saturday music nights; there is a small cover charge for music) | 831-607-8118 | Website
Ferrari Ranch Wines
Bring your big-city friends to this place and their fast-pace rev will quickly downshift. Like many of the Corralitos wineries, it’s Santa Cruz wine country at its most beautiful, with picture-perfect terraced hillsides of pinot noir and chardonnay vines edged by soaring redwood trees and ancient oaks. Hawks soar and bluebirds cruise at eye level – tastings are outside in an elegant hilltop patio pavilion.
After you’re greeted by winery dog Cooper, you’ll sit down and start with two whole-cluster- pressed rosés - one from pinot noir grapes and one from zinfandel grapes sourced nearby. A lightly oaked chardonnay is next followed by Ferrari Ranch’s highly regarded pinot noir. Outside food is encouraged (the Corralitos Market with its fabulous sandwiches is nearby if you forget your picnic basket) and you can buy wine by the glass or the bottle, too.
Thought to be the oldest winery in Corralitos, Dave and Liz Ferrari bought it in 2016 and first sold grapes to other wineries. In 2018, they hired Ross Reedy as director of winemaking to craft wines just for them from the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes that thrive here. This summer is the first year they’ve been open for tasting.
“All of our legacy vines are dry-farmed, which drives the roots deep and really concentrates the flavors in the grapes,” Reedy says. “We don’t use herbicides or pesticides and we don’t push our vines to yield quantity — only quality.” Reedy loves their grapes so much that he buys half of them for his other winemaking.
65 Magnifico Vita Lane, Corralitos | Saturday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. through October | 408-639-5425 | Website
Lester Estate Wines
The “tasting barn” is a rare sight in these parts, since the globe-hopping late founder, Dan Lester, collected the most unusual — if not downright bizarre — items that are on display: two snakeskins the length of an outrigger canoe (one purchased from a canoe on the Amazon River); sustainably collected taxidermied animals from all over the world; mounted insects the size of your forearm; a large butterfly collection; glittery disco balls; and paintings by Dan that remind me of Australian Aboriginal creations. But that’s for wintertime tasting. In pleasant weather, head outside to the patios and lawns — the perfect places to gaze out at the vineyard of eight different pinot noir clones while you sip.
Unlike most wineries that have a house winemaker, Lester has five winemakers who bring completely different approaches based on their individual style and ability to bring out the special qualities in each pinot clone and other varietals. For a more in-depth experience, book the Hike the Ranch with Steve tour ($60 per person). A family member for 40 years, Steve Johnson will take you on a tour of the vineyards and the dazzling Deer Park Ranch property while regaling you with stories and serving a tasting flight at the end in a meadow filled with birdsong.
Outside food is allowed only in certain areas here, so request a picnic table or fortify before you go. Lester Estate is open from only noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, so be sure to make a reservation — it’s a not-to-be-missed tasting experience. Keep an eye on its website for special events like vertical tastings (same wine type, different years) and music concerts; tickets go quite quickly.
1950 Pleasant Valley Rd., Aptos | Saturday noon-4 p.m. | 831-728-3793 | Website
Turn onto the driveway and cruise through the vineyards to get to Nicholson’s poetic oak-shaded patio — a huge outdoor space where groups of all sizes and all ages spread out and relax. We saw 20-somethings playing cards, multigenerational families with babies, serious middle-aged wine collectors, elderly couples, and dogs — all enjoying tasting flights, wines by the glass or bottles (except the dogs, who begged for picnic scraps).
First up in our tasting was a 2020 unoaked chardonnay, followed by a 2021 oaked chardonnay, both from the same plot a few feet from our table. Newcomers to wine tasting who want to understand things like oaked vs. unoaked chardonnay will get a lesson right from the start.
Nicholson focuses on estate-grown pinot noirs and chardonnays, but it purchases grapes to make a few other varietals as well. Once the grape harvest is over, it shifts to harvesting olives from orchards that contain five Tuscan varietals, from which it makes estate olive oil.
This is one place that offers snacks — Nicholson lets you select what you might want from a basket with choices of crackers and cheese from places like Laura Chenel and Marin French Cheese. It’s another perfect winery to show off to someone from out of town to give them a sense of place.
2800 Pleasant Valley Rd., Aptos | Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. | 831-724-7071 | Website
Regan Vineyards Winery
Picture yourself in a shaded gazebo perched atop a water tower at the crest of a hill overlooking Regan’s grapevines, the Pajaro Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay (don’t worry — the water tower is made from concrete so the tasting gazebo is completely stable). That’s your intimate 12-person tasting “room” at Regan Vineyards Winery - unusual to say the least.
The winery was founded by John Bargetto, a 10th-generation winemaker with roots in Italy; he is director of winemaking at Regan and also at his family’s Bargetto Winery in Soquel, but Regan is his special baby. Winemaker Keegan Mayo — who has a highly regarded personal brand called Assiduous and has worked at places like Testarossa — has been at Regan since the beginning and was recently named head winemaker at Bargetto Winery.
You’re served a small charcuterie plate when you sit down (no picnics here, but dogs and children are welcome) and the vines from which your generous first pour comes — a Mount Eden clone chardonnay — will be pointed out while John or his wine educator fill you in on how this wine has a style more European than Californian. Next up, linger over a sophisticated pinot noir and then a cool-climate Bordeaux-style merlot. This fall, they’ll be including a new release of nebbiolo in the lineup. If you want to walk through the vines, John loves to take interested guests on a quick tour.
Word to the wise: This place is truly out in the middle of the vineyards, and there’s a very clean outhouse bathroom where you park your car. It can get breezy, so bring along a jacket.
1610 Green Valley Rd., Corralitos | Sundays (May 7 to Nov. 5) noon - 5 p.m. | 831-818-3885 | Website
Many locals are familiar with Storrs’ tasting room at the Sash Mill in Santa Cruz, but if you want to be in the heart of the vines, visit its modern and sleek concrete tasting “barn” adjacent to its vineyards in the hills of Corralitos. Wine tasters enjoy private tables shaded by trees and umbrellas, or groups can rent a bocce court and adjacent table for a few hours to play.
You’ll start with the signature chardonnay — the Storrs wine you’ll most often see in restaurants. As you enjoy that glass, study the tasting flight possibilities and create a bespoke tasting of what you want to explore. I split my tasting between chardonnay and pinot noir, starting with a chardonnay from its Christie Vineyard since it was stretching out right in front of me.
Your tasting flight is carried to you in a shiny metal bucket in which are nestled four different beakers of wine — like out of a high school chemistry class. It’s something Storrs started during the pandemic that was so popular it’s been continued. Each beaker is labeled with a letter or a number that corresponds to the wine tasting menu so you can study what you are drinking.
A short walk up a hill are several picnic tables with a view of the surrounding hills. You can reserve one for a fee, or if they aren’t booked, bring your picnic and a bottle of wine to drink while you enjoy spectacular hillside and vineyard views.
1560 Pleasant Valley Rd., Aptos | Friday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. | 831-724-5030 | Website
Windy Oaks Estate
The farthest of the group sits at a 1,000-foot elevation five miles up a curvy road — it’s totally worth the trip to sit a few feet from its sweeping vineyards edged by towering redwoods and stately oaks. Windy (as in breezy) Oaks specializes in pinot noir, but has an acre each of chardonnay and syrah. I opted for its estate-grown wine tasting — slightly more expensive — since I couldn’t wait to taste the legendary pinot noir selection.
Like most of the other wineries in the group, Windy Oaks is a family affair and Spencer Schultze — son of founders Jim and Judy — is now taking over the winemaking duties, while other son James runs their two tasting rooms in Carmel and Carmel Valley. They take their winemaking practices quite seriously, and because pinot noir wines are so dependent on aging in new French oak, Judy and Jim visit barrelmakers in Burgundy every year to make sure they have the best possible barrels for their wines.
At the end of your tasting, grab your final glass (or purchase a bottle) and walk through the vineyards to the top of the hill, where there are tables and chairs shaded by a group of ancient oaks and a view of the Pajaro Valley and Monterey Bay. It doesn’t get better than this.
550 Hazel Dell Rd., Corralitos | Friday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. | 831-724-9562 | Website
FOR THE RECORD: This guide has been updated to add more wineries