In vino veritas: A guide to Westside Santa Cruz’s walkable wine scene

An employee offers a tasting at Bottle Jack Winery and Silver Mountain Vineyards.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

With rainy season just about over (right?) and longer days, what better time to get familiar with — or revisit — the walkable winery tasting rooms of Santa Cruz’s Westside. Red, white, bubbly, in refillable bottles ... there’s more than enough to make a weekend or two out of, and Laura Sutherland takes us for the stroll.

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A guide to walkable Westside Santa Cruz wine tasting

You can hit all of Westside Santa Cruz’s wine tasting rooms in 211 steps, I’ve counted. Not that you’d want to sample them all at once — there are nine tasting rooms, and by the end you wouldn’t be walking, you’d be staggering and stumbling … or worse.

While many of them make wines from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, the tasting rooms and experiences are decidedly different.

Some specialize in just a few grape varietals, while others make dozens of different wines. Several offer bespoke tastings where you select what you’d like to try from their wine list. Others change their tasting menu weekly or quarterly, so if you visit often you’ll try a bit of everything. Many allow you to order a full bottle or a glass to enjoy with your comrades if you want to linger and chat. But no matter what you choose, know that these are small operations where you’re likely to find the owners and winemakers pouring, which gives you the opportunity to ask questions and learn as much as you can. You can join all their wine clubs, and it’s a great way to support local business, lighten your carbon footprint, and get early-release and exclusive wines at discounted prices.

I recommend that you sample all of the wineries over a couple of weekends — they are within a block or two of each other on Ingalls and Fair streets in Santa Cruz. Reservations are often suggested, but walk-ins are always welcome, depending on availability. Here they are, roughly organized by walking order.

Rexford Winery

Rexford Winery's Sam Miller and family
Rexford Winery’s Sam Miller with wife April and son Zev.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

When winemaker/founder Joe Miller taught both astrophysics and wine appreciation at UC Santa Cruz back in the 1970s, “you could get the same credit for quantum physics that you could for wine tasting — so you can imagine which class was the most popular,” he laughs.

Today Joe and son Sam make wine at this unassuming winery in a nondescript cinderblock building at the corner of Ingalls and Swift streets. Don’t expect plush couches and fancy decor — it’s a working tasting room. But keep in mind that Joe once taught a course called “Overview of the Universe” and Sam got his master’s degree in jazz guitar and jazz history and now their passion is making wine. And yes, the same technical and creative artistry and big-picture philosophy inform their excellent pinot noirs, chardonnays and other wines. They’re open on weekend afternoons only, and one or both of the Millers are likely to be pouring and ready to answer your questions.

429 Ingalls St. | 831-426-1500 | | Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Breakfast at the Westside farmers market to vino with a view to dinner al fresco in Boulder Creek and Soquel, summertime...

Bottle Jack Winery and Silver Mountain Vineyards

These two wineries share the same light-filled modern tasting room next to Marini’s Candies, and guests can select from eight different Bottle Jack tasting options and 10 Silver Mountain pours. Chat with your “wine educator” when you arrive to discuss what you like so they can craft the perfect tasting flight for you. Do you love syrahs? Silver Mountain’s 2014 syrah won the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle’s 2022 Best of Class, and its pinot noir won a double gold. Want to explore sangiovese? Bottle Jack specializes in it — two of its 2018s won silver at the competition. Indoor tables and a bar and outside seating on pleasant days allow you to spread out for privacy if you want it.

Bottle Jack Winery

328D Ingalls St. | 831-421-2474 (tasting room), 831-227-2288 (main phone) | | Friday, 3-7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

Silver Mountain Vineyards

328D Ingalls St. | 408-353-2278 (at the winery) | | Friday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Quinta Cruz

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard's Qunita Cruz label.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

Jeff Emery was a 20-year-old UCSC student when he fell into winemaking, and now, decades later, his two wineries showcase his experience and passion. Regularly praised for Emery’s pinot noirs, Santa Cruz Mountain Winery specializes in “cellar-worthy wines that pair beautifully with food,” while the Quinta Cruz label reveals Emery’s love affair with wines of the Iberian peninsula — Spanish and Portuguese varietals that are now grown in Santa Cruz, like tempranillo, touriga nacional and graciano. All tastings finish with a glass of his traditional port-like dessert wine called Rabelo, crafted from California-grown Portuguese grapes and fortified by alembic brandy distilled from the same grapes.

334A Ingalls St. | 831-426-6209 | | Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon-5:30 p.m.

Sones Cellars

Sones Cellars
Sones Cellars winemaker/owner Michael Sones.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

I love a smooth tree stump on wheels  — and when it’s broad and waist-high you can sit around it and admire its rings while you sample petite sirah and zinfandel crafted by winemaker/owner Michael Sones. Sones gained his experience with David Bruce Winery and Bonny Doon Vineyard before striking out on his own in 2003. In 2010, when he recognized that 60% of the energy costs of winemaking go into the bottle, he developed a refillable bottle with a swing top called the Hedgehog — and today people regularly come by the winery to refill their bottles from the barrels. “The wine in the Hedgehog barrel changes every few weeks, making for an interesting variety in drinking,” notes Sones. A few years ago, Sones was approached by Tanuki Cider in Santa Cruz about doing a collaboration, and now you can try this unusual but highly successful blend, named Newton Noir for the Newton apples and pinot noir grapes, all grown in Watsonville.

334B Ingalls St. | 831-420-1552 | | Thursday, 2-5 p.m., Friday, 2-6 p.m., Saturday, 1-6 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Equinox & Bartolo Winery and Tasting Room

Inside the Equinox Sparkling Wine on Santa Cruz's Westside.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

Equinox is where we bring out-of-town friends when we want to start with a glass of bubbly before going to dinner. The tasting room is chic, the sparkling wine is festive, and the educators love to talk about the nuances of effervescent wine. Winemaker Barry Jackson and his wife, Jennifer, also make excellent still red wine, like petit verdot and merlot, under the name of Bartolo. Every time I visit I vow to taste it … but usually their crisp blanc de blancs and blancs de noirs made in the authentic Champagne method win out. Barry and Jennifer also make custom sparkling wines for other wineries, and it must run in the family, because their daughter is the assistant winemaker at Mumm Napa.

334C Ingalls St. | 831-471-8608 | | Monday, Thursday, noon-5 p.m., Friday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., Sunday, noon-4 p.m.

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Madson Wines

Outside Madson Wines' tasting room on the Westside.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

This newest tasting room of the group faces New Leaf Market, and Madson’s fresh and contemporary tasting room — open since last August — could get a person in trouble. Every time I shop for groceries, I wonder if my ice cream will melt if I stop in for a quick glass of one of its organically farmed, naturally fermented wines. Calling itself a “farm-to-glass operation,” Madson focuses on what grows best locally, like its attention-worthy pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah. Founder and viticulturist Ken Swegles manages the vineyards and co-founder and winemaker Cole Thomas, who got his chops in New Zealand, Australian and other Santa Cruz area wineries, crafts the wine.

328G Ingalls St. | 831-204-0343 | | Monday, Thursday-Friday, 2-8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 1-7 p.m.

MJA Vineyards

MJA Vineyards.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

Fifty-five different wines in bottles and 51 wines by the glass. Honestly, that’s how many are available at any given moment. In all my years as a committed wine drinker and culinary writer, I’ve never seen a menu with this many wines by the glass. Montepulciano? Yep. Chardonnay? Of course. Library cabs? Yes — cabernet is a favorite of owner Marin John Artukovich, and his 2019 cab from grapes sourced in Mendocino County won platinum in the San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge. But it’s best to start with an official tasting, so you’ll know what to order by the glass the next time you visit — the menu changes quarterly. The outdoor tasting room is lit by market lights and has fire pits to help people warm up, and there’s a pleasant tasting room inside.

328A Ingalls St. | 831-421-9380 | | Sunday-Thursday, noon-6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon-7 p.m.

Stockwell Cellars

The tasting room at Stockwell Cellars.
(Via Laura Sutherland)

This is the place to go for a night out — it’s the biggest tasting room of the Westside group, with a cool industrial indoor space and covered and heated outdoor patio. Table service is standard here, and you can order a tasting flight, a glass or a full bottle. If you want to really understand the definition of terroir, order the pinot noir tasting flight. Its five different wines are made using the exact same method from grapes harvested the same year from different vineyards in Corralitos, Bonny Doon, the Loma Prieta ridge, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey. Some are spicy, some are smoky, some crisper or smoother than others — and you are truly tasting the soil, the climate and the sun exposure and how they inform the wine’s taste. Stockwell also has a refillable bottle program, with four different changing taps.

1100 Fair Ave. | 831-818-9075 | | Thursday, 2-8 p.m., Friday, 2-9 p.m. | Saturday, noon-8 p.m., Sunday, noon-6 p.m.