Photography by Yuri Krasov
The very name Los Gatos [the cats] already holds its magnetic pool for your regular feline lover. Stretching like a cat’s gracious spine along the curve of Santa Cruz foothills, the town is warm and well groomed like a pedigreed animal, although it’s named after the bobcats and mountain lions of the surrounding woods rather than Tiggers and Gingers.
For a cat town, Los Gatos boasts a surprising amount of dogs. Small, big, and huge, they leisurely walk their owners along the shady sidewalks, manicured lawns, and blossoming rose bushes, or sit under chairs in outside cafes, or drink from water bowls, considerately left by the local business owners outside their doors.
“To see Los Gatos is to love the town,” wrote Sunset Magazine back in 1915. While visiting some time ago, the first thing we saw upon entering was a very legible sign: Free Unlimited Parking. For us, used to San Francisco parking hardships and enormous prices, that was a decisive moment of falling in love with the town.
We took a comfortable mini-coach of Royal Coach Tours to the mountainous wineries of higher elevations. Loma Prieta Winery was named after of the infamous fault line that caused a devastating earthquake back in 1989 as an appeasement offering to the gods of quakes. The winery is located at 2,300 feet above the sea level and boasts 360 degrees of spectacular views. There is a plan in the making to introduce sunset tastings here.
A team of husband and wife produces a number of award-winning reds, and only reds (“I just don’t like white wine,” explained Amy Kemp, the wife). It was hard to decide which red was the best. My personal judgment got impaired between garnet-red 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and red-ink-dark 2006 Saveria Pinot Noir, both of pleasant complexity, with lasting aftertaste. I finally leaned toward the Cab, maybe, because for a moment the taste of wine, the sound of water in the fountain and the view of the Bay far below all came together in a brief sensation of perfection.
Other great small wineries are located nearby. Silver Mountain Vineyards yields limited crops of organically grown fruit for its gold-medal estate chardonnays. Burrell School Vineyards, located in a historic 1890 school building names its product Teacher’s Pet chardonnay (definitely a winner!) and Valedictorian…
A visit to Fleming Jenkins tasting room in downtown Los Gatos revealed an exhibit of Peggy Fleming’s skating champion costume; her husband, Greg Jenkins in person, and an array of great boutique wines, with a special Victories Rose, dedicated to breast cancer research by a charity-oriented couple. After several hours of Santa Cruz appellation immersion, the night was still young, and a popular wine bar Cin-Cin greeted us with more local wines and Asian, Spanish and California fusion appetizers.
Forbes Mill Steakhouse, where we happened to dine that night, served a four-course pre-fix, paired with Savannah-Chanelle and Poetic Cellars wines. Dean Devincenzi, one of the owners, explained that the restaurant serves only prime certified Angus beef among just nine other restaurants across the nation. Other things on the menu sure to satisfy the most demanding taste were Dungeness crab stuffed calamari, braised short ribs in ginger-soy glaze, and warm apple and almond tart for dessert. A short walk to Tall House Hotel in brisk night air was a good sleep-inducer and a great way to finish the eventful day.
Staying in Toll House Hotel, named after the first historical tollbooth between Santa Cruz and San Jose is like living a pretend-believe life of a local resident. Our suite was cozy and quiet-all about creature comfort-and a soft bed with crisp linens after a hot bath with aromatic salts granted this weary traveler a rare night of undisturbed sleep.
In the morning, I stepped out to the balcony and marveled at the sheer blue mountain outlines wrapped in gentle fog, with redwood tops spearing the gauze. No matter how hot the sun is in the middle of the day, early mornings carry inland chilly messages from the ocean. After a short drive to the locally beloved Southern Kitchen, we parked our small car between a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce (there are several of those dealerships in town, not to count Lamborghini) and indulged in a hearty breakfast of blueberry banana pancakes, bursting with fresh berry juice and sweet banana flesh, well worth packing in some unnecessary calories.
Our day adventure started with a walking tour of Los Gatos, put together by a team of volunteers, who man every historic building in town dressed in period costumes for their annual historic presentation. The prominent citizens of the years past, like James Alexander Forbes who built the founding mill on the land of the future town, and Louise Van Meter, a teacher who introduced a concept of kindergarten at the turn of the last century, come alive and tell their stories intertwined with the history of their cherished town.
A scandalous adventure of a stationmaster Eugene Ford who built an opera house to please his wife, and then ran away with a chorus girl, is humorously presented during the tour in the former Opera building, now serving as a banquet hall.
There are Forbes Mill History Museum and The Art Museum of Los Gatos here to visit, and a Julia Morgan 1914 house among other architectural gems of the well-kept residential area. A lunch at Campo di Bocce is a must for any visitor. Fried calamari, grilled shrimp, and pizza are not the only treats here. How about a game of bocce, a delightful and entertaining experience, even if you’ve never tried it before!
After some shopping in the neat and clean Old Town, we stopped at California Café to try some exquisite wines from Cinnabar and Testarossa wineries, the latter being the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest continuously operating one. Young executive chef Taylor Boudreaux serves California cuisine here made with the freshest local ingredients.
Among the many great restaurants of Los Gatos, Nick’s on Main, an American Bistro stands out with its classy pairings of Black Ridge Vineyards wines and chef/owner Nick Difu’s masterpieces, like rare ahi tuna on warm white beans, or wild mushroom risotto fragrant with truffle oil. And at the end of the day, there is always a great walk to your hotel, just because the town is so compact and safe, so lovely, so walkable…
Start your morning at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company to awake to the fact that life is great. Busy and bustling-this is a gathering point for the locals and tourists alike. People come accompanied by their friends, by their significant others, by their dogs, or just with their laptops, and all find a place here, at a high table by the mirrored wall or outside, on a sunny sidewalk.
During our breakfast (buckwheat waffles with whipped cream are highly recommended!) we even saw a nursing mother [nursing] by a corner table, probably unaware that breast milk transports the energizer beverage right into her baby’s tiny brain. Oh well, he’ll probably grow up a coffee addict anyway. With this dense aroma of fresh-roasted beans in the air, who wouldn’t? Teri Hope, the owner, receives her hand-harvested and sun-dried coffee directly from her family farm in Kona, Hawaii, and roasts it daily in-house.
Not far from the beloved coffee place, there is The Spa Los Gatos, whose owner Patti Rice sponsored her employees’ additional training to provide massages for cancer patients-a rarity in the industry. Upon entering the spa, it is easy to notice that every detail has been thought through here. Smiling receptionists, quiet passageways, and overstuffed cozy furniture immediately create a welcoming atmosphere. The level of comfort is significantly enhanced by comfortable waiting rooms, couple and group facilities, and individual steam showers with eucalyptus, lavender, or orange oil against the backdrop of warm dim lights and soothing music.
A lunch at Dio Deka, that serves Hellenic cuisine, is yet another extraordinary culinary experience in this little town of big wonders. The poetically sounding name of the restaurant reflects just a prosaic street number from the restaurant address-210 E. Main Street-but such is the power of an ancient language. The food, though, is pure poetry. Chef Salvatore Calisi, who grew up in a Greek neighborhood in New York, modestly referred to “quality ingredients” when asked how did he make his appetizers so wonderfully fresh and bursting with flavor. I would definitely go back for those bite-size pieces of grilled octopus-plump and tender, slightly blackened from the open mesquite fire, flavored with oregano and citrus olive oil… Grass-fed lamb chops and a bass, served with traditional potatoes sprinkled with lemon juice are also among the favorites.
For a sweet farewell, on our way out of Los Gatos, we stopped for an exclusive tour of a unique estate winery, La Rusticana d’Orsa, where the owners, Frank and Marilyn Dorsa, created little Italy on hills and terraces of their sun-drenched property.
In small yards, gardens and shady paths, overlooking the Bay, Italian cypresses guard heavy rose blossoms, lotus ponds, and statues of angels and graces, and mountain goats pasture peacefully on a green hillside.
The gates of the estate, as well as fountains, sitting corners, and other structures, were designed by Marilyn Dorsa, who also designs original bracelets from Venetian glass beads and metalwork, sold in boutiques locally and as far as Moscow. The couple’s son, Bart Dorsa, is a filmmaker and a photography artist, currently working there.
La Rusticana d’Orsa offers a club membership with direct purchase benefits, cooking and art classes, and new release parties.
One More Day at the Newly Opened Regale Winery
I took a sip of aromatic citrus-toned chardonnay; a bite of warm crostini topped with baked ricotta and orange zest; sat back, and closed my eyes. Bright afternoon sun peeked just enough under the terrace roof to gently warm my face. A cooling sea breeze was streaming from the Monterey Bay far below, intertwined with a faint smell of roses. Bella Chiao was playing in the background. It felt royally good. Italy at your doorstep, said my wine-tasting companion, echoing my thoughts…
We were sitting in the open-air tasting bar of Regale Winery – the newest addition to the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation in the hills of Los Gatos. When Larry Schaadt, the proprietor, bought an idle piece of land at the top of the hill, he envisioned a Tuscan-style building with the ambience he came to appreciate while traveling in Europe. Now, thick walls and marble floors keep inner facilities of his winery cool on hot days, and a hand-painted mural replicating Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese, adds to the atmosphere of celebration, be it for a small wedding, a birthday, or just a visit with friends and family.
True to its name, which means “to entertain lavishly with food and drink,” Regale offers food and wine pairings – a tried and true concept in Napa, but unique to the Santa Cruz Mountains wine-producing region. Uniformed in burnt orange to look their best in the open air bar colored in rich terracotta hues, chef extraordinaire Faun Skyles and the tasting staff serve delectable combinations of best varietals from every region of California Wine Country and gourmet small plates. Happy to have a grand wood fire oven to her disposal, Faun uses it for nearly every dish on the menu. The 2006 Central Coast Chardonnay, harvested in Hollister, was paired with oven-roasted Marcona almonds, and a glass of velvety 2007 Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley with a serving of duck prosciutto and apple cider gastrique, followed by a flat bread topped with piave vecchi (cheese from Parma), hot olives, rosemary, olive oil, and fleur de sel.
Individual pizzas are made to order, with thin crackling crust and house-made marinara. Besides bringing in fruit from the best-known areas that produce particular grapes, like Alexander Valley cab and Dry Creek zin, Regale produces its own estate-grown pinot since 2005. Other crops here – olives and olive oil; heirloom tomatoes (70 plants of those already planted for late summer consumption); zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers, corn, beans, strawberries, melons – all organic, all grown in the well-kept hillside garden, steps from the kitchen, all merely minutes old when brought to the table – can’t get any fresher than that. On the estate of 10.5 acres, 3.5 are occupied by the vineyard, and the rest by an olive grove, a spiral herb garden, lavender fields, bocce ball court, outdoor fire pit, fruit orchards, and quaint sitting areas for smaller groups. In the building, a formal kitchen is equipped to feed up to a hundred persons a six-course dinner. An upstairs bar has a fireplace for rainy winter days, and dining rooms for indoor and outdoor events. Regale uses green technology – solar panels and water treatment system, and produces 38 hundred cases a year, all of which are sold on premises through the word of mouth. The winery is located at 24040 Summit Road in Los Gatos.