Mention Gilroy — a California community located southeast of San Jose, northeast of Salinas and almost due east of Santa Cruz — and a single word comes to mind: garlic.
That’s because the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival has grown into one of the nation’s most famous food celebrations, and has helped the town earn the title of “Garlic Capital of the World.”
Garlic has a year-round home in Gilroy’s revitalized downtown of historic buildings and quaint antique shops. You can dig into garlic-laced dishes at Garlic City Cafe, historic Old City Hall Restaurant and at local faves such as OD’s Kitchen and Station 55. The Milias Restaurant dates back to 1922 and blends the unique history of the days when it was a destination for traveling Hollywood stars with artisan cocktails and contemporary dining.
Garlic put Gilroy on the map, but another local highlight is the drive on nearby Hecker Pass. Visitors can photograph the “Field of Dreams” at Syngenta Flowers, where the company grows experimental flowers — many of them one of a kind.
Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is another local horticultural destination, with more than 40 attractions, including six majestic gardens. The park’s world-famous Circus Trees are living sculptures created by intricate grafting techniques.
While on Hecker Pass, you can enjoy tours and tastings at award-winning wineries that have brought the valley’s 19th century winemaking tradition into the new millennium. They’re part of the rich winemaking history of the Santa Clara Valley.
French and Italian immigrants who settled in the area during the Gold Rush era recognized the rich soils and Mediterranean climate as the perfect New World home for their European grape varietals. From their discovery of native “Vitis Californica” grapes growing wild and the first plantings of Mission grapes at the Santa Clara Mission in 1798, through boom years and the Great Depression, phylloxera and Prohibition, the area boasts some of the richest tradition of any wine region in the country.
Then came the rise of Silicon Valley, and the farmland gave way to technology parks, housing tracts and shopping malls. Well known and respected wineries such as Mirassou and Almaden were sold and their old vineyards torn up and subdivided. In much of the county, the viticultural history is represented by little more than street names and historical markers.
Winegrowing continued in the south of the county, however. Around Hecker Pass and Watsonville Road, a number of family-owned wineries continued to produce wines, mostly for local consumption.
The area’s resurgence gained pace in 1989. The key event was the designation of a distinct American Viticultural Area. Before that AVA came into being, the region’s wines typically were labeled “Central Coast” or “Santa Clara County.”
Gene Guglielmo, grandson of winery founder Emilio, researched and filed the AVA petition, and on March 28, 1989, the Santa Clara Valley AVA was finally declared. It encompassed an area of more than 300,000 acres within Santa Clara County, and included all the existing wineries in the area that weren’t part of an existing AVA, as well as several notable vineyards, including Vanumanutagi, Dorcich and Wiedeman.
Several smaller vineyards have been planted in the AVA in recent years, with labels such as Monte Verde, Creekview, Uvas Creek Cellars and Aver Family being produced under “custom crush” agreements at larger premises. Others, such as Lightheart and Satori, have invested in new winemaking facilities, while Mann Cellars and Ross Vineyards have opened tasting areas to complement their previous production.
In 2013, Sunlit Oaks Winery opened in southeast Gilroy, with John and Rita Grogan planting estate grapes and bringing their wines to the marketplace.
Gilroy also offers a shopper’s paradise for visitors, with 145 brand-name stores located in the Gilroy Premium Outlets development. But what keeps people coming back year after year is the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a world-renowned event held over the last full weekend of July — that would be July 25-27 in 2014.
The heart of the Garlic Festival is Gourmet Alley, featuring famed chefs feeding more than 100,000 guests a one-of-a-kind cuisine of garlic-laced offerings. And, yes, there’s even garlic-infused wine to be sampled.
ANNUAL EVENTS IN AND AROUND GILROY
• May — Downtown Gilroy Art & Wine Stroll, and Gilroy Memorial Day Parade
• July — Garlic City Fun Run/Car Show, and Gilroy Garlic Festival
• July and August — Gilroy Fifth Street Live Music Series
• September and October — Northern California Renaissance Faire
• October — Wineries of Santa Clara Valley Passport Weekend
• November — Gilroy Premium Outlets Midnight Madness
• December — Downtown Holiday Parade, and Gilroy Gardens Holiday Lights
• February — Wineries of Santa Clara Valley Barrel Sampling
• March — Wineries of Santa Clara Valley Passport Weekend
• April — Gilroy Gardens opens