California is wine country. With 138 American Viticultural Areas scattered over more than 800 miles—from tiny Seiad Valley just south of the Oregon border to the sprawling South Coast AVA that reaches all the way to Mexico—California produces 85 percent of the wine made in the United States.
So it takes a big event to capture the sheer scale and diversity of the California wine scene. And whether you’re a serious oenophile or a newbie looking to learn more about different varietals, September’s California Wine Month lets you savour the very best of Golden State wine making during more than 55 events, including regional festivals, special dinners, and vineyard tours.
While you could argue that every month is wine month in California, September is especially magical, says Gladys Horiuchi, director of media relations for the Wine Institute. “It’s the harvest. The grapes are fully mature on the vine and some are already coming in. The smell of crushed grapes is in the air and if you get out early, you might even see the crush taking place. This is an exciting time to visit.”
Just over an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma County is a major centre for Wine Month, with activities at individual wineries and two region wide happenings: Sonoma Wine Country Weekend (Sept. 2-4) and the 2016 Sonoma Valley Crush (Sept. 16-18). But the geographic range and variety of events during wine month mean that you’ll need to plan ahead. Fun fact: Sonoma County produces more Pinot Noir than any other county in the state.
The good news is that the state’s biggest metropolitan areas and airport hubs—San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Sacramento—all put you within a couple of hours or less of several different wine regions.
Fly into Southern California, for example, and you can enjoy new-release tastings at San Diego County’s Ramona Ranch Vineyard and Winery (Sept. 1-30), and also go to CRUSH (Sept. 17), a culinary showcase with more than 30 Temecula Valley wineries and live music. Or head to Santa Barbara and the lush, Mediterranean-style Riviera Park Gardens for Taste of the Town Santa Barbara (Sept. 11), a gathering featuring top restaurants and prominent wineries from around the county. Then spend the next day at the source, as you explore the Santa Ynez Valley, the heart of Santa Barbara wine country.
It’s also easy to pair Wine Month celebrations with trips to major California destinations. On the way to Yosemite National Park from the Bay Area or Sacramento, follow the Madera Wine Trail into one of the country’s oldest grape growing regions for visits to small, family-owned wineries. The certified organic (California is a world leader in sustainable wine production) Fäsi Estate Winery will host an event with tastings of local wines and live jazz music (Sept. 16).
Yosemite-bound travellers, especially Syrah aficionados, also shouldn’t miss a drive through the Sierra foothills to the Super Syrah Weekend (Sept. 17-19) at Terre Rouge and Easton Wines, an artisan winemaker with vineyards in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown AVAs.
Not only are the participating regions diverse, so too are the venues where Wine Month celebrations take place. During Winesong (Sept. 9-10) based in Fort Bragg, vintners from Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa will hold tastings at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, giving visitors the chance to sip premium wines while strolling the luxuriant grounds. Or get an inside look at a Hollywood landmark during The Taste (Sept. 2-4), a weekend-long event on the historic Paramount Studios backlot. Acclaimed Los Angeles chefs will conduct cooking demonstrations, and you can also attend special presentations on wine history and individual varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Although the release parties and harvest festivals create the most buzz, one of the highlights of California Wine Month is the chance to meet leading winemakers during special library tastings and other more intimate events. At Livermore Valley’s Concannon Vineyard east of San Francisco, fourth-generation vintner John Concannon will tell stories (Sept. 17) about his family’s contributions to the history of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. The talk is part of the winery’s “Cab Camp” series (other dates are Sept. 3 and 10), which also includes vineyard visits with samplings of grapes right off the vine.
Farther south, along the Central Coast, Joel Cox, a film editor who won an Academy Award for 1992’s Unforgiven, has only been involved in the business since the 2000s. That’s when he planted his first vines on nine acres near the San Luis Obispo–Monterey County line north of the booming Paso Robles wine country. Since then, boutique Mystic Hills Vineyard, which Cox operates with his wife Judy, has won honours as Monterey Winery of the Year and earned numerous other accolades.
Cox may have come out of Hollywood, but he isn’t just playing winemaker. He drives the tractor and loves getting out into the vineyards, even on days that push 110°. His joy is tangible and conveys the spirit of wine making in California. Visit Mystic Hills during wine month for reserve tastings (Sept. 1-30) with Cox and you’ll hear his stories, both about wine and the movies.
“To me, they’re both art forms,” Cox says. “The total collaboration, and trying to create what you hope a film or wine will become. And when people come here, I want them to experience some of that excitement.”