With more than 3,000 wineries statewide, California lets you sample award-winning wines almost anywhere you go. These classic and up-and-coming wine roads—some too packed with wineries to tackle in a week and others limited enough to experience in an afternoon—will get you started. Their sites all have downloadable maps, as well as lodging and dining tips. Note that many wineries offer free tastings of select vintages, but some charge a nominal fee, which sometimes includes a keepsake glass and is usually refunded if you purchase a bottle or two.
This often overlooked wine country, a roughly 1-hour drive east of San Francisco, is one of those places that make you feel like you’ve (happily) stumbled upon a secret find. It’s not unusual to pull into a winery and have the place almost to yourself—especially if you come March through May—as it's an especially lovely time of year when the surrounding hills turn emerald green and new leaves sprout from the twisting grapevines.
The Livermore Valley, nestled in the Tri-Valley area of California is home to more than 60 wineries, and has a long-standing tradition in wine: founding father Robert Livermore first planted vines here in the 1840s, followed by C.H. Wente and James Concannon in the early 1880s—establishing labels that are still famous today. The region also has a strong heritage throughout the state: according to the Wine Institute, 80 percent of California Chardonnay can be genetically traced to the Livermore Valley.
Start your visit with a drive along winding Tesla Road (it was named before the car company, by the way). Stop in at La Rochelle for Pinot Noir. Next door at Steven Kent Winery, sample the Cabernet Sauvignon, or stop by Tamás Estates for a crisp Pinot Grigio and other Italian varietals. Now head to Arroyo Road to tour Wente Vineyards, California’s oldest continuously operated family-owned winery. Great picks? The Cab gets raves, as does estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc.
The town of Livermore has its charms too, with wraparound porches on historic homes and handsome Blacksmith Square circled with—you guessed it—more tasting rooms, these representing some of Livermore’s smaller wineries. Try California sparkling wines from Battaion Cellars, and organic, estate-grown vintages from Retzlaff.
Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines, with so many wineries you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit them all. The first permanent road linking the town of Napa to Calistoga, roughly 30 miles/48 kilometres south, the Silverado Trail is the country-road counterpart to busier Highway 29, which roughly parallels the route. Drive—or better yet rent a bike and pedal—along this tranquil, scenic route, snugged up against the valley’s eastern hills.
"Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines."
The biggest challenge is figuring out where to stop first. Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines, and Miner Family Winery, just three of the dozens of wonderful places to sample Napa Valley’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. Sparkling wine fans will want to stop at Mumm Napa, where you can sip bubbly on an elegant patio, in a tasting salon, or reserve a seat on the intimate Oak Terrace. Other turns take you to how-can-they-be-so-perfect wine-country inns and resorts, such as Auberge du Soleil and Solage Calistoga. To see one of the prettiest places in the whole region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an al fresco lunch at The Grill, or, if you’re feeling extra splurge-y, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, known for impeccable service and farm-to-table offerings served with—of course—exquisite wines.
The eight wineries on this low-key wine trail, looping through rolling hills dotted with live oaks and fruit orchards, benefits from the region’s legendary marine effect—hot sunny days slide into cool nights, thanks to the nearness of the Pacific Ocean. This one-two meteorological punch creates deliciously balanced wines, most notably Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vintages. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive; some of the region’s wineries that aren’t on the designated wine trail aren’t always open to visitors, so if you do see a sawhorse on a sign that says “Open,” pull into the drive. You might be there on one of the few days when the tasting room is pouring. Leave time to visit the elegant La Purísima Mission State Historic Park, protecting the 11th and arguably best preserved of California’s 21 original Spanish missions.
For many visitors, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is still a surprise. After all, a lot of people just don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed scribed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula Valley has been producing top wines since the 1970s. And like the best vintages, this wine country just gets better with age.
It’s a diverse growing region, home to everything from cooler climate grapes like Chardonnay to such warm-weather loving varieties as Syrah and Grenache. The tasting experience is varied, too. Visit posh wineries with lavish restaurants overlooking the vines, and summer concerts featuring top performers. Stroll the streets of Old Town Temecula, with quality boutiques, eateries, and a relaxed Old West feel. Take a hot-air balloon ride or tasting tour in a chauffeured limousine, or play a round of golf. Or just hang out in a tasting room with the winery owner or winemaker (they’re often on site), who can share their expertise and give you insights into this unique and surprising region.
Madera is both an up-and-comer and a historic wine region. The first vines were planted well over 100 years ago, but few survived Prohibition in the 1920s. More recently, small, family-run wineries have cropped up, offering a low-key diversion near Fresno. The region, with plenty of sun and heat in summer, is known for dessert wines, so be sure to sip some if they’re on the tasting menu. Note that wineries here might have limited hours, and some require advance appointments, so check the wine trail’s website before you venture out and plan accordingly. Look for Wine Showcase Days, when participating wineries feature free tastings of specific varietals if you have a wine trail passport (available for sale online).
Drive through the rugged range known as the Santa Lucia Highlands to sneak up on a growing number of small wineries. From their hilly perches, the 11 wineries lining River Road, traveling roughly from Salinas south to the little town of Greenfield, offer commanding views of the rumpled range and the broad valley below, some of the richest farmland in the state. Visit in spring for a two-thumbs-up scenic drive, with vistas as green as Ireland in every direction.
Tip: Most of the tasting rooms are open only on weekends or by appointment, so some advanced planning can avoid locked gates and disappointment.
Feel like taking the wine trail less trammeled? You’ve found your secret spot here in Northern Santa Barbara County. Santa Maria Valley isn’t just beautiful wine country; it’s a classic slice of California, with fine wine, world-famous barbecue, country roads, and little towns where winemakers and cowboys share the same sidewalk.
"It’s a classic slice of California, with fine wine, world-famous barbecue, country roads, and little towns where winemakers and cowboys share the same sidewalk."
Follow this wine trail to sample artisanal boutique wines at more than 20 tasting rooms set amid rolling hills and picturesque vineyards, and clustered in the town of Santa Maria. Sip award-winning Pinot Noir, as well as Chardonnay and Syrah—some of the varietals that thrive in the region’s unusual climate, with hot days and marine-cooled nights. In the town of Santa Maria, choose from 15 more wineries. Experience the full charm of the region by ordering a heaping plate of Santa Maria Barbecue at restaurants in town; the traditional presentation includes of red oak-fired tri-tip, pinquito beans, garlic bread, salsa fresca, and tossed green salad. In the town of Santa Maria, choose from even more tasting rooms.
One of the best ways to taste your way through Santa Maria is on the step-on, step-off Wine Trolley. The trolley stops through town and at popular wineries along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail such as Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery (sign up for a cave and tasting tour!) and the hilltop Presqu’ile Winery. Insider tip:
Sign up ahead of time for $10, otherwise it’s $15 at the trolley.
Whether you’re planning a trip to Tahoe and want to stop by on your way, or you’re set on exploring this booming wine region on its own, this intriguing wine region won’t disappoint. The 20 participating wineries roughly paralleling Interstate 80, take advantage of the region’s typically warm and dry summers to produce bold Italian, Spanish, and Rhône varietals like Tempranillo, Barbera, Syrah, Viognier, and Petit Sirah. These winemakers tend to be an adventurous lot—and you’ll probably see some—and hopefully taste—some unusual vintages and blends as you travel through the region. Check the trail’s website for events, tasting room hours, and vineyards with picnic grounds and other amenities.