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 winemaking during dozens of events—including regional festivals, special dinners, vineyard tours, and intimate tastings with the winemakers.
It takes a big event, after all, to capture the sheer scale and diversity of the California wine scene. 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.
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 help stomp grapes, and taste local wines on Sept. 8 at Ramona Winery, or go to CRUSH (Sept. 29), a culinary showcase with more than 30 Temecula Valley wineries and live music.
Head to Santa Barbara and the lush, Mediterranean-style Riviera Park for Taste of the Town (Sept. 9), 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. Take the short drive to Paso Robles, where at Eberle Winery, you can enjoy complimentary tastings of five wines all month—and your choice may be a challenge as the winery has 10 gold medal winners.
Just over an hour north of San Francisco, meanwhile, Sonoma County is—no surprise—one major center for Wine Month, with activities at individual wineries and two region-wide annual happenings: Taste of Sonoma (Sept. 1) and the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens’ second annual Harvest Celebration on Sept. 30.
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. Here you’ll find small, family-owned wineries, including Papagni Winery, which will host a party on Sept. 21 featuring local vintners, chefs, and live music. Yosemite-bound travellers can also get hands-on (or really, feet-on) in Amador County at the Annual Grape Stomp (Sept. 22) at Scott Harvey Wines in Plymouth. Or, go to Gold Country the weekend of September 13-16, when the Lodi Grape Festival—celebrating its 80th anniversary this year—offers the chance to taste the deep inventory of good wines from Lodi Wine Country.
Not only are the participating regions diverse, so too are the venues where Wine Month celebrations take place. During Winesong(Sept. 7–8) 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 (Aug. 31–Sept. 2), a weekend-long event on the historic Paramount Studios backlot, which includes cooking demonstrations and talks from acclaimed Los Angeles chefs.
Although the release parties, harvest festivals, and formal events—like the Harvest Ball at Napa Valley’s V. Sattui Winery—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, take special tractor and wagon tours of the vineyard (Sept. 15 and 22), or dress up for the 1920s-style Prohibition Party on Sept. 29, as the winery celebrates 135 years of production—proudly uninterrupted by the laws of the 1920s.
While you could argue that every month is wine month in California, September is especially magical, says Gladys Horiuchi, a spokesperson for the Wine Institute. “It’s the harvest,” she says. “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.”