Elegant estates at the end of country roads lined with vineyards? Check. Low-key wineries housed in converted barns? Check again. Urban wine trails with hip in-town tasting rooms? Yup, got that too. California’s wine country is as varied as the state itself. Find which ones suit your vacation style.
From quiet vineyards bounded by lush redwood forests along the Mendocino Coast, to the sun-drenched rolling hills of rugged Lake County, the North Coast has about as varied a wine country as you can get. Start near the Pacific, where summer fog and wet winters make for some of the coolest wine-growing climate in California. Organic, sustainable farming techniques are the norm in this tucked-away corner of the state; You can chat about grapes and grape-growing with local winemakers, who are often the ones pouring the wines in relaxed, unpretentious tasting rooms.
"You can chat about grapes and grape-growing with local winemakers, who are often the ones pouring the wines in relaxed, unpretentious tasting rooms."
On the county’s west side, Anderson Valley, cooled by ocean fog, produces sublime Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer, while warmer Redwood Valley showcases hearty reds, especially Zinfandel. Further inland, take in the wide vistas from country roads winding through sunny Lake County, known for impressive Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Clear Lake, the state’s largest freshwater lake wholly within the state, makes for a striking backdrop as you drive through the vineyards.
Get ready for one of California’s prettiest—and least crowded—areas to sip and swirl. Known for ocean-cooled climates ranging from rolling coastal hills to vineyards wrapped with towering coast redwoods, the Mendocino County wine region is not only beautiful, it’s cutting edge too. The area is home to some of the state’s most progressive winemakers, who perfect organic sustainable techniques in their boutique vineyards. In fact, Mendocino County has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the country. See what it’s all about at Frey Vineyards, America’s first maker of certified biodynamic wines—they even say they are vegan and gluten-free.
For a bonanza of award-winning Mendocino County wines, head inland on Highway 128. In the vineyards surrounding tiny Philo, have your pick of varietals: Gewürztraminer at Handley Cellars or Navarro Vineyards, sip Pinot Noir at Husch. Be sure to stop at charming Mosswood Market in Boonville to pick up local cheeses and other artisanal foods for a picnic to go with your bottles.
The roots of old Zinfandel grapevines run deep in this northeastern region of California, with winemaking here dating back to the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. Now, an explosion of wineries, wine tours, tasting rooms, and restaurants specializing in wine country cuisine has added a jolt of grape-fueled energy to the Sierra foothills, where more than 100 wineries now produce a wide range of varietals, most notably Zinfandel, but also an intriguing variety of other varietals.
To sample the new boom, head to tiny Plymouth for surprisingly trendy tasting rooms and sleek restaurants like Taste—a magnet for savvy foodies.
The region’s Shenandoah Valley, which straddles Amador and El Dorado counties, is another great place to experience the influx of new mixed with the old. Follow oak-shaded country roads past weathered barns and fences, then drive around a corner to come face to face with urban-edge chic at Andis Winery. Still, there remains a down-home sensibility in this neck of California, with most Gold Country wineries being family-owned, with the winemaker also being the one who pours you wine in the tasting room.
Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, this American Viticultural Area 100 miles east of San Francisco is also a leader when it comes to going green. Upwards of 25,000 vineyard acres are certified sustainable, and this is the birthplace of Lodi Rules, California’s first third-party certified sustainable winegrowing program. A variety of tasting rooms have sprouted up in recent years, with most of the action located within a 15-minute drive from downtown. A great place to start is the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, offering a rotating selection of varietals from nearly 80 local vintners.
Though the range of wines has grown, the rich, concentrated New World varietals are still the region’s hallmark, and more than 40 percent of the state’s Zinfandels are produced here. Zinfest, an annual three-day tasting party each May, offers a chance to sample some 250 wines from Lodi’s best producers.
Historic ranchlands, a romantic coast, country roads, stay-a-while towns, and grapes—lots and lots of grapes—make the Central Coast an outstanding wine country destination. Top vintners have transformed the Central Coast into one of the state’s premier wine regions, with hundreds of wineries to visit in the rolling hills and sunny valleys. Near Monterey, River Road Wine Trail winds into the Santa Lucia Highlands, overlooking expansive farmlands and reminding you that more than grapes grow in this fertile region. Cowboy-friendly Paso Robles has well over 200 wineries and 26,000 acres of vineyards. Here, rural charm mixes it up with contemporary wine country cuisine, not to mention some of the state’s best Rhône-style vintages. Near the college-friendly town of San Luis Obispo, sip wine and take pictures of the elegant, wind-swept Edna Valley at Tolosa and other wineries.
Continue south toward Santa Barbara to discover Pinot Noir paradise, as coastal fog filters through the east-west oriented Santa Ynez Valley to create one of the state’s most diverse winegrowing regions. Some 42 varietals reflect the rich diversity of growing conditions here. Head south along Highway 246 to visit vineyards and relaxed towns, like Los Olivos, Santa Maria, and the Danish-settlement town of Solvang. Or take a walk through Santa Barbara’s burgeoning Funk Zone, where urban tasting rooms fill former industrial warehouses, intermixed with art galleries and hip eateries.
Tucked between U.S. 101 and East Beach, a narrow band of warehouses has become an enclave of urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, surfboard-makers, and bohemian-cool restaurants like The Lark.
Start your sampling at AVA Santa Barbara Vintners with its dozen or so house wines, each made with grapes from a different corner of Santa Barbara County. Continue to sip your way east toward the beach, finishing with a pale pink rose from Municipal Winemakers, then stroll a block to the sand to dabble your toes in the surf. When you want to take a break from sipping and swirling, check out the Funk Zone’s galleries and studios, as well as its ever-changing murals on Mason Street, part of an ongoing project by AMASS (Artists Making A Street Scene). End in true California style, watching the sunset from the tip of 2,300-foot/701-meter-long Stearns Wharf, a wooden gem dating back to 1872. From here, it’s just you, the swirling gulls, the barking sea lions, and the twinkling lights of town against the soaring coastal mountains.
The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles inland at Happy Canyon, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.
And scenic? How about rolling hills, endless vines, and ancient oaks to the horizon. Between the wines and the views, it’s easy to see why the region became a star in the 2004 surprise hit, Sideways. Take a self-guided tour of the film’s many shoot locations in Buellton, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.
Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery. It has a cool wine cave, sustainably grown grapes, and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Another tip: buy a pass from Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.
If you’re looking for a totally different way to tour the region, sign up for a Cloud Climbers Jeep Tour. Guides take you four-wheeling on mountain roads to various wineries, including picnic lunch.
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 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.
Winding into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you expect the towering redwoods and the misty ocean views. But wineries? It’s surprising but true: the Santa Cruz wine region boasts more than 70 wineries, producing a wide range of varietals from its mineral-y soils. One of the state’s first Avas, the region is best known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Microclimates abound, with warm sunny days, nights brushed with fog, and almost everything in between.
Wine experts note that the rugged region practically forces character into wine. On the often-foggy slopes, the grapes ripen slowly. Marine air cools the vines at night, keeping acids intact (a good thing). Flavors mature in the grapes before sugar levels spike too high, allowing lower alcohol levels in the end. These are lively, interesting, arresting wines. Mountain soils here are often thin and stony, and this is a good thing too: Vines that struggle in poor soil produce fewer, better grapes, with more concentrated flavor.
A must-see example of the region’s remote, low-key wineries is Ridge Vineyards, perched on a steep slope on the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge first hit the wine scene with a flourish at the famous 1976 Paris blind tasting (the subject of the 2008 film Bottle Shock); a Ridge Cabernet was ranked by the world's top tasters above some classic Bordeaux. Ridge wines are still considered top shelf. Bring a picnic, buy a bottle, and relax with a stellar view east across the Silicon Valley.
In-town tasting options are another way to sample local wines. Stop by Storrs Winery, located in a former mill, to sample Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir. At Pelican Ranch, enjoys tastes of Burgundy- and Rhone-style varietals.
If you love wine, you’ve come to the right place. The San Luis Obispo region ranks as one of the state’s premiere wine growing regions, dating back to the 18th century and the time of the Spanish padres. But even if you don’t know a Cab from a Chardonnay, the wine country still beckons, with relaxed, cowboy-meets-winemaker towns, and vineyards blanketing coastal hills.
"If you love wine, you’ve come to the right place."
South of town, Edna Valley is home to many top wineries, such as Tolosa, Chamisal, and Balleyana. The average distance of Edna Valley vineyards to the ocean is just five miles, bringing mild days and cool evenings that help Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reach their maximum potential. A complex soil profile adds character and complexity too.
To extend your wine-country travels, continue about 30 miles northeast to the Paso Robles region. Here, more than 200 wineries ranging from family-owned boutiques to well-known labels such as J. Lohr and Estrella River welcome visitors to sip and swirl award-winning vintages. Paso Robles’ warmer inland climate lends itself to Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel grapes, which vintners use in innovative blends, as well as traditional vintages. To achieve your own blend of variety, delight, and safety, consider joining a guided tour (group and private options abound, including Breakaway Tours, Alexis Limousines, and SLO Safe Ride).
The west side of the Silicon Valley, where the land rises to meet the rumpled, wooded folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains, has become an inviting wine-country destination. The charming village of Saratoga is the region’s hub, with in-town tasting rooms including Cinnabar, where you can savor small plates and award-winning Mourvedre on a shaded patio. For a real treat, check the calendar and catch an evening of entertainment at the historic Mountain Winery. The legendary Paul Masson, who emigrated to San Francisco from Burgundy, France in the late 1800s, acquired a Saratoga vineyard where he developed fine California sparkling wines. Today, his winery is the site of summertime concerts in an intimate venue under the stars—a worthy splurge.
Saratoga has a spa tradition too, thanks to natural mineral springs and lavish retreats built around them in the late 1800s. Today’s modern Shangri-Las include Nilou and Preston Wynne.