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California's Classic Wine Roads

Follow celebrated routes to iconic vineyards and tucked-away surprises

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With more than 4,000 wineries statewide, California lets you sample award-winning wines almost anywhere you go. These 10 classic and up-and-coming wine roads—listed north to south, 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.

Placer County

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, the Placer Wine Trail 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; you’ll probably see—and hopefully taste—some unusual vintages and blends as you explore. Check the trail’s website for events, tasting room hours, and vineyards with picnic grounds and other amenities. (more)

Sonoma County

About two hours north of San Francisco, this celebrated wine region’s roads can take you through Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Russian River Valley. Along the way, you’ll find yourself in the relaxed town of Guerneville (a favored destination for LGBTQ travelers), and luxurious Healdsburg, with its in-town tasting rooms and destination dining at Michelin-starred Farmhouse Inn, and luxurious lodging at sleekly appointed Hotel Healdsburg. While many wineries do charge a tasting fee, you can get a single- or multi-day pass, good at more than 80 participating wineries. The Wine Road (an association of wineries and lodgings in Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys) also sponsors numerous special events throughout the year; fall’s annual Wine & Food Affair has wineries presenting wines paired with small plates—delicious. (more)

Napa Valley

This two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks and world-class vineyards, is quintessential Napa Valley, the bucolic, parallel counterpart to busier State Highway 29. Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph PhelpsZD Wines, and Signorello Winery—plus the famous Stags Leap District collection of wineries, making up Napa Valley’s famous mecca of Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. There’s sparkling wine here too, notably at Mumm Napa. Other turns take you to lavish wine-country resorts, such as Relais & Châteaux’s Auberge du Soleil or the gracious Solage Calistoga. To see one of the most stunning retreats in the entire region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an al fresco lunch at its garden-sourced The Grill. (Editor’s note: The 2020 Glass Fire destroyed much of Meadowood, including The Grill. The resort is currently slated to reopen after March 31, 2021. (more)

Livermore Valley

The Livermore Valley, a roughly one-hour drive east of San Francisco, is home to more than 50 wineries. Start your visit to this often overlooked wine country, also known as the Tri-Valley, with a drive along winding Tesla Road (it was named before the car company, by the way). Wineries such as La Rochelle, Steven Kent Winery, and Concannon Vineyard offering Cabernets, crisp Pinot Grigios and other Italian varietals will not disappoint. Discover more of the area on a self-guided bike tour—the 27-mile Livermore Valley Wine Country tour takes you to some of the area's best vineyards and eateries, including Campo Di Bocce of Livermore, where you can follow your Italian meal with a round of bocce. (more)

Madera Wine Trail

The first vines along the just-south-of-Yosemite Madera Wine Trail were planted well over 100 years ago, but few survived Prohibition in the 1920s. More recently, family-run wineries such as Birdstone, San Joaquin, and Toca Madera 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. (more)

Monterey County: River Road Wine Trail

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. Inside tip: Most of the tasting rooms are open only on weekends or by appointment, so some advanced planning can avoid locked gates and disappointment. (more)

Rows of vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley

Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail

Northern Santa Barbara County’s 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. Follow the valley’s namesake wine trail to visit more than 20 tasting rooms at picturesque vineyards and in the town of Santa Maria. One of the best ways to do so is on the step-on, step-off Wine Trolley, which 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 a cheaper rate than in-person. (more)

Santa Barbara County

The eight wineries on the low-key Santa Rita Hills Wine Trail all benefit 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. Lafond Winery, which dates back to 1971, was one of the first; Babcock Winery & Vineyards features a 5,000-square-foot mid-century modern tasting room and the rock-and-roll themed Soulstruck Lounge. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive; you may catch some of the region’s smaller wineries that aren’t always open to visitors on one of the few days when the tasting room is pouring. (more)

Ventura County Wine Trail

In settings ranging from urban neighborhoods to the bucolic Ojai Valley, the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms along the Ventura County Wine Trail represent the breadth of the California experience. Sample exquisite reds in a 1902 Victorian building at Rancho Ventavo Cellars on downtown Oxnard; in the city of Camarillo, visit the tasting room of Cantara Cellars, which offers barrel tastings. Or get a taste of Ojai Valley’s terroir at Boccali Vineyards & Winery, where you can sample estate-grown Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel in a tasting room housed in the vineyard’s family-run Italian restaurant. For an in-depth look at the Ventura County wine scene, take a tour led by wine experts at Explore Wines, or head out on a custom trip with Ventura County Limousine. (more)

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