California’s near-perfect temperatures and unstoppable sunshine aren’t just great for residents and visitors—they’re wonderful for wine, too. With grapes grown in nearly 85 percent of California counties, you can find destinations devoted to wine production throughout the state. To get an inside look at what makes the Golden State’s wine-centric towns tick, writer Noël Burgess visited three unique regions for Travel + Leisure’s online series “Walk with T+L.”
“For me, one of the biggest benefits of California is you can travel two miles or 200 miles and the terroir will change the way wine tastes, how you experience it, and your overall approach,” explains the Sonoma County–based Burgess. “But what really puts the state over the top is the people—from families who have been doing this for 20 generations to diverse individuals.”
Explore Napa Valley
In “Walk with T+L,” Burgess experiences California wine towns through the locals who make each area unique. In the first episode, he visits what’s often regarded as the state’s most acclaimed region: Napa Valley. The Petaluma local was quite familiar with the region but still enjoys a few surprises. “There’s a lot more to Napa besides eating and drinking than people might think.”
In Downtown Napa, Burgess explores the Rail Arts District, a two-mile stretch of city emblazoned with public art. At nearby California Brandy House, he meets with brand manager John Chambers who takes him on a history-filled tasting tour of distilled grape juice before etching his name into a keepsake bottle. “I didn't realize that brandy actually came to California before wine,” Burgess says. Of course, you can’t leave town without drinking some Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Burgess caps off his trip with a Sabrage experience at Domaine Carneros, a sampling of sustainably grown Cabernets at HALL Wines, and a visit to Baldacci Family Estate Vineyards’ wine cave.
Relax in Santa Barbara
Can’t decide between ocean views or wine tasting? Get both in Santa Barbara, which Burgess calls “one of the most unique wine-growing regions in the world.” In this episode, the host visits the so-called Funk Zone, which earned its name as a former fish market with a distinctive aroma. The now-vibrant neighborhood is filled with galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms, including The Valley Project, which showcases the area’s diverse AVAs.
Burgess proves you don’t have to leave Santa Barbara proper to experience a wide variety of wine experiences as he follows the Urban Wine Trail to from the Funk Zone to Lower State Street. At Grassini Family Vineyards, the host chats with events manager Autumn van Driver who explains that the winery’s roots have a surprising equestrian twist. Burgess loves the intimacy of small tasting rooms: “You often have the opportunity to speak with a winemaker directly.” For a different type of tasting, he visits Twenty-Four Blackbirds where Mike Orlando has turned a personal interest in roasting cocoa beans into a handcrafted chocolate shop.
Adventure Through Temecula
“Seeing the history of Temecula was amazing,” says Burgess, who makes the Inland Empire city the final stop on the “Walk with T+L” tour. With easy access to both Los Angeles and San Diego, Temecula has a distinctly Wild West vibe, which pairs well with the region's sophisticated wines.
At Akash Winery, Burgess samples award-winning bottles crafted by winemaker Akash Patel on his family’s stunning estate before upping the adrenaline with Sidecar Tours. The operator provides a heart-pounding way to explore wine country on one of their off-roading sidecar-equipped motorcycles. At Bottaia Wines, Burgess discovers the charms of a poolside tasting in the stately outdoor swimming pool (guest are also welcome to sip waist deep) before mixing a custom bottle in the Blending Lab. In Old Town Temecula, he samples the nectar of a more savory fruit at Temecula Olive Oil Company. “The texture and experience of drinking olive oil straight is just fascinating,” Burgess says.
Expand Your Horizons
If you’re inspired to visit a California wine town—check here for a few more options. Burgess also recommends getting to know the people behind the craft and making the effort to support winemakers and purveyors with diverse backgrounds. A few suggestions: Black-owned J. Moss Winery in Napa, Black female–owned Theopolis Vineyards in Mendocino, and Mexican American–owned Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma. “If wine is about sharing experiences, if it’s about sharing a glass with friends, then we should truly be inclusive,” he says.