California's Classic Wine Roads
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 small enough to experience in an afternoon—will get you started. Their sites all have downloadable maps, as well as accommodation 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.
Mendocino & Sonoma County: The Wine Road
About 2 hours north of San Francisco, this winding drive can take you through Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, as well as the relaxed town of Guerneville (a favoured destination for LGBT visitors) and luxurious Healdsburg, with in-town tasting rooms and destination dining at Michelin-starred Farmhouse Inn, and luxurious accommodation 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 also sponsors numerous special events throughout the year; autumn's annual Wine & Food Affair has wineries presenting wines paired with small plates—delicious.
Tesla Road - Livermore Wine Country
This often-overlooked wine country - 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 in spring—an especially lovely time of year when the surrounding hills turn emerald green and new leaves sprout from the twisting grapevines.
The Livermore Valley, in the San Francisco East Bay region known as the Tri-Valley, is home to more than 50 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.
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. The trip also includes a stop at Fire Station 6, where the world's longest burning light bulb (aka the Centennial Bulb) still shines.
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 lined 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 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, snuggled up against the valley’s eastern hills.
'Here’s the best of the best, a country road lined 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 infamous 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 particularly indulgent, 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.
Santa Barbara: Santa Rita Hills Wine Trail
The eight wineries on this low-key wine trail, looping through rolling hills dotted with live oaks and fruit orchards, benefit from the region’s legendary marine effect—hot sunny days slide into cool nights, thanks to the proximity 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 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.
Temecula Valley Wine Country
For many visitors, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is a surprise. After all, a lot of people don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula area has been producing top wines since the late 1960s. 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 such as Chardonnay to warm-weather varieties such as Syrah and Grenache. How can wine grow so close to the desert? It begins with the rich, granite-based soil that plays host to the vines. Then it continues with a unique micro-climate in which the grapes thrive: crisp mornings coated in mist, a warm daytime sun, and cool ocean breezes that welcome the clear night sky.
More than 30 wineries take advantage of these conditions and the result has been lots of award-winners which, of course, you can sample. One of the oldest wineries in the region, Callaway Vineyard & Winery (first launched by the golf-gear family) dates back to 1969 and it offers both a big tasting room and cellar tours where you can taste from the barrels. Visit Europa Village and sit on the patio to savour the Cinsaut, made from a grape usually found in the South of France; the winery is also home to a 10-room B&B with rooms themed by grape, such as Syrah and Pinot Grigio. Head to the Leoness Cellars located along a rural stretch known as the Deportola Wine Trail and take one of the vineyard tours before enjoying some Mélange de Blanc or Grenache by the patio’s outdoor fireplace.
Plenty of the wineries are sights in themselves. At Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards sample the signature almond sparkling wine and take a stroll around the grounds to see the thousands of roses and other flowers, or book the on-site manor which sleeps 24 - perfect for a wedding or reunion. For a tasting plus dinner with theatre, Longshadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery has a Wild West show in its ranch-style winery on Friday nights.
Meanwhile, Briar Rose Winery houses its tasting room in a replica of the seven dwarfs’ cottage from Snow White. The wines here are unique too, like the Talking Frog bubbly, a blend of Viognier and lager.
Madera Wine Trail
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).
Monterey's 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, travelling 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 California. Visit in spring for a thumbs-up scenic drive, with views 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.
Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail
Feel like taking the wine trail less travelled? You’ve found your secret spot here in Northern Santa Barbara County. This 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 pavement.
"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 pavement."
Follow this wine trail to sample artisan boutique wines at more than 15 tasting rooms set amid rolling hills, 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 heaving plate of Santa Maria Barbecue at restaurants in town; the traditional presentation includes red oak-fired tri-tip, pinquito beans, garlic bread, salsa fresca and tossed green salad. You will not leave hungry.
Placer County Wine Trail
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.