There’s nothing quite like driving the back roads of California’s wine regions and sampling local wines at the source. But a growing number of wineries and winemakers are opting for setting up shop in surprisingly urban settings. Tasting rooms are now concentrated in cities, towns, and communities, creating often pedestrian and bike friendly wine trails with an appeal all their own.
“Urban wine trails are definitely a growing trend across California,” says Nancy Light of California’s Wine Institute, with sometimes just a pleasant stroll between stops. Though these in-town tasting rooms “don't replace the experience of visiting beautiful wine country destinations,” notes Light, they do offer an intriguing new option, letting you ditch concerns about traffic and designated drivers. Here’s an introduction to California’s urban wine hubs, listed south to north.
In 1833, Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes established El Aliso winery in Los Angeles. By 1870, Los Angeles had become the centre of California wine-making. The region might have retained that title, had it not been for the one-two punch of a vine disease that decimated L.A.’s vineyards in the 1880s, and Prohibition. Even so, an important piece of that history remains at downtown L.A.’s San Antonio Winery. Since 1917, the Riboli family has operated the winery at the same site on Lamar Street. While a modern wine-making resurgence has yet to materialize in L.A., San Antonio deserves a shout-out as one of California’s original urban wineries.
With a wide range of wines, including the popular Stella Rosa Rosso, the tasting room continues to attract a devoted following. “Our tasting room staff is very friendly and approachable, making the novice wine taster feel comfortable,” says fourth-generation vintner Anthony Riboli. “They also have a lot of knowledge, and could recommend something for every palate.”
Choose from more than two dozen wineries, most within walking distance from downtown and the beach, dotting the wine trail in this inviting oceanfront city. Settings range from the 360-degree views of the Conway Family’s Deep Sea Tasting Room on Stearns Wharf, to the six premium tasting rooms making up the Wine Collection of El Paseo, in the historic Presidio neighbourhood. A large concentration of in-town wineries and tasting rooms cluster in an area known as The Funk Zone, a narrow band of warehouses between U.S. 101 and the beach that has become an enclave of tasting rooms, artists’ studios, surfboard makers, and bohemian-cool restaurants.
While sampling different wines on your way to the beach is great anytime, participating wineries also sprinkle the calendar with special events and tastings, like live music in the Carr Winery Barrel Room on Salsipuedes Street, or afternoon Wine Time events at Jamie Slone, with tastings and discounts on featured wines.
Tasting rooms aren’t new to the city of Sonoma—a handful of in-town options have long been open around the historic town plaza. What is new to this pretty Sonoma Valley city is the explosion of options, with two dozen tasting rooms now tempting you to sample award-winning vintages without leaving town. Add Sonoma’s excellent restaurants and shops, and you can easily enjoy a car-free day or two just strolling from one inviting destination to another.
Start at WALT Wines, the sister winery of HALL Wines in Napa Valley. The homey, art-filled tasting room offers a diverse array of high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards spanning 1,000 miles of Pacific Coast. Just across the street is Hawkes, with its laser-like focus on delicious, well-balanced Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Having only a few wines to taste will leave you plenty of time to relax, sip and people-watch from the patio. Now duck into Pangloss Cellars, a new tasting room that oozes rustic elegance, with exposed stone walls and comfy decor that look straight out of a ‘perfectly styled furniture ad’. Sample rich reds, including the built-to-last Moon Mountain Cabernet, which is even better when paired with upscale nibbles.
This quaint European-style village along the Central Coast has long been known for its art galleries and white sand beach, but it’s also got a nice collection of tasting rooms, all within easy walking distance and serving the region’s excellent labels. Before you stroll, stop by the Carmel Visitor Center and pick up a Wine Walk Passport, which grants you tastings at nine different wineries at a good savings.
Start the day with bubbles at Caraccioli Cellars on Dolores Street. Relax at the Spanish style bar in the chic and contemporary tasting room and sample a well-made sparkling wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation (don’t miss the Brut Rosé). Next, stroll over to Figge Cellars, housed in the Winfield gallery. Winemaker Peter Figge does the pouring here, and will share his insights on his vineyard designated, cool climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Finish your tour at De Tierra Vineyards on Mission Street. The tasting room is comfortable and friendly, with a wall sized chalkboard behind the bar announcing the day’s pours. The Russell Estate Chardonnay and Mesa Del Sol Syrah are especially good.
Winemakers in San Francisco may not be growing their grapes in the city, but they can boast a long wine making tradition. Before the great fire of 1906, there were several wineries based in the SoMa (South of Market) area, which used to go by the less lyrical nickname South of the Slot. That tradition has been revived in the past 20 years, fuelled largely by grapes from Napa and Sonoma. JAX Vineyards, for instance, started in the 1990s with David Jackson’s Calistoga vineyard grapes, but his tech sector son, Trent, was the one who started to make wines from them in his San Francisco garage. Come to their Brannan St. tasting room for happy hour Tuesday through Friday, and try their red-blend Taureau (named for a prized family bull), paired with charcuterie and cheese.
Nearby, Bluxome Street Winery uses grapes from the Russian River Valley, but you can taste the resulting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and more at its airy warehouse location; pair your wines with nibbles and watch the actual wine making process on the other side of giant glass windows. Bluxome’s second location is in Ghirardelli Square, in the exposed brick and warm woods space of the former Pioneer Woolen Mill, which once made uniforms for Union soldiers during the Civil War. While you’re in Ghirardelli Square, stop by Wattle Creek Winery, which serves wines made from its Alexander Valley grapes.
Winery Collective, meanwhile, reminds you that San Francisco is an excellent hub for tasting a range of California wines. Its Fisherman’s Wharf tasting room features some three dozen wineries from around the state—like Copain Wines and Donum Estate—offered up in rotating flights.
Interested in making your own wine? Go to Dogpatch WineWorks, which sources grapes from a variety of regions’ vineyards, but makes wine in this industrial neighbourhood cellar. You can even get hands-on: Book a time and you can make your own handcrafted wine to take home.
Oakland stands out as one of Northern California’s hottest, hippest places to be, with cool eateries, bars, and now urban wineries too, many housed in renovated warehouses. Taste your way through Jack London Square, a lively complex of shops, restaurants, and lodgings with its across-the-bay views of the San Francisco skyline. Start at Jeff Cohn Cellars. Cohn, former winemaker for Zinfandel specialist Rosenblum Cellars, now leans toward Rhône-style reds and experimental blends, and this bright and airy tasting room is a great place to explore the full lineup. A quick stroll along the Embarcadero will take you to Rosenblum, near the ferry terminal. The winery’s industrial chic tasting room is right on the water, perfect for Zin tasting with a relaxing view. Now, stretch your legs on a flat 10 minute walk to the tasting room of Urban Legend Wine Cellars. Sample from an eclectic mix of wines, many from organically farmed vineyards, including the strawberry-kissed Grenache and deep, dark Teroldego.
Known during the Gold Rush as a spot for some of California's richest gold finds, this Sierra foothills town has grown into a winery rich destination with an Old West feel. “I think we are pretty close to 24 tasting rooms within walking distance on Main Street, but frankly I have lost count,” said Jeff Stai, owner of the town’s Twisted Oak Winery. You’ll need a car to reach all the spots on the wine trail, but there is a good concentration of tasting rooms lining the town’s pleasantly walkable main thoroughfare.
Begin your tour at Lavender Ridge Vineyards, set in a beautiful old stone building. The winery specialises in Rhône-style wines, but you can also pick up artisan cheeses, olive oils, and other gourmet goodies. Next, hit Newsome-Harlow for some of the region’s best Zinfandel—especially the peppery Shake Ridge Ranch Zin—or its crisp Sauvignon Blanc, which tastes just about perfect on the patio. For wines with an irreverent sense of humour, stop at Twisted Oak and sample the *%#&@! (also known as “Potty Mouth”), a juicy Rhône-style red blend.
Over the past few years, the city of Napa has invested millions in making its downtown core gleam with gourmet markets, outstanding restaurants, a pretty-for-strolling riverfront, and plenty of places to sample the region’s world-class wines. Walk the downtown grid of streets to enjoy outdoor art and dip into a variety of tasting rooms.
Start at Vintner’s Collective, housed in Napa’s oldest stone building, and focus on the best Napa Valley wines you’ve never heard of. Tasting flights change daily and may feature wines from any of more than 25 boutique producers. Next, check out Mark Herold Wines, adjacent to the popular Oxbow Public Market (a great place to graze and pick up gourmet picnic lunches). At Mark Herold, the decor is funky, the servers are engaging and ready to share their wine knowledge, and the wines are eclectic (try the Flux Blanc and Acha Red). Now head to Prime Cellars for a taste of the Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon, a great choice for that special occasion down the road. (Bonus: Trahan Winery shares the space with Prime Cellars, so you can sample wines from both producers with one stop.) The tasting room is intimate, and the winemakers themselves are often the ones pouring—a rarity in Napa Valley.
What was once a small farming community has morphed into one of California’s chicest wine country towns. Brimming with stylish boutiques, “it” restaurants, and more than two dozen tasting rooms, this gem in northern Sonoma County still retains much of its small-town charm.
Sip your way around Healdsburg’s leafy main square. Start at Cartograph Wines, specialising in Pinot Noir, as well as terrific dry Gewürztraminer and Riesling varietals. It’s a quick stroll to Banshee Wines, where you can enjoy its cool climate Pinot Noir in a casual tasting room that features reclaimed-wood walls, distressed leather furniture, and cool music on vinyl. Finish out the day at Davis Family Vineyards, known for its Soul Patch Pinot Noir, along with Chardonnay and Rhône-style wines. While away the afternoon in the garden lounge, where you can nosh on cheese pairings and try your hand at bocce.