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The Golden State famously offers some of the country’s best wine destinations – in fact, there are so many it can be difficult to decide where to go. To help make that decision a bit easier, here are California’s most spectacular wine regions.
Sonoma Valley stretches from the Pacific in the west to the Mayacamas Mountains in the east and is home to nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards and over 400 wineries. Set atop ridges and buried in leafy canyons are wineries that turn out amazing Zinfandels and Cabernets. Drive picturesque winding roads that lead to fantastic olive oils, apples and cheeses, while gathering up some of the local bounties as you cruise, searching for your own ideal spot to lay out your picnic blanket, like a peaceful hillside with views of Jack London’s Beauty Ranch. Everywhere you look, there are greens and golds, charming country inns and tranquil parks, along with gorgeous vineyards in between. Some of the highlights in Sonoma include Banshee, a popular tasting room in downtown Healdsburg, with its single-vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays, along with snacks like local smoked and brined trout.
If you want to check out biodynamic winemaking and farming, head to Benziger for a crash course with a tour through its organically farmed vineyards and gardens.
Mendocino Wine Country is arguably California’s most beautiful wine destination. It also happens to be one of the least crowded. It’s a place where you’ll find everything from soaring coastal redwoods to lush, rolling hills and breathtaking beaches, as well as some of the state’s most progressive winemakers, many of whom perfect organic sustainable techniques in boutique vineyards. Mendocino County has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the entire nation. You can check out some of the best at Frey Vineyards, the first maker of certified biodynamic wines in the U.S., and enjoy tasting your way through Anderson Valley, including places like the Standish Wine Company, where the tasting room is an old apple dryer set high up in the trees like a fort. At the vineyards surrounding the tiny town of Philo, you can enjoy sipping Gewürztraminer at Handley Cellars or Navarro Vineyards as well as Pinot Noir at Husch.
In the stunning seaside Victorian village of Mendocino, sip your wine with inspirational water views and 1850’s New England-style Victorian homes.
Paso Robles, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is home to more than 200 wineries and 10,521 hectares of vineyards. This region with a relaxed, small-town vibe, officially put the central coast on the map with its own award-winning wine. Here, you’ll find cowboy charms blended with contemporary wine country cuisine, along with some of the best Rhône-style vintages. At Vinas Robles Amphitheatre, pop into the hospitality room and taste the many award-winning estate wines, including Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, and then enjoy live music. Eberle Winery opened with the first wine caves in Paso Robles some three decades ago, and today, it offers complimentary tastings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Muscat Canelli. Visitors can also take tours of the facilities, including the caves.
Visiting the top-rated wineries in Napa is a bucket list experience in California. Napa Valley is the most densely concentrated winery region in the world, with 240 wineries in its 30-mile stretch between the towns of Napa and Calistoga. It’s as close as you’ll get to Italy’s picturesque Tuscany region without actually heading overseas, with endless rolling hills and vineyards. If you’re looking for an especially authentic experience, be sure to stop by Castello di Amorosa Winery, an authentically-styled, 13th-century Tuscan castle constructed using historically accurate medieval building techniques. It functions as a winery and comes complete with a drawbridge, moat and a dungeon with a functional Renaissance-era iron maiden. Its frescoes in the Great Hall and Knights’ Chamber are hand-painted, with roughly 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone hand-chiseled. The Hapsburg-era bricks, hand-forged nails, chandeliers and 500-year-old fireplace were all imported from Europe. The castle is open for tours, which include tastings, daily.
Traveling the two-lane main road, Highway 29, you’ll find numerous other tasting rooms, restaurants and shops. Veer off on the Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to 29 along the eastern side of the valley, to enjoy a more relaxed pace.
Gold Country is a northeastern California wine region that has a history of winemaking dating back to the Gold Rush days. Though it has only become popular in more recent years, thanks to an explosion of vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms and wine tours. The Sierra foothills host over 100 wineries producing a wide range of varietals, most notably Zinfandel, as well as an intriguing variety of other varietals. The little town of Murphys surprises many visitors with its rich wine culture – it’s even been called “stepping back into the Napa Valley of 30 years ago,” with award-winning small production estate wines and the chance to enjoy tasting with the actual winemakers. In Amador County, you’ll find over 40 wineries and tasting rooms showcasing award-winning Zinfandels, Barberas, and Rhones. In tiny Plymouth, discover trendy tasting rooms and fabulous restaurants like Taste, which has become a magnet for foodies.
Santa Ynez Valley
Just north of Santa Barbara, you’ll find the Santa Ynez Valley, known as one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the nation. Located near the ocean, the fog rolls in just before dusk, ideal for producing the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, and more inland in Happy Canyon, the sunny and hot climate is just right for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot. Between sampling the many fine wines and taking in the scenic views of lush rolling hills, ancient oaks and endless vines, you’ll quickly realize why this was the area that was chosen to shoot the hit film “Sideways.” You can take a tour of it’s filming locations in Los Olivos, Solvang, Buellton and Los Alamos too.
San Luis Obispo
The San Luis Obispo region is one of California’s premier wine-growing regions. It dates back to the 18th century and offers a relaxed vibe with beautiful vineyards that blanket the central coast hills. From breathtaking oceanfront settings to wide open back roads, most of the SLO Coast Wine Country can be covered within a 15 to 20-minute drive in any direction. Just minutes from San Luis Obispo, Edna Valley is home to many of the region’s very best wineries, including Tolosa and Chamisal, and Balleyana, where you can bring a picnic, or buy some cheese and salami and even practice your Bocce Ball skills. The area’s close proximity to the Pacific brings mild days and cool evenings that help Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reach their maximum potential.
Santa Cruz Wine Country
As you drive the winding roads into the Santa Cruz Mountains, it’s not surprising to discover soaring redwoods and misty ocean views, but few expect to find so many fantastic wineries. There are more than 70 wineries and tasting rooms in this region, which unknown to most is one of the oldest wine regions in the country, renowned for award-winning Pinot Noirs and other outstanding wines. With so many to choose from, where do you start? One fabulous and easily accessible option is Surf City Vintners, located right in the city of Santa Cruz, most famous for its surfing beaches. This is a collection of 11 local boutique wineries, most of which are housed in a cluster of charming renovated warehouses on the west side of town, offering a convenient tasting experience. Or, you can take the Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Trail, following Highway 35 to Bear Creek Road, visiting wonderful wineries among the redwoods, including Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, Ahlgren Winery, Byington Winery & Vineyard, David Bruce Winery, and Burrell School Vineyards, located in a historic 1890 schoolhouse.