Travel Guide: California's wine regions

By Eric Wright

Over 200 years ago, Franciscan missionaries, led by Spanish priest Saint Junípero Serra, started the first Roman Catholic mission to California—Mission San Diego de Alcalá—and the future of The Golden State was altered forever. Along with planting palm trees to provide palm fronds for Palm Sunday, wine was needed for communion, leading to the first sustained vineyard. Serra went on to found a further eight California missions earning himself the nickname "Father of California Wine."

Although wine production continued to steadily grow in the region, marketing became a problem for Southern California winemakers during the mid-1900s until a blind tasting competition was held in Paris in 1976. The panel of French wine experts selected three of the Californian Chardonnays in the top four, shocking the wine community and effectively opening up the U.S wine market to the world.

Nowadays, California is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, with thousands of vineyards shipping up to 250 million cases throughout the globe annually. The winding country roads and elegant wineries attract visitors from all over the world—providing a getaway full of good food, quaint towns, and of course, fine wines!

Before you go and good to know

Getting there and around

Whether you're heading up north to check out the vineyards in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Mendocino Anderson Valley or making your way south in search of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), and Sacramento (SMF) airports all offer a great central starting point to explore California's wine regions.

Most visitors to the area rent a car at the airport upon arrival, and with the charming country lanes and great year-round weather, cruising around with the windows down and a favorite tune on the stereo is sure to be a highlight in this idyllic region.

Culture

Events

Apart from world-renowned wines, California's wine country is full of rich history, imaginative artistry, and unforgettable aerial exploits. Napa Valley's centuries-old settlements offer a fascinating afternoon while the plazas in town showcase curious Napa ARTwalk exhibitions. During June, the Country Summer Music Festival boasts some of the countries best musicians, while the Beerfest fundraiser in Santa Rosa provides a mouthwatering respite for the lager lovers in the group.

For a truly magical experience, rising up through the clouds over the stunningly beautiful meadows and valleys in a hot air balloon will make for the perfect end to the vacation.

Food and drink

With literally thousands of options for wine tasting in the region, it's important to keep those stomachs full and content while roadtripping through the scenic meadows. The customary cheese board may leave you feeling a bit peckish, so a visit to a high-end Michelin star restaurant or a traditional farm-to-table experience may be on the cards.

Some highlights in the area include Kenzo Napa, a sushi restaurant in Napa that is led by three-Michelin-starred chef Hiroyuki Kanda; Guiso Latin Fusion in Healdsburg with its Caribbean and Salvadorian mix; St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa with its multi-course small dishes and wine pairings; and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Fulton that offers locally-sourced farm-to-table meals.

Places to visit

1. Anderson Valley in Mendocino

With over 90 wineries, an incredible variety of grapes, and sustainable eco-friendly and organic practices, the progressive winemakers and tasting rooms of Mendocino County offer a less crowded and more wallet-friendly alternative to the more well-known Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Just a two-hour drive north of San Fransisco on Highway 101 through Sonoma County and forested hillsides will lead you to Anderson Valley, famous for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Alsace varieties of Pinot Gris and Riesling.

One of the premier spots to savor refined Pinot Noirs is Goldeneye Winery in Philo, which offers seated wine tastings from just $15, as well as more personalized experiences, such as elevated tasting sessions, bubbles and caviar, and a guided wine tour of the estate.

The friendly, small-town atmosphere in the area means that visitors can often expect to find themselves chatting with the founder of the winery while enjoying a wine tasting for as little as $5! One such family-owned winery is Foursight Wines in Booneville, which the Charles family has owned since 1943. Other stops include Balo Vineyards with its relaxed atmosphere; Drew Family Cellars tasting rooms; and the father-and-son-run Baxter Winery that boasts a reputable Pinot Noir.

2. Napa Valley

Generally regarded as one of the premier winemaking regions in the world, Napa Valley's fertile soil and pleasant year-round weather allow for top-quality wine grapes to thrive here. Commercial wine production in the area dates all the way back to the 1800s, although it wasn't until the results of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 that the area's fine wines received global recognition.

Today, some 5 million people visit the over 400 wineries every year, allowing vacationers to sip some award-winning wines while soaking in the stunning vineyard views and vibrant sunshine. Whether its fruity Merlots, full-bodied Cabernets, or superior Chardonnays you're looking for, the tasting rooms at Darioush Winery, Chateau Montelena, V.Sattui Winery, Luna Vineyards, and Andretti Winery offer an eclectic mix of celebrity-run wineries, modern estates, and grand châteaus—all while serving some of the best wines found anywhere in the world.

With the valley floor spanning just five miles across and 30 miles at its longest point, Napa Valley is actually one of the smallest winemaking regions, in addition to being one of the most famous, making it the ideal day trip. When touring the gorgeous estates and vineyards, be sure to try a glass of the renowned king of Napa, the prized Cabernet Sauvignon!

3. Sonoma Valley

Less than an hour's drive from Napa, Sonoma Valley is home to over 80 wineries and picture-perfect vineyards that sprawl over 10,000 acres of land. Heralded as the birthplace of California's commercial wine industry in the 1850s, visitors to this fabulous spot can experience a wine-tasting afternoon at Gundlach Bundschu, the state's oldest continuously family-run winery that was founded back in 1858.

The Carneros wine region in the south abounds with top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while Syrah and regional white varietals, such as Roussanne and Marsanne, are also becoming popular in the quaint tasting rooms. Traveling on past the Boyes Hot Springs puts you in the mountainous terrain of Glen Ellen, where old-vine Zinfandel has been grown since the 1850s.

A visit to Sonoma wouldn't be complete without a trip to Buena Vista Winery, the oldest commercial winery in California founded in 1857. Other top stops in the area include Ravenswood Winery with its superb Zinfandel; Benziger Winery with its stunning setting in an impressive volcanic bowl; and the picturesque, 16,000-square-foot Ledson Winery inspired by French Normandy.

Those looking for some small town charm shouldn't miss the chance to wander the adorable streets of Healdsburg, with its eclectic shops, buzzing art galleries, and top-notch restaurants and bars. Set between three of the premier wine-growing regions in the area—the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley—Healdsburg makes for the perfect Sonoma Valley pit stop.

4. Santa Cruz Mountains

Encompassing approximately 480,000 acres and 1,300 acres of wine grapes, the majestic ridges and coastal mountains of Santa Cruz create the ideal microclimate for world-class wine production. An iconic drive from San Fransisco along an epic 50-mile stretch of towering peaks and endless ocean will lead you to this special terrain that is home to over 70 wineries.

Santa Cruz itself is a charming coastal town, surrounded by soaring redwoods and full of stylish boutiques and eateries. The city even enjoys 300 days of sunshine each year! Winding country roads make their way up from the coast to the mountainous wine region, where Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir tastings can be enjoyed at former mill, Storrs Winery, or Pelican Ranch, which has some of the best Burgundy and Rhone-style varietals in the area.

These quiet hillsides are dotted with small vineyards just waiting to be explored like Ridge Vineyards, generally regarded as one of the best in the area; the MJA Vineyards Tasting Room, with its racy selection of wines, such as "Still Horny," "French Kiss," and "Sweet Thang"; and Storrs Winery & Vineyards, which offers Pinot Noir varietals, including Dijon and Pommard, as well as French varietals like Burgundy.

With so many tasting rooms and vineyards to discover in this unique region, it's advisable to allow a few days to truly soak up the mellow atmosphere of the mountainous wine country, as well as the boho-chic vibe and stunning coastline of the city of Santa Cruz.

5. Paso Robles

Home to more than 200 wineries, the enchanting area of Paso Robles is easily accessible from both Los Angeles and San Francisco via the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. The area abounds with wines made from grapes originally grown in Rhône, France, including Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Picpoul Blanc, Marsanne, and Roussanne, with Cabernet Sauvignon increasingly gaining in popularity. The optimal grape-growing conditions found here are thanks to the best day-to-night temperature swing in California, which brings with it a long growing season, unique microclimates, and a variety of soil types.

Wine aficionados are spoiled for choice with the selection of tasting rooms to explore, and the expansive river valley floodplains and boundless slopes offer brilliant driving conditions. One of the top winemakers to visit is Justin Winery, with its 25 vintages, including Isosceles—owner Justin Baldwin's interpretation of a big Bordeaux,, which was named in the top 10 wines on the planet in 2000 by Wine Spectator.

Other unmissable stops include the gorgeous Bianchi Winery, California's Zinfandel Champion in 2014; the romantic Villa San Juliette, owned by American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe; Halter Ranch, with its sustainably farmed Rhône and Bordeaux wines; and Eberle Winery and its incredible wine cave!

The town of Paso Robles town itself has a laid-back atmosphere, with a strong wild west soul. After some quality wine tasting during the day, visitors can head over to the Vina Robles Amphitheater for some live music; dine at some farm-to-table restaurants, such as Thomas Hill Organics; or crack open a cold one at BarrelHouse Brewing Co. while listening to local bands.

6. Santa Barbara

The unique geography and mild climate of Santa Barbara's wine country make the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys two of the most beautiful wine producing regions in the world. The perfect location of "America's Riviera" means that visitors can enjoy the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail, all while having world-class surfing and stunning coastlines at just 30 minutes away.

The rolling hills of Santa Barbara wine country can be found nestled between two epic mountain ranges, rising up to 3,400 feet, and the most popular wines made here include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. Within the Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard spans over 900 acres and is renowned for its top class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while the 77,000 acres of the Santa Ynez Valley are known for their Bordeaux blends, Rhône blends, and Zinfandels, as well as a crisp Sauvignon Blanc at Brander Vineyard, which offers tastings seven days a week.

Some other highlights in the area include Presqu'ile Winery, located in the north, with its beautiful tasting rooms and sweeping view; Municipal Winemakers, which offers a casual, beach vibe; Brander Vineyard and its ongoing quest for the perfect Sauvignon blanc; and Rusack Vineyards, a boutique vinyeard with seemingly endless fields of gorgeous vines amid the natural beauty of Ballard Canyon.


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