A thrilling place for every taste

By Marcy Gordon

PHOTO: Terra Studio SF

Wine is so popular in California and there are so many varieties here it’s a marvel that no enterprising visionary has built a theme park devoted to it: Wineland!

California has been a center for wine since Spanish missionaries brought the first vines to California in the late 1790s and settlers from Europe during the Gold Rush of the 1850s began developing the modern wine industry. Today, California wine is known worldwide and the state is the fourth largest wine producing area in the world after Spain, France and Italy. Five main growing regions divide the state with more than 100 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) determined by the climate, soil and altitude that contribute to unique characteristics in finished wine.

California offers as many ways to experience wine as varieties of grapes grown. Whether it’s food, adventure, art or history, there’s a tour or tasting experience to pair with your interests. The classic on-site winery tour is alive and well, but off-site tasting rooms are booming, and are a great alternative to exploring a wine region without driving from winery to winery. These opportunities abound the length and breadth of the state.


Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Livermore, Santa Cruz Mountains

By far the most famous California wine region is in Northern California. Napa Valley is known around the world for its exceptional wines and draws more visitors than any other area. The quintessential wine country experience was perfected here, with more than 300 wineries vying for your taste buds along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the signature grapes grown in the valley, but other varieties have been making a strong showing in the last decade. While the majority of visitors head for the big name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Sterling, those in the know are heading for Coombsville, the newest official AVA in Napa Valley. Located just minutes from downtown Napa, Coombsville’s unusual cool climate results in sensational Cabernets from grower/producers such as Meteor, Sodaro, Caldwell and Farella. Most are open by appointment only, but well worth the effort to call and go.

For a more pastoral venue, wind your way up highway 128 in Mendocino County to The Madrones, a one-stop wine-tasting, shopping and luxury lodging spot that showcases wines of the Anderson Valley from Drew, Bink and Lula. The Madrones also holds educational workshops from olive brining seminars to wine sensory evaluation classes.

Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, may be the king of the tasting rooms in California, but take a break from the bustle of the square and head two blocks north to Garagiste, a mini-winery and collective tasting room run by the winemakers of Cartograph and Stark, pouring small, handcrafted lots of Syrah, Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. A favorite with locals, the tasting room and wine lounge give visitors a peek into the winemaking process in the onsite micro-winery. After the micro-tour, you can order box lunches from local restaurants to be delivered to you patio-side and sip wines by the glass as you plan your next stop, perhaps to Quivira or Ferrari-Carano Vineyards, both in nearby Dry Creek.

One of the oldest regions, Livermore, is just 30 miles east of San Francisco and best known for its Chardonnay production and the well-established winery estates of Wente and Concannon.

sierra foothills

El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras

The mining towns of the Sierra foothills—Placerville, Amador City and Sutter Creek—used to draw prospectors in search of gold. Now wine lovers come in search of riches in liquid form, such as Grenache, Sangiovese and particularly Old-vine Zinfandel. The proximity to natural wonders from groves of giant sequoias to caves and caverns makes this region the perfect stop for the active oenophile.

The main street of Murphys is lined with Gold Rush-era buildings and more than 20 tasting rooms equal parts rustic and sophisticated, including Boger, Sobon, Amador Cellars and Terre Rouge with several more a short drive away.

Looking for a slightly twisted experience? Twisted Oak pours hearty reds amid rubber chicken décor.

central COAST

Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Carmel Valley, Paso Robles, Edna Valley & Arroyo Grande

Overlooking Monterey Bay, A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row is one part museum, one part tasting room. Located in a former sardine cannery, A Taste of Monterey presents 250 wines from the 80 local wineries in Monterey County’s seven AVAs, making it one of the most comprehensive tasting rooms in the region. Inland, and closer to the actual vineyards in the Salinas Valley, there is another tasting center next to the National Steinbeck Center in old-town Salinas just blocks from Steinbeck’s childhood home.

If you are a Pinot or Syrah fan, don’t miss a side trip to the Santa Lucia Highlands, an appellation with many noteworthy selections from wineries such as Talbott, Mer Soleil and Hahn.

Paso Robles is said to be the region with the most potential, and wineries here range from large commercial producers to small boutiques making limited quantities. Peachy Canyon, Gray Wolf, J.Lohr and Tablas Creek are some of the standouts along the wine trail. But the Pithy Little Wine Company, in downtown Paso Robles, has one of the most tantalizing tasting room offerings in the state. Along with flights of Sangivose, Viognier and Cabernet they pour soda flights—Root Beer, Orange Cream, Cola, Black Cherry and Cream Soda—all hand crafted with the same attention to detail as their wine. The $10 Soda Tasting Flight is suitable for visitors 8 and up and includes a bag of gourmet popcorn and a bottle of root beer to take home.

souTHERN CALIFORNIA & central valley

Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos, Temecula, Lodi, Madera, Clarksburg

The coastal region of Southern California includes the Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley growing regions, with Santa Ynez Valley becoming the poster child for wine tourism since the 2004 film Sideways confirmed its status as a Pinot Noir hot spot (or cool spot, as Pinot grapes don’t take well to too much heat). Downtown Santa Barbara has a handful of tasting rooms that are within walking distance of each other, and an urban winery, Jaffurs Wine Cellars, producing Rhone varietals with grapes sourced from Santa Barbara county vineyards.

Zinfandel grows well in the Central Valley, a major agricultural region that runs down the middle of the state from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Two favorites in Lodi are the Berghold Estate Winery and Michael-David Winery, best known for its 7 Deadly Zins blend.

Still emerging as a wine destination, Southern California’s mostly hot and arid region is not as well developed as points north, but Temecula in particular is generating an ardent following for its wines and sheer determination to grow grapes in a challenging location. The majority of wineries are grouped along Rancho California and De Portola roads, including the popular Cougar Winery and Robert Renzoni that specialize in Italian varieties.

For an unusual tasting experience, Sunrider tours offers a Jeep safari adventure through the vines of Temecula including sampling of more than 18 different wines.

California is known for innovation and imagination, so it’s not too far fetched to imagine the state’s biggest attractions, Hollywood and wine, collaborating to create a fantasy Wineland. But until that day, all you need to experience the best of California wine is a map and the interest. No E ticket required.

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