Tripping California Wine Country

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Hankering for biodynamic wine, farm-fresh food and miles of toasted-oat hills? Sounds like California Wine Country's calling your name?

Northern California is home to some seriously alluring winery-laden valleys, most famously Napa and Sonoma, but also Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valleys.

Valley guide

  • Napa Valley is chock-a-block with wineries and five-star restaurants (the hub of the region). Hwy 29 gets backed up, so head down the Silverado Trail instead.
  • Sonoma is more laid-back and spread out, although Hwy 12 is not the prettiest drive and can get backed up too
  • Picturesque Dry Creek is the best choice for biking between tastings (bucolic West Dry Creek Rd< is a good bet)
  • Russian River is a local favorite, with wineries along Westside Rd and canoeing in summer and fall
  • Alexander is the quietest valley, with an Old West aura and fab red wines.

Best time to visit: Tasting rooms tend to stay open all year (around 10am to 4pm), but come in spring, or better yet fall, for warm weather and 'the crush' (wine-pressing season).

Tasting tips: Unless you actually spit out wine, you should plan on visiting only three or four wineries a day. Tastings generally include four to six different wines and range from free to US$25.

Whites or reds? The valleys specialize in different varietals (many of them organic or biodynamic):

  • Napa Valley – cabernets and meritage
  • Sonoma Valley – syrah and zinfandel
  • Dry Creek – sauvignon blanc, syrah and sangiovese
  • Russian River – pinot noir
  • Alexander Valley – zinfandel and chardonnay

Where to stay: Most of the wineries are clumped near small towns without a ton of lodgings. There are several options, but finding an affordable place to stay can be tough in summer and fall. If all else fails, there's Vallejo, about 20 minutes from downtown Napa with plenty of cheap chain motels off the highway, or Santa Rosa to the north.

Where to eat: Farm-to-table cuisine, diners, you name it. Food is big here and many wineries have luscious eating options attached. If you're looking to lash out though, the fine French Laundry might suit - but you'll have to book a few months out.

Nightlife: Think small-town bars with microbrews - and early closing hours.

Further information:

This article was updated June 2012

Related article: Visiting California's Wine Country