Visiting California's Wine Country

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Vineyards never feel very far away in California, where world-beating wines await. With a broad variety of heirloom and imported varietals that are true expressions of this vibrant, varied landscape, there is no time like the present to wine-taste across California.

Idyllic Fall Day in the Napa Valley. Image by James Daisa / CC BY-SA 2.0Idyllic Fall Day in the Napa Valley. Image by James Daisa / CC BY-SA 2.0

Napa & Sonoma Valleys

Northern California’s viticulture region has earned its reputation among the world's best. Amid fruit orchards and ranch lands, these sunny valleys kissed by cool coastal fog have made Napa, Sonoma and the Russian River into California’s premier wine-growing region. Chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons are especially prized.

There are over 600 wineries, but it’s quality, not quantity, that sets the region apart – especially in Napa, which competes with France and doubles as an outpost of San Francisco’s top-end culinary scene. Sonoma prides itself on agricultural diversity, with goat-cheese farms, you-pick-em orchards and roadside fruit stands.

Where to stay: Splurge on a vineyard-view room at Napa’s snappy Carneros Inn. Sonoma Chalet, an old farmstead surrounded by rolling hills, offers free-standing cottages and rooms inside a Swiss chalet–style house.

Where to eat: Get straight to the source at farm-to-table restaurants, such as Thomas Keller's renowned French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Sonoma hasn’t forgotten its origins as a Mexican colony, and you can still find respectable taco trucks among its vineyards.

Pinot Noir grapes in Anderson Valley. Image by Naotake Murayama / CC BY 2.0Pinot Noir grapes in Anderson Valley. Image by Naotake Murayama / CC BY 2.0

Mendocino County 

Beyond Napa and Sonoma lie the wineries of Mendocino County. No more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, this unsung winemaking region is hospitable to rich Mediterranean reds and brawny, fruit-forward zinfandels.

The biggest appellation is the Anderson Valley, known for its delicate Alsatian-style whites, sparkling wines and pinot noir – all thanks to sun-drenched days and coastal fog drifting over the vineyards at night.

Many wineries are family-owned and offer tastings, some give tours. Top choices include Navarro (www.navarrowine.com), where picnicking is encouraged; Esterlina (www.esterlinavineyards.com), known for big reds; and Husch (www.huschvineyards.com), which serves exquisite tastings inside a rose-covered cottage.

Where to stay: Set within an orchard, Apple Farm in Anderson Valley (www.philoapplefarm.com) features exquisite cottages built with reclaimed materials. For a swim, the Navarro River is within walking distance. Campers can also pitch a tent along the river at the Hendy Woods State Park campground.

Where to eat: Food-savvy travelers love the constantly changing menu at Table 128 (www.boonvillehotel.com), served family-style around big farm tables; while locals pack Lauren’s (laurensgoodfood.com) for eclectic homemade cooking and a good wine list.

El Dorado County 

In the heart of the pine- and oak-covered Sierra foothills, where gold miners tried their luck, the earth brings forth hearty grapes that absorb their unique character from the mineral-rich soil: bold, earthy and richly colored. El Dorado is one of California’s lesser-known wine regions, but its wines are rising in profile and frequently appear on California menus.

You could spend a long afternoon rambling through welcoming vineyards (though a full weekend of tasting could be had if it was coupled with adjoining Amador County). Don’t leave without toasting a glass of regional zinfandel, which, like the locals, is packed with earthy attitude and regional character.

Some noteworthy wineries, all north of Hwy 50, include Lava Cap Winery (www.lavacap.com), which has an on-hand deli for picnic supplies, and Boeger Winery (www.boegerwinery.com). Both offer free tastings.

Where to stay: Hotels can be found at either end of the historic center of Placerville. The Cary House Hotel, said to be haunted, is located in the middle of downtown. The mid-century National 9 Inn offers the best bargain; and of all the Victorian B&Bs, the cozy Albert Shafsky House (www.shafsky.com) is a sure favorite.

Where to eat: Mostly casual cafes and bakeries, options include Cozmic Café, which offers a good selection of microbrews and live music on weekends, and Heyday Café (www.heydaycafe.com), where the menu leans toward simple Italian comfort food.

Berkshire Pork from Artisan. Image by Lauren Bosak / CC BY-SA 2.0Berkshire Pork from Artisan. Image by Lauren Bosak / CC BY-SA 2.0

Paso Robles 

In northern San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles is at the heart of an agricultural region where grapes now constitute the biggest crop. Tucked between horse ranches and rustic farmstands, scores of wineries along Hwy 46 produce a brave new world of more-than-respectable bottles. Most famous for its fruity and brambly zinfandel vines, this hot, sunny wine country is yielding another bounty, too: a fledging olive-oil industry.

Paso’s historic downtown centers on Park and 12th Sts, where boutique shops and winetasting rooms await. You could spend days wandering country back roads off Hwy 46, both east and west of Hwy 101. Most wineries have tasting rooms and a few offer vineyard tours.

Where to stay: B&Bs and vacation rentals are scattered among the vineyards outside town. Wild Coyote Estate Winery (www.wildcoyote.biz) is an intimate B&B with just five romantic adobe-walled casitas, while family-friendly Adelaide Inn is sure to keep kids happy with fresh-baked cookies and mini golf.

Where to eat: Restaurants, cafes and bars surround downtown’s City Park. Try Artisan (www.artisanpasorobles.com), where eco-conscious chef Chris Kobayashi serves up sustainably farmed meats, wild-caught seafood and artisan California cheeses. For a more eclectic menu, reserve your table at the farm-fresh Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro (www.thomashillorganics.com).

Pinot Noir wine fields in Santa Maria. Image by Moto "Club4AG" Miwa / CC BY 2.0Pinot Noir wine fields in Santa Maria. Image by Moto Miwa / CC BY 2.0

Santa Ynez & Santa Maria Valleys 

Oak-dotted hillsides, winding country lanes, rows of sweetly heavy grapevines stretching as far as the eye can see – it’s hard not to gush about Santa Maria and Santa Ynez. With more than 100 wineries spread out across the landscape, it can seem daunting at first. But the region’s five small towns – Buellton, Solvang, Santa Ynez, Ballard and Los Olivos – are all clustered within 10 miles of one another, so it’s easy to stop, shop and eat wherever and whenever you feel like it. Don’t worry about sticking to a regimented plan or following prescriptive wine guides. Just soak up the scenery and pull over where the signs look welcoming and the vibe feels right.

Nearer the coast, pinot noir – a particularly fragile grape – flourishes in the fog. Further inland, sun-loving Rhône varietals like Syrah thrive. Tasting fees average $10, and some wineries give vineyard tours (reservations may be required).

Where to stay: Smaller wine-country towns offer a handful of historic inns. The Ballard Inn (www.ballardinn.com) is a contemporary yet cozy option in the 19th-century stagecoach town of Ballard. Rates include wine tastings. You could also stay in Santa Barbara and take a day trip to wine country.

Where to eat: Restaurants range from Los Olivos Café, a Cal-Mediterranean bistro made famous from the Oscar-winning film Sideways, to Buellton’s old-guard country steakhouse, Hitching Post II. If you want to fill a picnic basket, El Rancho Market in Solvang has a fantastic deli case; take-out barbecue, soups and salads; bargain wine racks and an espresso bar.