With 130 separate American Viticultural Areas and over 1300 wineries, where do you start with tasting California’s wines? Here’s a synopsis of the major regions and some suggested spots for tasting.
Napa / Sonoma
The first place that comes to mind when thinking of California wines and an easy day trip from the Bay Area, although it can be a bit crowded with tasters on summer weekends. A number of wineries are still worth a visit, as is the downtown square in Sonoma. Benzinger in nearby Glen Ellen prides itself on its biodynamic wines and has an interesting self-directed garden tour explaining many of their practices, as well as a tram tour of some of the vineyards. Nearby Little Vineyards is also worth a visit. Homewood Winery is a small producer with an intimate tasting room and nice picnic area, while Bump Wine Cellars in downtown Sonoma focuses on single-vineyard wines.
Mendocino and North
Venture north for a more rugged tasting experience. While some of the wineries in this area are a bit more spread out, many are clustered on Highway 128, making serial tasting easy. Navarro Winery specializes in Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer and also offers cheese made by one of the winemakers. Phillips Hill has a cozy tasting room, located in a refurbished apple drying barn. Handley Cellars, at the northwest end of the Anderson Valley, is a beautiful spot, with a tasting room featuring international art collected by winemaker Milla Handley. Lazy Creek Vineyards is especially off the beaten track, requiring a brief stint on a dirt road. First established in the early 1900’s by Italian immigrants, tastings here are in the original 100-year old farmhouse. Continuing north to Humboldt County, Riverbend Cellars, is at a bend of the Eel River near the majestic Avenue of the Giants, a road that winds through a grove of ancient redwoods.
There are many small wineries worth a visit if you have time for a slow tour between Northern and Southern California. A number of the Santa Cruz mountain wineries have tasting rooms in Santa Cruz itself at Swift Street Wineries, much easier than threading the mountain roads between the wineries themselves. If you do want to get up into the mountains, Ridge offers great views and excellent wines.
The town of Paso Robles, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is worth a detour to check out the wine scene, which consists of mostly small-scale and family-owned wineries. Justin Winery offers lunch as well as tastings, making it a particularly great spot for a break. Tablas Creek focuses on Rhone-style varietals. Treana and Hope Vineyards has a beautiful tasting room and grounds.
A number of tasting rooms are clustered in Santa Barbara and are easy to visit on the Urban Wine Trail.
Although SoCal might not come immediately to mind when thinking of California wines, it was here that wine production was introduced to the state. The Temecula Valley is close to Los Angeles and San Diego, but many of the wineries in this area are large and see a lot of visitors. Outside of San Diego you’ll find a number of wineries along Highway 94 — check out the Casi Cielo Winery at Maness Vineyards, where tastings take place in a historic adobe building, and the Dulzura Winery, on the Clark Ranch, with a two-story tasting room.
Wineries are popping up in California’s cities as well. Berkeley wineries include Donkey and Goat, run by husband and wife team Jared and Tracey Brandt, which sources wine from Mendocino, the Sierra Nevada, and Napa. Oakland’s Urban Wine Trail includes Dashe Cellars, also run by a husband and wife team, which focuses on single-vineyard wines. In San Francisco, Bluxome Street Winery makes wine with grapes from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. And if after all that tasting you want to take it to the next level and try making your own, Dogpatch WineWorks offers just that…