San Francisco is a lively city full of quirky shops, international bars and restaurants, and massive museums and attractions like Alcatraz and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.
But it takes less than an hour for the urban oasis to be replaced by vineyards and tasting rooms. When you think of California wine country or San Francisco wine country, you probably think of Napa and Sonoma — but if you’ve already been there, don’t despair.
California has more than 4,000 wineries and 143 American viticultural areas, or AVAs — designations for wineries in certain geographic areas that meet national standards, like the “Napa AVA.” For reference, there are only 261 AVAs in the entire US. That means more than half of all the notable wine-growing regions in the country are in California, which should give you some hint of how easy it is to find somewhere new to wet your whistle.
If you’re looking for a change of pace from Napa or Sonoma, check out these six affordable, under-the-radar, and downright tasty San Francisco wine country stops for a weekend or day trip from the city.
Lamorinda Wine Country
- Distance from SF: 22 miles
- Drive time: 29 minutes
- Winery map: VisitConcordCA.com
You can have AVAs within larger AVAs, which is the case with the Lamorinda AVA — it’s a smaller wine-growing region within the larger San Francisco AVA. And yes, that does mean it’s close to the city. The Lamorinda AVA true San Francisco wine country, since you can visit its top wineries without needing a car (like a true SF local has a car, anyway).
From SF, take the BART to Lafayette; it’s about a 30-minute ride. While it doesn’t have the dozens upon dozens of wineries of a larger AVA, it has plenty to fill a day trip. In Lafayette, you’ll find Captain Vineyards, Thal Vineyards, and Deer Hill Vineyards. If you’re willing to take a short taxi or rideshare ride from Lafayette, you’ll find more another dozen or so wineries around Walnut Creek, Concord, and Avon, many of which are open for tastings.
- Distance from SF: 118 miles
- Drive time: 1 hour, 50 mins
- Winery map: MontereyWines.org (tasting room map)
There’s no denying that the Napa AVA is huge — there are more than 400 wineries in Napa. But it’s not the only destination with enough vineyards to fill a dozen vacations. In Monterey, you’ll find more than 175 wineries and tasting rooms, making it one of the best San Francisco wine country options for a long weekend away from the city.
The Monterey Wine Grower’s Association already did the trip-planning work for guests with a perfect long weekend wine-tasting itinerary available online. The region is particularly notable for its chardonnays, which tend to have hints of orchard fruits like apples and pears, but aren’t overly sweet or fruity. But with the sheer number of wineries available, you’re bound to find something to love even if your palate gravitates towards rich cab francs.
Like in Napa, wine is a major industry around Monterey, and you’ll find operators running wine and cycle tours, wine and driving tours, and hotels with their own vineyards. But another great reason to head to Monterey’s wine county is that you don’t even have to set foot on a winery. If you’d rather get straight to the tasting, you can drop into one of 19 tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea, six in Monterey, or another 26 in Carmel County. And yes, they’re all conveniently mapped for you, so you won’t get lost even if you do go a bit hard on those chardonnays.
Getting to Napa requires a short drive to the east, and while it should take no more than an hour, traffic can sometimes make the trip drag on to nearly double that time. So instead, consider heading north, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Marin County, just across the water. There are about 17 wineries within a quick drive, and as you may expect if you’re familiar with the nearby (and famous) Anderson Valley, pinot noirs are prevalent in Marin.
Visiting San Francisco’s wine country to the north is a fairly easy drive. Once you cross the bridge, you’ll hit Sausalito, where you’ll find the Real Napa Tasting Room and JR. Story Winery. Stay on the 101 and you’ll h it wineries like Dancing Crow Vineyards and Backstage Winery. You’ll find Thackrey and Co. winery closer to Point Reyes, and you’ll have half a dozen more options closer to Petaluma, though at that point, you’ve moved into Sonoma County.
Marin makes a stunning and surprisingly small-town-feeling day trip from the Bay Area, especially if you add in an outdoorsy activity like a hike through the Point Reyes Elk Sanctuary.
San Luis Obispo
- Distance from SF: 231 miles
- Drive time: 3 hours, 30 mins
- Winery map: SloCoastWine.com
SLO — technically called San Luis Obispo but pronounced “slow” — is a quirky surf town surrounded by quirky attractions. It’s the best San Francisco wine country weekend trip if you want to pair wine tasting with unique roadside stops like an elephant seal breeding ground or the over-the-top Hearst Castle. It’s also home to the Madonna Inn, with ridiculously thematic hotel rooms designed after cavemen, haciendas, and the Wild West.
For a truly unique wine weekend, add on a new winery activity like ziplining through the fields at Ancient Peaks Winery or cycling through the Edna Valley. And don’t worry: bike tours come with a support van in case you get too tired (or too tipsy) to keep biking. Most of SLO’s wineries are around the Edna Valley, though there are several tasting rooms in San Luis Obispo proper and another handful near San Simeon. The latter is a great place to stop after a tour of Hearst Castle, which also has its own winery. It’s inland, but the tasting room is just across the street from Hearst Castle along Highway 1.
Wine country around Mendocino and Philo
- Distance from SF: 121 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours, 20 mins
- Winery map: MendoWine.com
For a long weekend away from the city, head north to Mendocino. The actual town is a surprisingly small and charming village surrounded by fields overlooking the insanely beautiful cliffs Northern California is famous for. The Mendocino AVA is part of the much larger North Coast AVA, which also includes parts of several different counties, including Solano and Sonoma. There’s a lot of shade, shadow, and fog off the coast, so the region produces excellent medium-bodied reds, like syrah and pinot noirs (with a ton of variety within each).
One of the best reasons to head to Mendo for a wine weekend is the scenery. Some of the tallest trees in California are near Mendocino, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve has redwoods more than 300 feet tall. Also near Mendocino are other fun activities, like the Skunk Train railway bikes through the redwoods and great mountain biking through the redwoods in Jackson State Demonstration Forest.
And when it comes to wine tasting, you have options, especially near the town of Philo. Lula Cellars is a very low-key outdoor tasting room where you’ll sit at barrel tables while tasting pinot noirs, likely with a few dogs lounging in the sun nearby. And Bonterra makes organic, climate-neutral wines — it’s the first in the world to do the latter. But Route 128 seems to have a winery every few miles once you get north of Santa Rosa, so you can pretty much pull over at whatever sign looks good and stop in for a tasting.
- Distance from SF: 133 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours
- Winery map: AppleHill.com
Most skiers in the Bay Area are no strangers to making the roughly three-hour drive to Lake Tahoe in the winter, but if you head in the same direction after the snow melts, you’ll reach Apple Hill in just about two hours. The rural wine region is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just outside Placerville. It’s home to about 10 wineries and cideries, plus 20 ranches and farms, some of which are cute family farms that also happen to sell wine.
For a tasting and a picnic, stop by Lava Cap Winery, where full tastings are only $15. They also sell boxed cracker and cheese combos and have a large deck overlooking their vines. Rainbow Orchards is the place to get one of the apple cider donuts the region is famous for come fall, and Fenton Herriott Vineyards makes a great stop if you think wine and bocce ball is a perfect pairing.
Apple Hill will get a bit crowded on Saturdays in the fall during harvest season, but overall, it’s one of the least-crowded wine regions near San Francisco and one of the most affordable. Tastings of four or five wines are usually no more than $10 or $15, and many wineries wave the fees if you buy a bottle. It’s also casual — you’ll be walking across farms, so leave the high heels and fancy sundresses for Napa. It’s a low-key place..