The Napa Valley is rightfully regarded as the top wine-growing area of California. It’s one of the best spots in the world for growing everything from soft, temperamental Pinot Noir to buttery Chardonnay to zingy Zinfandel. But it can also get pretty crowded in peak season. And many wineries are expensive.
Luckily for those of us who love wine, there are fantastic areas all over the state that make for wonderful wine experiences. Here are six of my favourites, gleaned from dozens of trips I’ve made over the years.
SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS This is an area that’s really come into its own the last few years, with increasingly sophisticated wines and lovely tasting rooms. You’ll find cool, Gold Rush-era towns such as Angels Camp and Murphys, which has several relaxed wineries and a funky, old hotel recently given a makeover by Gordon Ramsay after a Hotel Hell episode. The area is surrounded by thick forests and lakes and rushing rivers in an area where many urbanites have mountain cabins. Ironstone is one of the most popular stops, with a gorgeous winery and gift shop.
Jim’s Pick: Tanner Vineyards has an elegant tasting room with an old-time feel on Main Street. Try the Barbera, a full-bodied Italian red wine that responds well to the dry summer heat in the area.
Side trip: It’s less than two hours from Murphys to Yosemite, one of the great national parks in the U.S.
SONOMA Located just a few clicks west of Napa but in some ways a completely different animal. You’ll find things are more relaxed in Sonoma, with more of that chilled-out California vibe you probably expect. Tasting fees are often smaller, and I find the size of the pours a little bigger at some of the Sonoma wineries I’ve been to. The Alexander Valley is dry and warm and features fruit-forward wines, while wineries closer to the coaster are lighter and perhaps better for summer. Sonoma is a fabulous town with great cafes and patios.
Jim’s Pick: Matanzas Creek Winery has a lovely tasting room in a forest of small trees and fields of sweet-smelling lavender. Side trip: Bodega Bay and Point Reyes are great places to explore the seashore.
MONTEREY/CARMEL Wine lovers have a huge array of choices here, as Monterey County (at last count) grows 19 types of white wine and a solid 23 varieties of red. Things can get baking hot inland, but the California fog and ocean breezes keep things cooler near the coast. The town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to not only Clint Eastwood but a series of tasting rooms where you can try local wines without having to drive. You can even get a tasting passport that allows you stop at several places. The Carmel Valley is warmer and drier and sunnier and features several top-notch wineries.
Jim’s Pick: Chateau Julien has a prettier building and nicer grounds, but I love the Pinot Noir at Bernardus, which also operates a lodge and spa. Side trip: Nepenthe is a wonderful restaurant with a fantastic outdoor patio overlooking Big Sur and the Pacific Coast.
PASO ROBLES The town was damaged by an earthquake in 2003, but they’ve since rebuilt and things are positively hopping. Wine aficionados from around the world have handed major award after major award to the area, where you’ll find rich red wines and powerful whites. I especially love the Syrah from here, which to me tastes like it’s halfway between the jammy styles of Australian Shiraz and the leathery, bone-dry Syrahs of the Old World. Paso Robles makes for a fine stop on a drive between San Francisco and L.A. as it’s almost exactly halfway between them.
Jim’s Pick: Opolo Vineyards makes outstanding Syrah and Zinfandel and Rhone-style varietals and is located high in the hills. A gorgeous drive, especially if you rent a convertible.
Side trip: San Simeon and the famous Hearst Castle is just west of Paso Robles.
SAN FRANCISCO EAST BAY/LIVERMORE You’ll find a few bottles from the Livermore Valley in Canadian liquor stores, but this is a relatively unheralded region that is one of the oldest wine-growing areas of the state. It’s like Sonoma in that it’s a very relaxed kind of place, with a string of wineries on flat lands and rolling hills. Both Pleasanton and Livermore are fun, informal towns with great cafes and fun shopping. There’s also a fine outlet mall. The Livermore Valley is less than an hour’s drive from downtown San Francisco.
Jim’s Pick: Wente Vineyards has a lovely tasting room, a great golf course that’s hosted professional tournaments and a wonderful outdoor theatre that attracts top musical acts.
SANTA YNEZ VALLEY/SANTA BARBARA This area was made famous by the great movie Sideways, in which a melancholy character named Miles searches for the perfect Pinot Noir (well, kind of). You’ll find a great variety of wines in the region owing to the microclimate. Pinot Noir does well in cooler areas where the coastal fog creeps inland. Further away from the sea it can be baking hot, and you’ll find lush red wines and creamy, classic California chardonnay. Downtown Santa Barbara, one of California’s most beautiful cities, has a series of tasting rooms. So does the cowboy/wine town of Los Olivos.
Jim’s Pick: Fess Parker (named for the actor who played Daniel Boone on TV) is a fun stop where you can taste good wine and buy coonskin caps.
Side trip: Hitching Post II is a wonderful restaurant in nearby Buellton that was featured in the movie Sideways and serves fantastic steaks grilled over California oak.