California – “the Golden state”. Between the discovery of gold in 1848, the fields of golden poppies that appear each spring throughout the state, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the constant sunshine – California truly is the golden state! Put a glass of Californian wine into the mix, and it’s pretty easy to smile. As the world’s fourth largest wine producer, with 4000 wineries and over 110 varieties of wine grapes, California is a wine lover’s paradise. Listed below are some of the best wine regions to keep you California dreaming:
Located in the rolling hills of the coastal region of Mendocino County, a two hour drive north of San Francisco, you will find one of the lesser known but best wine regions in California. It is the coolest wine-growing region of California, with over 90 wineries with sustainable eco-friendly and organic practices and primarily owner-operated. Especially good for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Alsace varieties of Pinot Gris and Riesling. Less crowded than the neighbouring Napa and Sonoma valleys, it is also more easy on the wallet and has a friendly, small-town atmosphere. Head here for an intimate and approachable experience in wine tasting with an old fashioned feel to it.
Napa Valley is one of the world’s premier wine regions boasting more than 400 wineries, 95% of which are family-owned and operated. An area of outstanding natural beauty just 80 kilometres north of San Francisco, the region is considered one of the best places for wine tasting. Some of the world’s finest wines are produced here, including the King of Napa: the prized Cabernet Sauvignon! Stroll through the vineyards, talk with the winemaker, or sip award-winning Napa Valley wines with dramatic views over the valley. And it doesn’t stop there! Napa Valley is known for its Michelin-star restaurants, luxurious accommodation and spas. This is fine living at its best!
Less than an hour’s drive from Napa, and just 72 kilometres north of San Francisco, is the birthplace of the California wine industry. The 27 kilometre long Sonoma Valley is home to 250 wineries, two of which are very famous. Buena Vista winery, California’s second-oldest commercial winery founded in 1857, and Gundlach Bundschu winery, California’s oldest family-run winery that was founded back in 1858. Delicate Pinot Noir, zesty Chardonnay and robust Cabernet Sauvignon flourish in these fertile soils. Don’t miss the chance to wander the adorable streets of charming Healdsburg, with its eclectic shops, buzzing art galleries, and top-notch restaurants and bars.
If you don’t want to venture far out of San Francisco, then head 50 kilometres east of San Francisco Bay. Drive or bike country roads to find vineyards, pastures, more than 40 wineries and sunny days in charming Livermore Valley. Three of California’s oldest and most iconic wineries were planted here in the 1880s: Wente Vineyards, Concannon Vineyard and Cresta Blanca Winery (closed in 1965). Make sure to stop by the elegant Wente Vineyards for its lush gardens, creative cuisine, vineyard tours and three tasting rooms.
Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains growing area sits between Monterey Bay and San Francisco. The region has unique terroir rich with wooded peaks and nearly 300 small vineyards tucked into quiet hillsides. Some of California’s most celebrated wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon are produced here, despite the mountain topography and it being the coldest Cabernet Sauvignon-producing region in California! The cool climate is more classically suited to the Burgundy varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which also thrive here. This region is fun to explore because many vineyards and wineries are located on remote, winding roads and mostly hidden throughout this highly regarded and beautiful landscape.
Paso Robles Wine Country
In the heart of California’s Central Coast, located along coastal Highway 101 midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is the small town of Paso Robles. It is where world-class food and wine meet small-town cowboy charm. Paso Robles wine country mixes the fun-loving energy of Southern California with Northern California’s sophistication and innovation. There are more than 200 wineries to discover along windy backroads. Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux-style blends are a staple of the Paso Robles area. From laid-back tastings under the oak trees to exclusive experiences like horseback riding with a glass in hand, anything is possible here. A hot spot for Rhône varietals and blends, it hosts the annual Hospice du Rhône, the world’s liveliest international gathering to celebrate Rhône wines and winemakers.
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Santa Barbara Wine Country
Santa Barbara Wine Country is one of the world’s most beautiful and unique wine regions. It is the longest transverse valley (East to West) found on the western Pacific coast – from Alaska to South America. This creates unique climate conditions perfect for world-class cool climate wines (like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). Discover the urban wineries of Santa Barbara, rightly named “America’s Riviera” as visitors are able to go from world class surf and coastline, to wine tasting rooms downtown and to the wine country itself, all within 30 minutes. You can do your own self-guided tour of the 26 urban tasting rooms after you sun, shop and dine downtown. Alternatively, venture out to the rural vineyards of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys on a private jeep tour. Taste all the wine you like without having to worry about driving home. Life can’t get much better than this!
These are just a few of the world-class wine regions to discover in California. If this isn’t enough to put a smile on your face, then watch this space. I will write another blog about more wine regions in the United States. I’d also love to hear your favourite wine regions in the comments below. Cheers!
Andrew Morten is the Founder of Little America. Little America creates bespoke, tailored trips to the United States and Canada.