Did you know that 81% of the wine produced in the United States comes from California?
We take that to mean that it's a duty for wine lovers to explore as much of it as possible from the paradigm-shifting sustainable to the in-demand cult bottles. For pretty much any wine enthusiast, the idea of taking a vacation centered around one of the world-famous Calfornia wine regions sounds like heaven on earth.
But determining which of the many California wine country regions to visit can lead to a bit of decision-making anxiety. How in the world are you supposed to choose where to start?
Should you go to the world-famous Napa Valley? Or go a deeper cut and visit Lodi?
Which California Wine Regions To Visit
From the misty northern coastlines to the arid southern foothills, you'll find more than 100 varieties of grapes grown in the Golden State. As the world's 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France, and Spain), the state makes a mark on a global level.
There are 142 American Viticultural Areas or AVAs stretching from the northernmost Seiad Valley to the southernmost South Coast. Across the state, wine flights are waiting to be enjoyed by you in gorgeous, expansive tasting rooms and converted barns alike.
Let's take a look at ten of the top California wine regions so you can decide the best itinerary for your next wine-focused vacation.
Napa County: For World-Famous Wines
When you think of California wine regions, Napa Valley is probably the first thing that comes to mind. This is one of the top destinations for a California honeymoon and for a good reason.
This thirty-mile-long valley is home to 240 wineries, Michelin-starred chefs, and replica Tuscan castles. And, just about one hour north of San Francisco, Napa County is a classic choice for a California wine excursion.
Although Napa is world-famous as a California wine region, it actually only produces 4% of the wine in California.
Sonoma County: For Microclimates Galore
There are more than 500 wineries in Sonoma growing more than 50 varieties of grapes. And, though the region grows more Pinot Noir than any other area in California, there's more than just this classic red wine here.
Because of the varied landscape that spans from coastal cliffs to rolling green hills, there are many numerous microclimates in Sonoma. Some of the vines you can find planted here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The best-known AVAs worth visiting in Sonoma include the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, and Chalk Hill. And be sure to spend time shopping, wandering, and exploring the towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma.
Los Carneros: For Crisp, Cool-Climate Wines
Can't decide between Napa Valley and Sonoma County? Get the best of both worlds and head to Los Carneros.
Sitting at the southern ends of both of these world-class wine regions, Los Carneros is known for its cool and often foggy coastal microclimate, which makes for crisp Chardonnay as well as sophisticated Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.
Santa Cruz Mountains: For Off-The-Beaten Path
If you are looking for a wine region that is as geographically dramatic as the wine is delicious, consider visiting the Santa Cruz mountains. Tucked amongst winding mountain roads and impressive redwoods, you'll find vineyards producing distinctive, Old World wines in an incredible setting.
Monterey: For A Modern Wine Region
Are you the type of person who likes to explore the lesser-known? If so, check out one of the most underrated wine regions in all of California. While you're there, check out the prized creations of producers such as Lockwood, Chalone, and Morgan.
Monterey winemaking didn't become a thing until the late 1950s when the Santa Clara and Livermore Valleys were becoming more urbanized. Around the same time, UC Davis released research that fine wines could be produced in cooler, coastal climates, and that lead to the birth of Monterey County winemaking.
Some of the notable vineyard regions include Carmel Valley, Arroyo Seco, and Chalone.
Paso Robles: For Red Rhone Lovers
Fun fact? The cultivation of grapevines in San Luis Obispo County dates all the way back to the presence of Spanish missionaries.
With more humid, cooler conditions than many other wine regions in California, Paso Robles has similar geology to France's Rhone Valley. While you're here, you can try southern Rhone-style wines as Bordeaux blends.
On your trip to Paso Robles, you'll be charmed by rolling hills and valleys that are protected from marine fog and coastal winds. And it's a haven for red wine drinks because 80% of the wines produced in Paso Robles are reds, including the aforementioned Rhone varietals and Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
Santa Barbara County: For Laidback Luxe Wines
If you're looking for a truly memorable tasting trip, consider visiting Santa Barbara County. A charming Californian landscape (which is really saying something!), the unusual geography of this region has led to one of the best wine regions in California.
You can explore this region's wine both in and out of the city limits. With an urban wine trail known as the Funk Zone and gorgeous wine-growing centers outside of the city limits, you'll have plenty of ideas for filling up your itinerary.
(Wondering about other urban wineries to check out in California? Take a look at these San Diego wineries you're probably going to want to check out.)
Los Angeles County: For Wineries Near Hollywood
When you think of Los Angeles county, vineyards might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, there are actually more than 50 vineyards in the region of coastal Malibu. Here you can follow the Malibu Wine Trail or take a guided tour to explore Malibu, Rodeo Drive, and Santa Monica's famous pier.
Mendocino County: Sip Amongst The Redwoods
Within the North Coast region, Mendocino County is the northernmost wine-growing area. Cool, foggy, and blanketed in forests of redwoods, you can find an abundance of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay here. However, there are also dozens of other varietals grown here due to the diverse climate and geography of the county.
As outdoor lovers, this is one of our favorite places to road trip in California and the numerous quality wineries are just the cherry on top. Speaking of, are you planning a road trip through California wine country? If so, check out these essential tips for a California road trip.
Sierra Foothills: For Adventure And Wine Tasting
Home California's Gold Country and some of the richest history in the state, you can explore quaint gold mining towns with old vines, delicious wines, and gorgeous rolling hills. Set along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills, this AVA starts at Yuba, Placer, and El Dorado counties in the north and ends in Mariposa County in the south.
Most travelers visit this part of the state to venture into Yosemite National Park or east to Lake Tahoe but it's also very much worth it to make time for some wine tasting too. You can find top-quality Zinfandel in Amador County as well as Sangiovese and Barbera.
How to Plan a Trip to California Wine Country
A little planning can go a long way when you are visiting California wine country.
While it's easy to dream of a land of grapevine-covered hills, sunshine, and endless wineries, there are definitely some logistical considerations to take into account, too.
Planning Winery Tours and Tasting Reservations
Almost every winery is going to have different policies when it comes to reservations.
Some require you make appointments ahead of time, while others allow walk-ins. It's a good idea to book a reservation whenever you have the opportunity, even if it isn't required, particularly if you will be visiting during the weekend.
There are typical tours at several different times throughout the day at wineries. You'll want to think about which wineries you want to tour versus those you just want to enjoy a tasting to make sure you get to enjoy all the fine wines you desire.
We suggest you don't schedule more than two or three tastings a day so that you aren't rushed and you can leave time for exploration.
Tips on Traveling With a Group
In wine country, both wineries and restaurants aren't particularly eager to split checks for groups. This means that it can make things a bit hectic when you've spent the day tasting wine and enjoying delicious meals.
Consider coming up with a plan ahead of time (say having one person pay and then Venmo-ing them at the end of each day) to avoid chaos during your pleasant winery experience.
Vacation Rentals versus Hotels
There are myriad boutique hotels and chic vacation rentals to book through California wine country.
However, if you choose to visit Napa Valley, know that the region passed laws in 2016 reining in on vacation rentals like AirBnBs. While there are plenty of unregistered AirBnB options despite the laws, you'll want to be aware that not every listing is technically legal.
One thing you'll definitely want to consider when planning your trip to a California wine region is how you're going to get from place to place. Even if you are drinking as opposed to tasting (as in not spitting) each wine, there's a pretty good chance you're going to build up a bit of a buzz.
It's best to have a designated driver for each day you'll be in wine country. You also might consider a ride-sharing service like Lyft and Uber so that all of your friends can participate in the fun. Additionally, there are also plenty of driving services set up just for this purpose.
Planning Your Dream California Vacation
At Salt & Wind Travel, we're here to help lovers of food and wine travel to the world's best locations. Our travel planning services are ideal if you want to see the real destinations when you arrive rather than just landing in another tourist trap, if you don't have the time to plan your trip, or if you're unfamiliar with your planned destination.
Let us help you plan your California wine region's vacation so that you can have the trip of a lifetime. You can learn more about our California travel planning services here.
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