Destination – California Wine Country Part I (beyond Napa)

Leoness Cellars, Temecula, CA

California is home to some of the most creative winemakers, productive vineyards, wildly varying terroir,  and demanding wine club members in the world.  

If you love wine and you want an excuse to travel to the United States, California is your destination. 

Let’s break it down a bit.  There are five general regions, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).

An AVA is a geographical area recognized for growing grapes that has terroir (climate, soil, elevation) distinguishable from other areas.   Overall, the state of California contains over 100.  Yeah

So… Napa.  Just the tip of iceberg.  Nothing against that region.  Some fine wines coming out of there, but it’s not where the great deals in wine are going to be found, and certainly not where I’d point you first for a terrific wine tasting (and buying) experience. 

You will need a car.  A driver would also be excellent, or you might bring one of those special friends who likes to travel but doesn’t like wine.  I pity them, but I treasure their value to the friendship circle.  There are some wine country tours that allow you to ride a train, but if you really want to explore, you’ll need to bear in mind that California is big.  Really. Really. Big.  You might have to come more than once. It’s a sacrifice, I know.  But California… just saying.

Not to sound like the California Tourist Bureau, but there’s a lot going on in this state.    I could write a book about California, so I need to stay focused.

This blog is about the various wine regions in California.  What I consider the five important wine regions in California can be broken down as follows (running from the top of the state to the south)

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes broken into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and (spoiler alert) including some of my favorite wineries. This includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

I could (and still might) write a blog about various California wine trips I’ve taken in the more than eighteen years I’ve lived here.  For now though, I’m working on an overview, including my impressions of the wine, the wine tasting experience, and the local food.  I’ll throw in a little trivia just to spice things up and get your travel juices flowing.  

The North Coast

Mendocino County is the northernmost area.  You’ll get a lot of great Pinot Noir there and some average Chardonnay (my opinion, YMMV).  It’s damp, foggy, and cool – a climate that is excellent for growing a number of grape varietals, less so for vacationing.   There are 10 distinct AVAs there, including Anderson Valley which produces some lovely sparkling wines  – if that’s your thing. 

Slightly east of Mendocino is Lake County, one of the first California grape growing areas to acquire wine fame. It’s hilly, temperate, and full of lush forests, sweeping vistas, tranquil drives, and lots of nature.  The actress Lillie Langtry actually purchased a large swath of land there and imported grapes from France to start the Langtry winery – which I highly recommend.  Guenoc is the grocery store brand, but the Langtry label wines are far superior, and should definitely be tasted if you’re in that neck of the woods.  My all time favorite Viognier came from Langtry.  Also in that area is Harbin Hot Springs, which I hope will soon recover enough from the brutal 2015 Valley Fire to take in guests.  

I have spent time in Napa Valley.  It’s beautiful, well-groomed, and the delightful tourist destination everyone dreams of visiting.  The town of Callistoga has natural hot springs on offer, and some sweet little restaurants that I’d return to in a heart beat. If you’re in the mood for pizza or italian, you can’t go wrong with Bosko’s Trattoria.  The wine in Napa is varied, and well developed… but it should be.  It’s Napa.   With fame come responsibilities, and customers… and customers bring financial success. There are restaurants in Napa where you can drop a house payment on a meal for two.  If that’s your thing, go for it.  For some great food that doesn’t break the bank, try just about anything in the towns of Saint Helena and Napa.   The wine tasting experience varies widely, from the studied elegance of Chateau Montelena (of “Bottle Shock” fame) to the educational tour of Sterling (which is fun just for the tram ride to get up to the winery).  

A little AVA that rides the boundary between Napa and Sonoma, is Los Carneros which is similar in climate to Mendocino County.  I’m not familiar (yet) so if you can tell me more about the wines, the wine tasting experience, etc… drop me a comment. 

Sierra Foothills (Amador County)

Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, is a new favorite of ours.  With a history of local wine making (for locals), it’s been a pretty well kept secret for generations.  With that history come some spectacular vineyards and a tendancy toward a rather piquant (they call it “spicy”) Old Vine Zinfandel.  Italian varietals like Sangiovese and Barbera, and Rhone vines like Syrah and Viognier, also flourish and find their way into various bottles of note.  Amador is generally a quiet, unassuming area, although now that it’s on the ‘wine map’ things are starting to change and the tasting rooms are getting dressed up to reflect that.  In Amador, people take their food seriously, so you can expect to eat very well. This is also home to the Amador Flower Farm where you can see hundreds of Daylily varietals in bloom if you’re there in May and early June.  Amador County is also home to a deliciously dilapidated little town called Fiddletown, (because of its annual-ish Fiddler’s Jam),  chock full of historical buildings that I personally covet.  If I won the Lottery, I could see pouring a lot of money into the main street. 

Southern California

I’m going to drop in a bit about Southern California because this is long enough, and the Central Coast and the Central Valley merit their own blog (Part II). 

Despite the fact that I adored Milan Vineyards near Malibu,  I used to think that the bulk of great California wine was produced in Paso Robles and northward.  Then I moved out to the Coachella Valley (think Palm Springs, CA) for a bit, and discovered the Temecula Valley.  Wineries like Doffo, Leoness, and even the delicious wines of Disney-esque Monte de Oro, soon changed my mind.  If you are in the southern half of the state, don’t despair.  There is a great deal of sophisticated wine to be enjoyed in that area. 

I’ve been told that San Diego also hosts a few credible wineries but haven’t encountered them yet.  Any favorites there?  Drop me a comment. 

More to come.  Hope this has gotten your oenophile sensibilities all a-buzz.  Any favorite wineries you want to vote for?  Where else do you travel just to taste wine?  Share!

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Reformed road warrior with side interests in human rights, fuzzy creatures, great food, and a healthier planet.

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