California is tasting room central, with more wineries than any other state—about 4,800 in total. From San Diego County up to Mendocino and everything in between, you’ll find thousands of places to fill your glass, sip, repeat. Here’s how to make the most of your trip, and avoid looking like a novice.
1. Plan Ahead
While lots of wineries—including LEED Gold-Certified Odette in Napa Valley and Anderson Valley’s sparkling star Roederer—welcome walk-up guests, the really cool experiences are reserved for planners. At Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, estate tours include al fresco tastings amid the winery’s 1,200 hilly acres of vineyards, gardens, lakes and olive trees; book the Blending Experience at Wente Vineyards in Livermore and you can play winemaker for a day.
2. But Don’t Overplan
Cramming six tastings into a single day may seem like a great idea, but our advice is to slow down and give yourself time to explore the winery. Surprises abound: Hess Winery in Napa features a museum-worthy art collection; at Jarvis Estate, you can tour a waterfall located in a cave deep under its Napa vineyards. Bring a picnic to Rideau Winery so you can have lunch on the shady deck overlooking the sun-splashed hills of Ballard Canyon or leave the cooking to the professionals at Niner Wine Estate’s restaurant in Paso Robles.
3. Brush up on Tasting Room Etiquette
Beyond the basics you learned from your mom—make room for others, arrive on time for your reservation, don’t monopolize the staff—wineries have specific etiquette guidelines, too. One is to avoid wearing perfume or aftershave, which can affect the taste and aroma of the wine for others. Another is requesting a new glass for each different wine. Instead, just empty your glass into the bucket. That’s right—you don’t need to finish every drop. In fact, many professional wine tasters spit into a cup or bucket instead of swallowing. Finally, don’t accuse the winery staff of being cheap if they don’t fill your glass. According to the California Winery Advisor, they’re limited by law to pouring just an ounce for each taste.
4. Spend the Night
From country inns to boutique hotels and even large chains where you can put your frequent-guest status to work, California’s wine country is filled with lodging options. Just a block off of Healdsburg’s leafy main square, Hotel Les Mars woos guests with Champagne at check-in, free room-service breakfast and house-made aromatherapy treatments; in Carmel, La Playa Carmel’s casitas have fireplaces and direct access to a lovely tiled pool. Located in Los Olivos (about 45 mins from Santa Barbara), the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn offers private horseback rides through its nearby ranch and vineyard.
5. Arrange a Ride
All those sips can add up, so unless someone in your group is willing to forgo the fun, consider booking a tour, hiring a driver or hopping aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train (book in advance on Travelocity), which stops at wineries between Napa and St. Helena. Another option is to stay overnight in Yountville, St. Helena, Healdsburg, Solvang, Napa, Carmel-By-The-Sea, Philo or any one of the state’s wine-centric towns, which are filled with tasting rooms, restaurants and fun nightlife options.
6. Imbibe in Non-Wine Activities
Grapes tend to be cultivated in beautiful places, so get out and explore the landscape! In Sonoma County, you can hike among redwood trees that are more than a thousand years old at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve; in the town of Bodega Bay you can kayak with harbor seals. Love art and the outdoors? Check both boxes in Napa at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art’s horseback riding tour, which leads riders past some of the center’s outdoor sculptures. Visitors to Carmel and Monterey can ogle playful sea otters, dramatic rock formations and Pebble Beach’s famed golf links, which are all located along a 17-mile drive; surfers can get their fix at Zuma Beach near Malibu’s up-and-coming wineries.
7. Stay for Dinner
Here’s another reason why you should stick around for at least a night: Some of California’s top restaurants are located within easy striking distance of the vineyards. Some, like Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, are world renowned; others, such as Valette in Healdsburg (which shut down to provide free meals to first responders after wildfires in 2017), are on their way. There are plenty of low-key spots, too. In the Central Coast, beefy tri-tip grilled over local red oak is king at Old San Luis BBQ in San Luis Obispo; Bell’s serves updated French classics (and Utz’s potato chips) in Los Alamos; and at Sides Hardware and Shoes, a Los Olivos institution, order its famous giant slabs of pork belly.
8. Venture Beyond Your Favorites
A trip to wine country is the perfect time to try all sorts of new wines. In Sonoma, take time to walk through the flower-filled garden at DaVero Farms & Winery before sipping Italian varietals that range from the well-known—Sangiovese, Barbera—to the fairly unknown, like inky Sagratino and aromatic Malvasia bianco. Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cab Franc rosé are some of the unlikely stars at Gamling & McDuck’s downtown Napa tasting room. “Do be willing to try something new,” says Ashley Parker Snider, owner of Fess Parker Winery. “Every winery will have something special to offer.”
9. Try More Than Just Wine
Yes, it is wine country. But there are plenty of other artisanal drinks to be had. Famous for its Belgian-inspired Pliny the Elder Imperial IPA, Russian River Brewing Company has taprooms in Santa Rosa and Windsor. Meanwhile, spirits reign at Napa Valley Distillery, which produces several varieties of brandy, a bourbon cordial and bottled cocktails, as well as bitters and mixers. Sebastapol grows more apples than grapes; its California Cider Company pours 11 different ACE ciders in its taproom. Further north, in Eureka, Humboldt Cider Company serves dry ciders at two in-town locations; or give meade a try around the corner at Humboldt Honey Wine.
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