A Wine Tour Of California
|Population|| 33,871,648 |
|Currency||American Dollar (USD) |
|Average temperature||Spring and fall: 70° F to 80° F|
|High season|| Spring, September to October |
Anything France does, California can do better, right? Left-coasters certainly think so when it comes to winemaking. Over the last few decades, the Golden State has been host to a baby boom of wineries -- some entirely new, others renovated and replanted. Purists have sniffed that nobody beats the French for technique, climate and soil. Yet with each vintage, California wines seem to collectively improve, becoming very qualified contenders in their respective classes.
Of course, it’s best to taste for yourself and be the judge. We recently took you through a wine tour of France, so now it’s time to visit California and see what all the hubbub is about. Fortunately, you don’t have to sit on a plane for half a day to get there either. You’ll fly into San Francisco, with a three-day wine tour of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys just to the north. Before you ask, the movie Sideways was filmed further south, but the scenery will appear similar and just as alluring. In fact, people have relocated after just one visit. Don’t say you haven't been warned.
Note: All funds are listed in U.S. dollars.
Day 1: Welcome to the wine country
Maximizing your time here won’t be too difficult because you can get started shortly after touchdown in San Francisco with a drive to the Sonoma Valley. Jump on the 101 to Petaluma, only about 30 miles north. Head downtown to Sonoma Valley Portworks’ tasting room for a tour and a taste (no appointment is needed if you drop by weekday afternoons before 5 p.m.). As the name suggests, they dig their port and do it well.
If after-dinner wine isn’t your thing, especially as you begin your tour, at least try their nearly clear grappa, Spirit of the Harvest. Despite grappa’s inauspicious creation from leftover seeds, skins and stems, the vintner’s equivalent of cowboy stew is delicious. A word of caution: Grappa is strong by nature, and this one is rated 80 proof, so make sure you monitor your intake.
If you aren’t seeing stars from the grappa, keep your eyes peeled for film stars. Movies like American Graffiti, Basic Instinct and Peggy Sue Got Married have been shot here, and it remains a popular choice for filmmakers. Although this is a wine tour, be sure you take time to at least have a brief look around, especially the historic downtown area. Many buildings survived the earthquake of 1906 and are nicely preserved.
Fill day two with wine, wine and more wine…
Time to downshift and relax a bit. You’ve had a lot of tasting and traveling so far, so it’s the occasion for the equivalent to a seventh-inning stretch: some spa time at the famed Indian Springs. Their Spa Man package will relax and refresh for $225, and be sure you make time for the naturally heated mineral pool. Drop your bags here, too; you’re spending the night. Several rooms are available at seasonal rates, starting at $185 per night in the off-season.
Brannan’s Grill in downtown Calistoga gets our nod for dinner. Be prepared to make some difficult choices: Will it be the grilled rib eye ($30), braised rabbit Bolognese ($19), wild king salmon ($24), yellow fin tuna ($23), or another specialty altogether? At least you can be assured there isn’t a bad choice on the menu; the wines are well-paired and the service is highly attentive.
Day 3: Napa’s best
If you haven’t been heavily tempted to move here, you’re stronger than most people, and probably in denial. Your last day in this modern Garden of Eden will have you hitting points through the Napa Valley as you make your way back to San Francisco.
Park it in downtown St. Helena and drop by Tasting on Main, a tasting room featuring some of Napa Valley’s best. Because the area has so many wineries, you can save time, driving and money by checking out their greatest hits collection, which ranges from $10 to $15.
A few clicks away, between St. Helena and Rutherford, Rubicon Estate awaits. You probably know how small household projects become major operations, and Francis Ford Coppola does too. In 1975, he was looking for a modest summer home when he happened to come across the Inglenook property. He couldn’t resist the history and setting, so he gradually purchased and reunited the entire estate. Formerly known as Niebaum-Coppola Winery, your $25 allows touring, tasting and valet parking. Coppola is as serious about his winemaking as he is his filmmaking. Along with his wife, Eleanor, the Coppolas have been making wine here for almost 30 years.
Ready for déjà vu all over again? Remember how you encountered wine and racing yesterday at Bennett Lane? It’s time to revisit that scenario with a visit to the Andretti Winery in Napa. When Mario Andretti retired from racing in 1994, the commemorative wine ignited his second passion. Two years later, the Andretti Winery was established, and today produces some affordable and very enjoyable wines.
Some important tips to take on your wine-tasting trip…
- If time allows early in the trip, detour west to Highway 1. The famed coastal highway’s scenery can’t fully be appreciated in pictures or accurately put into words, but seeing the views firsthand will leave a lasting impression.
- The decision to taste or drink is partially dependent upon whether you hold the car keys. There’s no shame in not finishing. That’s why they have the big jars close by.
- Even if you aren’t driving, this isn’t a pub crawl. Take your time. Even if you don’t get buzzed, sampling too many varieties too quickly will dull your taste buds.
- People have sampled wines worth more than their cars, and they’re not always all that. Taste is subjective; let your taste buds guide you.
- Many wineries will ship their product, but find out first whether your home state allows it.
- If time allows, olive oil tasting can be an interesting diversion. Olives are often grown alongside the grapes, and the finished product has been growing a following. Your inner chef will love you for it.
- To fully appreciate the wine tour, refresh your tasting skills. Before the trip, or at least on the flight there, read The Wine Bible, Wine for Dummies or Wine Spectator Magazine.
Touring and tasting
Visiting California’s Wine Country can be just as rewarding as touring the vineyards of France. California’s vintners have arguably done more with less, making this a world-class destination with no passport required. If you fall in love with the area on your visit and can’t resist relocation, you wouldn’t be the first. Many visitors became residents that way. Consider yourself warned.