California usually conjures up visions of sandy beaches with tanned figures roller- blading on the sidewalk, shopping on Rodeo Drive like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or skiing the world class resorts of Lake Tahoe or Mammoth. And while all the above are true highlights of the Golden State, there is another exciting feature which you may not even have thought of – the wine regions.
California’s wine regions produce some of the best wine in the world, and the wine valleys of Napa and Sonoma especially, are famous for their open door policy – a trip there guarantees you not only wine tasting, but invitations into wine cellars, wine bars and if you’re lucky a local festival or concert.
This open door, laid back philosophy also means a visit to the wine valleys isn’t just for wine buffs. You can learn about wine making, see it in action, taste the grapes and meet the winemakers, or if you prefer you can just sit back, relax, eat some delicious food along with some even more delicious wine and take in the breathtaking scenery.
Here goes a whistle stop tour of the wine making regions, highlights of each and the wines to try. If you’re not itching to book a flight straight into San Francisco after this, we’ll eat our wine barrel!
The Northern California Coast offers everything from views along the rugged shoreline to ancient redwood forests and native oak groves. The Russian River runs down through the coastal mountains of Mendocino into northern Sonoma County, makes a turn west near the town of Healdsburg and heads for the Pacific Ocean. And as if these natural wonders weren’t enough, the rolling hills, mountains and valleys carpeted with lush grapevines entice the visitor at every turn.
As well as fantastic wine, the North Coast is also well known for superb local produce from its farms, ranches and the ocean. Each district offers visitors the chance to sample hand-made cheeses, olive oils, meats and fresh fish.
This region is home to Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, and portions of Marin and Solano counties. Just a leisurely day’s drive from San Francisco, this winemaking mecca since the mid-19th century is home to about 800 wineries, roughly one-third of the total wineries in the state. When tasting in the north, be sure to try sumptuous Cabernet Sauvignons from the manicured vineyards of Napa, earthy Zinfandels and squeaky-clean Sauvignon Blancs from rather more down-to-earth Sonoma County, and cool-climate Pinots and Chardonnays from Carneros. Reliable winery names you will see include E&J Gallo, Beringer, Mondavi and Ravenswood.
The Central California Coast region begins at San Francisco Bay, encompasses Livermore Valley and Contra Costa and Alameda counties to the east, and runs down the California coast via Monterey to Santa Barbara. You could take the six-hour meandering drive down El Camino Real or the “royal road,” as early Franciscan monks called California Highway 101. This is one of the best ways to experience many of California’s most appealing features of rolling golden hills and valleys patchworked with green coastal scrub, native oak groves and glimpses of blue water below towering cliffs.
The Central Coast has some 6.8 million acres, of which nearly 100,000 are planted to vines that produce approximately 12 per cent of the state’s total wine grapes. More than 600 wineries lie tucked away in the numerous and diverse areas with the region: Livermore Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Santa Clara Valley, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, San Benito County and Santa Barbara County. Our recommendations for the classic Central Coast wine varieties to try are sturdy Zinfandels and Rhone varietals from Paso Robles, and classy Pinots and Chardonnays from the wine roads of Santa Barbara (as immortalised in the film ‘Sideways’). Names to look for include EOS, J. Lohr and Eberle in Paso, and Zaca Mesa, Sanford and Au Bon Climat from the Santa Ynez Valley, just north of the beautiful resort of Santa Barbara.
As well as wineries and vineyards, this region is also home to Pebble Beach Golf Course on the Monterey Peninsula, the rugged coastline of Big Sur and Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are California’s great interior, nestled between the coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada. When joined, they stretch nearly 400 miles, from Shasta County in the north to Kern County in the south, merging at the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta.
These valleys are California’s market basket. Sacramento is home to the California State Capital and the California State Fair, and San Joaquin Valley grows a host of agricultural products such as cotton, grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts.
The Sierra Nevada is even further inland, and is known for its rough-and-ready pioneering spirit and winemaking tradition that dates back to the mid-1800s Gold Rush days. Nearly 180 wineries nestle in the nooks and crannies of this region, and the major wine varieties include Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz Chardonnay, Merlot and Barbera.
The Southern California region extends from Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, to the southern border of California below San Diego. While the region may be better known for its beaches and theme parks, it’s also the birthplace of California winemaking. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra planted wine grapes at Mission San Diego de Alcala.
This region is great for those that want to see a bit of everything, you can explore the landmarks of Hollywood, the magic of Disneyland, and the adventure of the San Diego Zoo – all while enjoying the fruits of the region’s vineyards.
Varieties of wine to try here include the classic Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, also don’t miss the “new-wave” Rhône, Italian and Spanish varieties.
To discover more about California and its wines, including planning a trip to the State visit www.discovercaliforniawine.com