No matter the season, wine tasting is always festive
In Praise of the Grape
Sampling local wines is a popular activity in the many wine growing regions up and down the state. California wines became famous when a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley won the Judgment of Paris in 1976. It was an event that rocked the wine world, and the quality of California wines has only grown since then.
There are so many wines, varieties and regions in California that figuring out where to go and what to taste can be daunting. Aside from taking a tour, one of the best ways to get acquainted with an area is by attending a local wine festival. Think of it as Wine-recon, a most delightful way to gather insight and information on local wineries in a short span of time. From large-scale food and wine fests to small, quirky events, wine festivals can cater to both the casual wine fan and the experienced wine enthusiast determined to discover the next great producer.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST
Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Livermore, Santa Cruz Mountains
The most famous California wine region by far is in Northern California. Napa Valley is known around the world for its exceptional wines, and draws more visitors than any other area. The quintessential wine country experience was perfected here, with more than 300 wineries vying for your taste buds along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. While the majority of visitors go to the bigname wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Sterling, those in the know are heading for Coombsville.
Foodies and wine lovers will want to check out Flavor! Napa Valley, an annual event featuring world class Napa Valley wines alongside food prepared by the master chefs and graduates of The Culinary Institute of America at the Greystone Campus in Saint Helena.
Prefer something more pastoral? Wind your way up Highway 128 in Mendocino County to Anderson Valley for two exceptional festivals, the highly regarded Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Fest in May, and the Alsace Fest in February, focusing on Alsace-style white wines.
In Sonoma County, Healdsburg reigns as the king of the tasting rooms in California. Healdsburg is also home to one of the most eclectic wine events of the year—the uber
hip 7% Solution Fest dedicated to rare, lesser grown grape varieties with extremely limited production.
Visiting Northern Sonoma in January? Winter Wineland, a self-paced winery tour, is the toasty event of the season.
One of the oldest regions, Livermore, is just 30 miles east of San Francisco and best known for its Chardonnay production and the well-established winery estates of Wente and Concannon.
El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras
The mining towns of the Sierra foothills— Placerville, Amador City and Sutter Creek—used to draw prospectors in search of gold. Now wine lovers come in search of riches in liquid form, such as Grenache, Sangiovese and particularly Old-vine Zinfandel.
The main street of Murphys is lined with Gold Rush-era buildings and more than 20 tasting rooms equal parts rustic and sophisticated.
Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Carmel Valley, Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Clara Valley
The Central Coast is one of the largest and most diverse wine growing regions, and Monterey is home to the granddaddy of all wine festivals, the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Classic in April, where you can sip fine wines and enjoy small plates by star chefs.
If you are a Pinot or Syrah fan, head for the highlands, the Santa Lucia Highlands, an appellation with many noteworthy wineries such as Morgan, Mer Soleil, and Hahn.
Santa Clara Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in California. Founded by Italian immigrants in the early 1800s, this region has now grown to approximately 23 wineries.
Looking to meet the next great winemaker? The Garagiste Fest in Paso Robles will introduce you to the small guys with bright futures. And if bubbles make you
happy, Bubblyfest by the Sea in Pismo Beach is one of the only festivals in the country dedicated to sparkling wines.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA & CENTRAL VALLEY
Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos, Temecula, Lodi, Madera, Clarksburg
The Southern California coastal region vineyards in Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley produce primarily Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Santa Ynez Valley became the poster child for wine tourism when the 2004 film Sideways
confirmed its status as a Pinot Noir hot spot (or cool spot, as Pinot grapes don’t like too much heat). But the ghosts of Sideways’
Miles and Jack are long gone and it’s safe to drink Merlot again. Fall brings the annual Celebration of Harvest with Santa Barbara Vintners offering free wine tasting over Columbus Day Weekend along the local wine trails.
Zinfandel grows well in the Central Valley, and Lodi Zin Fest is the most famous and longest running festival for Zinfandel lovers. Lodi’s star is on the rise, and it’s now recognized as one of the top wine regions in the new world, a hotbed of production growing over 100 varieties in addition to it’s legendary Zin.
Vineyards inland in Southern California’s mostly hot and arid region are gaining notice, and Temecula in particular is generating an ardent following for its wines and sheer determination to grow grapes in a challenging location.
San Diego usually means sun and sand, but just an hour north you’ll find there’s wine too. Animal lovers will enjoy the annual San Diego Zoo Wine and Food Festival where you can stroll the grounds and sip wine in the midst of the wild kingdom.
California wine festivals and events fill the calendar all year long, like a roulette wheel of juicy prospects. Whether you plan ahead, or spin the big wine wheel and see where it lands, the odds are delicious.
SANTA BARBARA WINE COUNTRY, opposite; a Healdsburg red, top left; Jamie Slone Wines, top right; winetasting bike tour, Napa Valley, left; Yorkville Cellars Winery, Mendocino County, above.
WINE TASTING in Saint Helena, top; grape cluster, Solvang, above.
TESTAROSSA WINERY, Los Gatos, right; Paso Robles red and white, bottom.