When you mention the Wine Country most people think of Napa or Sonoma Valley. But true wine geeks have long known that some of Northern California’s best wine and wine-tasting experiences can be found well beyond the valleys, often at family owned wineries tucked away on one-lane roads that would be impossible to find if it weren’t for the periodic signs pointing you in the right direction. It’s experiences like these—casual yet captivating conversations with winemakers as you savor the fruits of their years of hard work—that make visiting these esoteric wineries worth the effort. Ergo, here is Round 2 of my “Who knew?” favorites.
LIVERMORE VALLEY WINE COUNTRY
At the top of my list of “Who knew?” wine-tasting destinations is the Livermore Valley Wine Country, which is located just south of I-580. I’ve been blowing through Livermore on the way to Yosemite my entire adult life, and it wasn’t until recently that I spent a wonderful weekend here wining, dining, and losing badly to my girlfriend in bocce ball. It turns out Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines on these rolling hillsides in 1840, and pioneer winemakers such as C. H. Wente and James Concannon recognized the area’s winegrowing potential as well and founded their iconic wineries here in the early 1880s (in fact, Livermore Valley captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition).
There are more than 40 wineries within the Livermore Valley Wine Country, all within easy driving (or biking even) distance from each other. In fact, a company called Livermore Valley Wine & Cycle Tours offers weekend bicycle tasting tours throughout the valley. You can even take BART to the Dublin/Pleasanton station and pre-arrange to have a limousine pick you up, take you wine tasting, and bring you back to the station that evening, thus avoiding the need for a designated driver.
Better yet, book a night’s stay at the wonderful Rose Hotel in downtown Pleasanton and make a full weekend of your getaway, starting on Saturday with an alfresco lunch at Cafe Garré and ending with a hilarious game of wine-impaired bocce ball at Campo di Bocce. I also highly recommend having dinner at the wonderful Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, as well as spending some time strolling Pleasanton’s Main Street, which has a delightful old-town charm to it and great shops, bars, and restaurants. For more information about the Livermore Valley Wine Country—including a handy Wine Country Map—log onto www.lvwine.org.
PASO ROBLES WINE COUNTRY
Paso Robles doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves in the wine world. For decades, wine aficionados overlooked the area, but in the last 20 years Paso Robles has experienced a boom in grape production and wine-making, and with it has come a boom in boutique hotels, spas, golf courses, and restaurants, making Paso Robles a very compelling getaway alternative to Napa and Sonoma. In fact, Paso Robles is reminiscent of Napa Valley way back in the ‘70s before it became a major tourist destination. Arriving in downtown Paso Robles is like taking a step back in time and right into a movie set. It’s worth taking a leisurely stroll around the main town square before heading out into the rolling vineyards for an afternoon of wine tasting.
Visitors will enjoy Paso Robles’ relaxed rural atmosphere while driving leisurely from winery to winery, chatting with winemakers while tasting their product. Many Paso Robles wineries are on the winding roads off Highway 46 on either side, so try to cluster your visit according to this destination, visiting one side and then the other. For more info log onto www.pasowine.com.
Some of my top picks in this region include:
Justin Vineyards & Winery: A must-visit is Justin and Deborah Baldwin’s boutique winery. Justin’s flagship wine is Isosceles, a Bordeaux-style blend that exudes sophistication and earns Wine Spectator raves. The winery also has an impeccably outfitted and romantic four-suite B&B called the JUST Inn.
Tobin James Cellars: A lifelong wine expert who claims to wear the same pair of khaki shorts every day, Winemaker Toby James has patterned his tasting room with a Wild West theme, including a century-old saloon bar and a country music soundtrack, all serving to dispel that annoying wine-snob atmosphere. Toby’s zinfandels are particularly good and very reasonably priced.
Summerwood Winery & Inn: Summerwood Winery focuses on opulent limited-edition wines—particularly cabs and syrahs—that are only available here. With the help of award-winning winemaker Chris Cameron, Summerwood is turning out some of the best reds around, including wonderful Rhone varietals and Bordeaux-style blends. The winery also offers a gourmet deli for picnickers, plush fireside chairs for relaxed sipping, and the luxurious Summerwood Inn bed-and-breakfast set among the vines.
HEALDSBURG WINE REGION
Most visitors to Northern California Wine Country relegate their vacation time to Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley. But insiders have long known that the best of both worlds can be found in and around Healdsburg. Here, amid hundreds of acres of vineyards, are family owned wineries, adorable B&Bs, and outstanding food and wine experiences. Add to that fantastic holiday shopping and you’ll see why Healdsburg has become a hot getaway destination.
Located about 65 miles north of San Francisco off Highway 101, Healdburg’s highlight is its centerpiece historic square, which has been the heart of the town since its inception in 1857. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, rural roads lead to country B&Bs, homey wineries, and an abundance of Victorian architecture that gives the region an old-world charm. Adding to its intrinsic allure, the town is surrounded by all the premier viticultural areas, allowing for easy access to Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, and Chalk Hill. For more info log onto www.healdsburg.com.
Some of my favorite Healdsburg wineries include:
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery: The hands-down winner for most stunning landscaping goes to this vineyard known for producing everything from fumé blanc to zinfandel. Take some time to meander the formal Asian garden abounding with rhododendron, Japanese arched bridges, boxwood, maples, magnolia, and roses—and, of course, to taste wines (their 2007 Siena is outstanding) and enjoy quintessential wine country views.
Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves: Do yourself a favor—make a point of winding your way over to this charming-chic winery specializing in hearty, spicy, old-vine zinfandel and red Rhone varieties. Pass through the mysterious arched doors built into the hillside to enter their cave tasting room, complete with cafe tables, chic hanging lamps, and a small, casual tasting area.
Preston of Dry Creek: This one of my favorite places to visit in Northern Sonoma. A winding dirt road leads to a soothing scene of grassy areas with picnic tables, bocce courts, oodles of wisteria, and a charming tasting room and store within a farmhouse. Dabble in the broad selection of Rhone varietals made here—including mourvedre, viognier, roussanne, barbera, and syrah. And be sure to buy a loaf of the fantastic bread baked and sold here daily.
J Vineyards & Winery: J is best known for its sparkling wines (hence the rabid popularity of its “Bubble Room”) but has also found a niche in the pinot noir and chardonnay markets. J hosts a variety of sexy winery experiences, from bubbly tastings to private wine & food pairings, on its 274 acres of Russian River Valley vineyards.
SANTA CRUZ WINERIES
As if the beaches, redwood-forested mountains, and boardwalk aren’t enough to entice you to visit Santa Cruz, the region also has numerous award-winning wineries clustered around the satellite towns of Boulder Creek, Felton, and Capitola. Most visitors may not be familiar with the labels because the output is small, but there are some real gems produced here at reasonable prices. You can pick up a brochure/map listing all the Santa Cruz mountain wineries at any winery, or print one from the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers’ Association’s website at www.scmwa.com.
Some of my favorite Santa Cruz wineries that have wine-tasting rooms include Bargetto Winery in Soquel, which has a pretty courtyard wine-tasting area overlooking the creek; Bonny Doon Vineyard, where you can sample Rhones, syrahs, and some rather obscure Italian varietals (obscure to me at least) at their new Santa Cruz tasting room and cafe; and Hallcrest Vineyards in Felton, a small, family owned operation that has been producing premium California varietal wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 1941 (Hallcrest is also my top pick for having a picnic lunch on their deck or lush lawn area surrounded by gardens, so don’t forget the blanket).
And if you have your own tips and recommendations about great wine-tasting getaways that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.