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. Here are a few of my “Who knew?” favorites.
LODI WINE COUNTRY
I kid you not—some of the best wines in California come out of Lodi, which is the largest producer of Zinfandel in the world. I am addicted to Macchia’s phenomenal Old-Vine Zinfandels (www.macchiawines.com) and still working my way through the rest of the 75 wineries and 60 varietals that comprise the Lodi Wine Country. Hardly anybody knows that Lodi has a rich wine-producing history—some of the winemakers here span six generations, tending vines that are more than a century old.
If you’re up for a truly special wine-tasting experience, book a room at the Wine And Roses Country Inn (www.winerose.com), then call the ever-friendly Anna Goehring, Marketing Manager at Lodi Wine & Visitor Center (209/367-4727), and ask her to help you plan a wonderful wine-tasting getaway that will be a fraction of what a trip to Napa and Sonoma would cost you. Go Lodi!
ANDERSON VALLEY WINERIES
Most people blow right past these wonderful wineries as they head toward Mendocino, never stopping to sample some of the finest Gewürztraminers, Chardonnay, and Rieslings produced in the country. Most of Anderson Valley’s wineries line the narrow stretch of Highway 128 that winds through this gorgeous 25-mile-long valley before it reaches the coast. If you want the ultimate romantic wine getaway, book a room and dinner reservation at the Boonville Hotel & Restaurant (www.boonvillehotel.com; 707/895-2210), then start mapping out your Anderson Valley wine-tasting adventure.
Some must-see wineries in Anderson Valley include: Navarro Vineyards (www.navarrowine.com; 707/895-3686), a small family owned winery that pioneered the region’s trademark wine (dry, fruity, spicy Alsatian-style Gewürztraminer) and produces superb Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and White Riesling; Husch Vineyards (800/554-8724; www.huschvineyards.com), the oldest winery in the Anderson Valley serving samples of their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer in a former 1900s pony barn; and Roederer Estate (707/895-2288; www.roedererestate.com), where visitors can sample high-quality sparkling wines and take tours (by appointment) to learn about the sparkling wine-making process.
LAKE COUNTY WINE REGION
When you’ve finally had it with the absurd weekend traffic in Napa Valley, I have a suggestion—keep heading north on Highway 29 and eventually you’ll arrive in Lake County. Perhaps one day this region will become as celebrated as Napa and Sonoma, but for now there ain’t nothin’ nouveau about Clear Lake. Your first stop should be Langtry Estate & Vineyards in Middletown (www.langtryestate.com; 707/987-9127), which is the perfect introduction to this vast, affordable, and blissfully traffic-free wine region. For over a century this beautiful winery—the most awarded winery in Lake County—has been producing internationally acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Langtry Estate is the most well-known of Lake County’s wineries, most of which are small-production family wineries that rarely see crowds. For more information about planning a Lake County wine-tasting getaway, log onto www.lakecountywinetours.com, which has a great map of the Lake County wineries, plus offers chauffeured wine tours that include lunch and tasting fees (707/350-0700). The website www.lakecounty.com is also a good resource for local tasting rooms and tours (click on “Activities” then “Wineries”).
CARMEL VALLEY WINE REGION
Everyone knows about Carmel’s quaint shops and white-sands beaches—which explains the weekend crowds—but hardly anyone knows that just 15 miles due east is a covey of exceptional small-production wineries—Château Sinnet, Heller Estates, Bernardus—that line Highway G-16 in Carmel Valley. There’s no coastal fog or crowds here, just sunny skies, rolling hills, working ranches, and optimal grape growing conditions similar to those of the Bordeaux wine area of France. In fact, one of the highlights of Carmel Valley is Chateau Julien Wine Estates (831/624-2600; www.chateaujulien.com), a French-style château open for tastings of Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot in its beautiful high-ceilinged tasting room (great picnic area as well).
Carmel Valley is ready-made for a special wine-tasting getaway. Some of California’s most luxurious resorts reside in this verdant valley, such as the 5-star Bernardus Lodge, as well as more affordable retreats such as the Country Gardens Inns. In fact, if you go to www.countrygardeninns.com you can download a nifty little Carmel Valley Wine Trail map for free, and they’re currently offering a “Weekday Wine Escape!” package that include 4 wine-tasting tickets (see our Hotel Deals section for more info).
GOLD COUNTRY WINE REGION
During the gold rush, dozens of wineries existed in the Sierra foothills, started mainly by Italian immigrants. Sadly, the end of the mining boom and the beginning of Prohibition brought a severe wine-making drought to the region. Today, however, there are more than 60 wineries in the Gold Country producing—naturally enough—gold medal-winning wines. Most are small, family-owned establishments offering free public tours, tastings, and picnic sites, which makes the Gold Country a sleeper destination for an affordable wine-tasting getaway (and late summer through fall is the best time to visit).
Thirty-two varietals flourish within the microclimates of the foothills, resulting in everything from rich, spicy Zinfandels to full-bodied Chardonnays and fruity Rieslings. Most of the Amador County wineries (209/245-6992; www.amadorwine.com) are situated along the Shenandoah Valley Road out of Plymouth. The 9 wineries in Calaveras County (866/806-9463; www.calaveraswines.org) are within a 3-mile radius of the town of Murphys, and there are 24 tasting rooms in all. The majority of wineries in El Dorado County (800/306-3956; www.eldoradowines.org) are around the Apple Hill area and between the towns of Fair Play and Mount Akum. Winery maps can be picked up in visitor centers and most lodgings; many of the wineries are open daily and most offer free wine-tastings.