What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

Viticulture in California's vast interior valley, nestled between the state's coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada, is actually two valleys: the Sacramento Valley in the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the south, which includes the Delta area located in the middle where the two valleys meet. Although the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are not designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the region produces 70 percent of the state's winegrapes and is home to 15 AVAs. The Sierra Foothills region is an AVA that runs adjacent to both valleys on the east side, along the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About 0.5 percent of the winegrapes grown in the state are produced from the Sierras.

American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grape growing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, a state or states, or a county or counties within a state.

 

Sacramento Valleysacramento valley highlight SMALL

The Sacramento Valley runs for approximately 120 miles from Red Bluff in the northern end of the valley to the city of Sacramento. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west, this level, sun-drenched, agriculturally rich area is unaffected by ocean influences. The region has about 8,000 acres of winegrapes. Chardonnay is the most prominent variety and Zinfandel follows. There are some 16 wineries, and approximately two percent of the total state winegrape crush comes from this region.

 

The Delta

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley meet at the river delta about 100 miles east of San Francisco, roughly encompassing portions of Solano, Yolo, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. Here Chardonnay is also the most widely planted variety with Zinfandel a close second.

Within the Delta area, the Lodi AVA has been a major winegrowing region since the 1850s. Grapes were always part of the local landscape, growing wild, dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Early trappers called one stream "Wine Creek," due to the abundance of wild vines. The river was later renamed the Calaveras River, and flows through the southern part of the Lodi area. Today, the Lodi AVA is farmed by more than 750 growers. About 60 wineries are located in this picturesque rural area known for its older head-trained grapevines. Like the other Delta wine areas that include the Clarksburg AVA with its 10 wineries and 9,000 vineyard acres and the Merritt Island AVA, Lodi is also defined by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the coastal gap where the northern and southern coastal ranges meet at the San Francisco Bay. As temperatures rise in the state's vast interior valley, cool maritime breezes are pulled directly through the Delta area, creating a distinctive climate that has allowed premium winegrapes to thrive for more than a century. Lodi has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Deep, sandy clay loam soils predominate.

 

San Joaquin Valleysan joaquin highlight SMALL

One of the richest agricultural areas in the world, the San Joaquin Valley measures about 220 miles in length and 40 to 60 miles in width, extending from around Stockton south to Bakersfield. There are five million acres of irrigated farmlands planted to cotton, grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts. The majority of wine, table and raisin grapes in California are grown in this valley. French Colombard is the leading variety. Chardonnay is the second most planted grape. The red winegrape with the most acreage is Zinfandel. By far the largest producing area in the state, the San Joaquin Valley accounts for more than 44 percent of the total state winegrape crush. There are more than 30 wineries and four AVAs.

The Sierra Nevada mountains form the eastern border of this grand expanse of land, and the lower, more irregular Coast Ranges define it to the west. Irrigation of this land with limited rainfall comes from two huge reservoir and canal systems that bring water from the length of the Sierras to the valley farmers. Although grapes have been grown in the region for more than 100 years, there has been a continuing advance in grape and wine quality due to viticultural refinements, including new varieties, rootstocks, trellis systems and irrigation techniques. These advancements are helping to transform the San Joaquin Valley from a generic into a varietal wine producer.

 

Sierra Foothills

sierra foothills highlight SMALLThe California Gold Country is also a wine region. Originating back to the gold rush days, the first grapes were planted in the 1850s, as a lot of wine was needed to quench the thirst of the Forty-Niner population that migrated to the state at this time. The Sierra Foothills AVA stretches from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa County in the south, along the western portion of the Sierra Nevada, with Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties in the center. Within the entire Sierra Foothills AVA, which totals 2,600,000 acres, there are five other AVAs: California

Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba. The total winegrape vineyard acreage in the Sierra Foothills AVA is 5,700 acres. Zinfandel has the largest amount of plantings, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, , and Barbera. More than 100 wineries are nestled throughout the nooks and crannies of the foothills, with vineyards generally located between 1,500 to 3,000 feet where elevation creates a four-season climate. The shallow, mountainside soils create moderate stress on the vines, producing low to moderate yields and high quality.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the interior of California, are the agricultural heartland of the state. Winegrapes are only one of the bountiful crops grown in this immense expanse of farmland. Lodi, Solano and the rest of the Delta area differ from the vast valley regions in their proximity to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay influence of maritime breezes. The Sierra Foothills could be described as an interior AVA, but its climate and soil conditions starkly contrast all aspects of those viticultural areas on the extensive valley floor below.

 

(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)

 

Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in the Central Valley and Gold Country regions can be found in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. Also in the Resource Directory are links to most, if not all, of the wineries.

 

Each year, tourists visit wine regions throughout California to explore the state's 3,000 wineries and the diverse array of cultural attractions. From gardens, art museums, great seasonal cuisine and artisan foods to natural hot springs, spa treatments, beaches, redwood groves, golf, and boutique shopping, California wine country offers travelers many diversions between visiting the wineries.

With so much to choose from, some of the state's regional winery associations have shared their "insider" tips for having great experiences while touring their wine regions. The following are recommendations for three ideal days in Amador County, Lodi, Monterey County, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Cruz County and Sonoma County from these travel and hospitality experts.

Amador County

Nestled in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, two hours from San Francisco, Amador County boasts 37 small family wineries, some of California's finest old-vine Zinfandels, gorgeous scenery and many captivating Gold Rush-era attractions.

Begin your tour in Jackson visiting the wonderful Amador County Museum, which boasts a treasure trove of memorabilia from the Gold Rush days. Then, head east to Pine Grove to visit Indian Rock Grinding State Park, located in a small valley 2,400 feet above sea level. From Pine Grove, travel northeast to the charming Gold Rush town of Volcano for dinner and a night's stay at the historic St. George Hotel. On your second day, explore the Black Chasm Caverns in Volcano and then head west to Sutter Creek to savor its quaint Main Street shops and Gold Rush-era buildings. Enjoy a casual lunch and local wines at Susan's Wine Bar, then visit Sutter Ridge Vineyards to taste one of California's few Tempranillos. Thrill-seekers should be sure to book a tour of the Sutter Gold Mine. From Sutter Creek, head north to Plymouth, gateway to the wineries of the Shenandoah Valley. Join the locals for some delicious ribs and Zinfandels at Incahoots, than bed down at the nearby Plymouth House Inn.

On your third day, buy a snack at the gourmet Amador Vintage Market in Plymouth before setting off for the gorgeous scenery and charming wineries of the Shenandoah Valley. Be sure to stop at Montevina, one of California's venerable producers of classic old-vine Zinfandel, and Shenandoah Vineyards, a producer of an array of top-value Amador wines. Also check out Avio, a new winery specializing in Italian varietals, and Dobra Zemjla, a quintessential Amador producer of "Big Reds." For more touring information, visit Amador Vintner's Association.

LodiSchool Street Bistro  SMALL JPG 575 431 0 80 1 50 50Lodi's School Street Bistro

Lodi Wine Country is a hidden jewel in California wine country. Begin your journey in downtown Lodi Stroll past boutique and antique shops as you make your way to School Street Bistro, owned by local winemaker, David Akiyoshi and wife Trisha. Later you can check in at the beautiful, Tuscan-inspired Wine & Roses.

Just a short walk from your room at Wine & Roses is the interactive Lodi Wine & Visitor Center where you can walk through the demonstration vineyard, learn about winegrape growing and winemaking, find out more about a number of local wineries and everyone's favorite part—taste a selection of over 200 Lodi wines. See Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission for more visitor information.

Spend the next day tasting wine in Lodi Wine Country, making sure to stop at Jessie's Grove Winery, a historic farm property highlighting the history of Lodi. Then head to Phillips Farms so you can experience the Michael-David Winery and grab a snack at the farm fresh café. Next, stop by Chocoholic's Chocolate Factory in Clements to practice chocolate making first-hand with self-guided tours and chocolate tasting in their gift shop. Be sure to also check out the thousands of acres of nature preserves surrounding Lodi. A paradise to avid birders and nature lovers, the river-rich basin and marshes are home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The Cosumnes River Preserve is a favorite among visitors and offers year-round hiking trails and an educational visitor center. During the winter months, the Sandhill Crane come to nest, offering individuals an opportunity to view this magnificent bird. Lodi celebrates the arrival of the crane each November with the Sandhill Crane Festival featuring nature-related educational classes, bus tours and entertainment.

Monterey County

Each winegrowing area within Monterey County's 40,000 acres of grapes offers unique wine tasting experiences. Start your first day with the convenient tasting venues throughout the popular vacation areas of Monterey and Carmel-by-the Sea. From there, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which Zagat Survey rated as the nation's top aquarium and the third best attraction in the U.S. Next, get ready for some excitement with kayaking or whale watching. End your day with fabulous cuisine at one of the restaurants near Cannery Row while watching a beautiful Monterey Bay sunset.

On your second day, visit the intimate tasting rooms in the Carmel Valley Village. Spiritual seekers will find inspiration at Esalen in Big Sur, or by walking the labyrinth near the mouth of Carmel Valley. Mid-afternoon, go tide pooling along the rocky shore, ride horseback over open meadows, or hike in one of the many nature preserves. Explore Monterey County's ninety-nine miles of Pacific coastline and the world-famous 17 Mile Drive. Then, treat yourself to one of the many pampering packages at one of the world-class spas, such as Pebble Beach or Quail Lodge. Finally, golf at one of these resorts or one of over 10 other wonderful golf courses in the area.

Head over into the Salinas Valley on the third day. First, speed enthusiasts will want to take in a race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Then literature buffs can visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to experience a journey through John Steinbeck's world, experiencing Steinbeck's works and philosophy through interactive, multi-sensory exhibits for all ages and backgrounds, priceless artifacts, entertaining displays, educational programs, and research archives. Wrap up the afternoon with a tour along River Road and visit one of the many new tasting rooms that have recently opened. End the evening by staying at The Inn at the Pinnacles, located adjacent to the Chalone Winery. Check in your bags at The Inn and then hike through the Pinnacles Monument. End your evening by listening to the coyotes and eating a gourmet meal at this exclusive inn. For more information on Monterey, visit The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.

Napa ValleyDomaine Chandon oysters SMALLTreat yourself to oysters on the patio at Domaine Chandon.

Napa Valley is a renowned world class winegrowing region that was the first recognized AmericanViticultural Area (AVA) among California's 107 AVAs. Though most known for full-bodied, signature Cabernet Sauvignons, the 400 wineries in the Napa Valley produce a range of wines including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot among others.

Start your tour visiting a winery off the beaten path, such as the Hess Collection on Mt. Veeder where within its three-story winery houses a renowned collection of modern art. Have lunch at Domaine Chandon's restaurant with sparkling wines from this well-known winery in Yountville. On Highway 29, visit the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville for an educational tour. Unwind overnight at the Meadowood Napa Valley Resort, site of the annual Auction Napa Valley, or one of the many bed and breakfast inns dotting the valley.

Day two begins with exploring wineries along or near the Silverado Trail, such as Groth, Duckhorn, Clos du Val, Stag's Leap Winery, Rudd or Miner Family Vineyards. Make a reservation to do a wine blending seminar at Conn Creek Winery. Enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch on the lawn at V. Sattui Winery's delicatessen, then take a break from wine tasting and visit the charming town of St. Helena for some shopping. Dean and De Luca is a purveyor of wine country eats and accessories and there are several unique antique stores and boutiques.

Begin day three with a visit to the historic Rhine House of Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Next, take a tram ride up to Sterling Vineyards' hilltop winery and take in the view of Napa Valley on their patio. Travel to nearby Calistoga to shop or visit one of the several historic spas for a mud bath, massage or natural hot springs soak. End this day with a cooking class and dinner at the Culinary Institute of America. For more information, visit Napa Valley Vintners.

Paso Robles

Paso Robles Wine Country is centrally located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California's Central Coast. The region is home to 180 wineries and more than 29,000 vineyard acres, making it the state's third largest wine region. More than 40 wine varieties are grown and produced here. From Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel to Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, you can find a wide selection of wines.

Begin your stay by exploring the wineries as well as the thriving community. Between winery visits, take a stroll through the downtown City Park, outlined with boutique shopping, olive oil tasting, and several fine dining restaurants.

On the second day, take a quick 30-minute trip to the coast; just 30 minutes puts you on the sandy beaches where you might spot elephant seals. Next, tour the majestic Hearst Castle San Simeon State Historical Monument. Choose between five tours, ranging from the basic "Experience Tour" to the upper floors and gardens to a special tour at night. Tour reservations are required to guarantee the tour, date, and time desired.

On your third day, check out the WineYard at Steinbeck Vineyards, where you can discover Paso Robles Wine Country aboard a vintage jeep. The winegrape growers lead this excursion through the vineyards and talk about planting a vineyard and the growing season. More wine touring information is at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Santa Cruz County

With easy access to the San Francisco and San Jose airports, the Santa Cruz Mountain tasting rooms in Saratoga and Los Gatos are a good place to start your tour. Also, stop by nearby historic Cooper-Garrod Vineyards, Savannah Chanelle, and Testarossa. Hakone Gardens, an 18-acre Japanese-style garden and koi pond, is along the way, and one can enjoy a concert at Montalvo Arts Center and dine at Sent Sovi before a comfortable overnight stay at Saratoga Inn.

Day two takes you up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Putter along Bear Creek Road, enjoying David Bruce Winery and the Chateau at Byington. Cross over Highway 17 to explore Summit Road and a tasting at Burrell School. Next, pick up lunch supplies at the Summit Store before venturing over the other side to Soquel. Enjoy dinner at charming Cafe Sparrow in Aptos near the coast, before cozying up in the quaint Historic Sand Rock Farm Bed & Breakfast.

Start your third day with a walk on the beach prior to the tasting room and gallery at Bargetto Winery. Plan on lunch at Aldo's on the Santa Cruz Wharf and then head to Storrs Winery to sample more wines. Next, spend some time sipping the sparkling wines at Equinox. Finish your day on the Santa Cruz Wharf with a visit to see the sea lions and do wine tasting with Beauregard Vineyards. Touring information is at Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County's world famous and diverse wines would make this premium winegrowing region an unbeatable destination in itself, but it also offers weeks worth of amazing visitor experiences that have nothing to do with wine—a rare combination.

Begin one day in the Russian River Valley tasting the area's Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. End up in the picturesque town of Healdsburg, where you can enjoy boutique shopping and a leisurely lunch in the town square. Spend the afternoon out at the coast, stopping along the way in Dry Creek Valley to sample Zinfandel. At Bodega Bay, walk along the beach, go whale watching, or just enjoy the view. End the day with a fresh seafood dinner and an ocean sunset. Stay in one of the area's many bed and breakfast inns or drive back to Healdsburg for a laid-back luxury hotel experience.

Day two, enjoy wonderful hiking in Jack London State Park and view the museum dedicated to the writer, before experiencing yet another distinctive wine area, Sonoma Valley, known for its Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tour vineyards, vibrant gardens and buzzing wildlife sanctuaries at Benziger Vineyards, which offers visitors a 45-minute adventure in winegrowing via a tractor tram tour of their estate in Glen Ellen. Then head to historic downtown Sonoma for shopping and restaurants. Unwind at one of the region's numerous spas before spending the night in Sonoma.

Get up early on your third day to go hot-air ballooning, or have a more leisurely morning browsing a local farmer's market. Pick up some picnic supplies and head out to a winery in picturesque Alexander Valley for an idyllic wine-country lunch. In the afternoon, enjoy one of Sonoma's more than 20 golf courses, or rent a bike and travel down the region's back roads.

Maps of Sonoma County wineries can be found at Sonoma Country Vintners. The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau is a great source for lodging and restaurant information at Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

 

(Wine Institute contributed to this article.)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in wine country, as well as the websites of the wineries themselves, can be found in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

California winemakers have ridden the wine wave of the past 30 years to achieve a degree of visibility and renown within the industry and beyond. As the number of commercial bricks and mortar California wineries has grown from about 850 in 1998 to over 3000 in 2012, winemakers have taken the center stage, much like football quarterbacks. Whether they were born into a winemaking family, or became a winemaker through sheer will, or even by chance, winemakers have earned their title through hard work and a devotion to the grape. The job requires a strong sense of self-confidence along with an ability to make quick decisions and take risks.

There are countless paths to becoming a winemaker. Some go to college from winemaking families, as they want to continue their heritage. Others have a love of wine and decide to be winemakers, sometimes after having started careers in other fields. Many have a creative bent and are looking for an appropriate outlet. Whatever the motivation, a successful winemaker must have scientific aptitude coupled with strong intuitive and sensory abilities.

 Mondavi 320px-UC Davis Mondavi CenterWine industry's legacy at UC Davis includes the Mondavi Arts Cent

Winemaker Education and Training

California winemakers have usually completed a four-year degree program, such as the ones at the University of California at Davis; California State University, Fresno; and California Polytechnic State University. The UC Davis and Fresno programs, for instance, graduate 20-25 students annually with a Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology. A handful of students, who usually have an undergraduate science degree, receive a Masters degree in viticulture and enology each year. The curriculums are rigorous with courses in viticulture, pests and diseases, plant physiology, enology, microbiology, fining and others. The new Cal-Polytechnic program is also similar, but includes wine business courses in the curriculum.

College provides the technical information about the process of winemaking, but experience is the great teacher. After graduation, future winemakers may start out in the winery lab or as an assistant winemaker. If they are fortunate, they will have a mentor, allowing the art of winemaking to be passed down from generation to generation, from expert to novice.

Harvest – the Crucible of Winemaking

Winemakers love the challenge of harvest. It is the time of year when their knowledge and actions impact an entire vintage of wine. They usually work seven days a week for two to three months, as they need to be in constant communication with their growers and cellar staff. Harvest is a time of uncertainty and dealing with the unknown, whether it is equipment malfunction or heat spikes in the weather that turns the process into a frantic race to get the grapes off the vines. Adrenalin, as well as mental passion and skill, help winemakers cope with the daily dance of harvest.

The decision of when to pick is a winemaker's responsibility. Judging at what point the grapes will produce the most flavorful and balanced wine is critical. Winemakers walk the vine-yards; they sample the fruit and rely on both their sensory instincts and lab analyses to determine ripeness. They also need to be practical regarding the logistical constraints of harvest, as to how many tons of grapes can be picked in a day, how many tanks are available and how much their cellar crew can handle.

During the last 20 years, the emphasis in California winemaking has shifted to the vineyards. A winemaker's depth of knowledge regarding the vineyards that produce the fruit for his or her wines is perhaps the most important aspect of the job. Whether working for a large winery that contracts with multiple growers or on a small vineyard estate, the winemaker needs to have enough experience and awareness to make decisions about the ripeness, flavors, acidity and condition of the grapes. Each vintage is different, and winemakers need to use their training and intuitive skills to work with every season. A winemaker's relationship with growers or vineyard managers is usually one of close cooperation and communication. Many are long-term relationships built on trust and a shared vision of how to achieve certain parameters for making the finest wine possible from a given vineyard site.

Tasting and Blending – the Artistic Aspect of Winemaking

Tasting is an important facet of winemaking, from the beginning when the juice is in the fermenter to the final blend before bottling. Winemakers learn the technical aspects of tasting at school. However, it is through experience where they gain the ability to affect the taste of their wines through a myriad of daily winemaking decisions. These choices range from determining types of yeast to managing fermentation temperatures and times. Some winemakers taste alone. Oftentimes, there is a winemaking team that tastes together, and it is important to develop a common vocabulary so that everyone agrees on the basic tastes – astringent, bitter and sweet – as well as more complex descriptors.

Blending is another tool in the artistic palette of a winemaker. Each vineyard lot is usually kept separate, and yeast, fermentation and oak treatments can vary, depending on the winemaker's intention. Often a winemaker will have 20-30 lots of a wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, that come from different vineyards with various vine maturity, aged in different types of oak, or differ in color from light to opaque with varying degrees of alcohol. It is up to the winemaker to decide how to blend this array of wines to create the final product that will be bottled.

The Business Side of Winemaking

Winemakers are also responsible for budgets, purchasing winemaking equipment, managing inventory, and many other managerial responsibilities depending on the size of the winery. More and more, winemakers spend time traveling to different cities, meeting with media and trade to help promote and market their wines. These Renaissance men and women are leaders and innovators in the California wine industry. Their endeavors have been central in helping California wines enjoy a reputation for high quality and, often, for greatness.

Special thanks to the following experts for providing interviews for this article: MaryAnn Graf, consultant, Vinquiry; Fred Peterson, owner and winegrower, Peterson Winery; and Karl Wente, vice president viticulture and winemaking, Wente Vineyards.

 

(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of nearly all of California's wineries, as well as links to thousands of nearby lodging and dining options, can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.