Travel Guide to California

wine county

In Praise of the Grape

When it comes to wine, there is always something to celebrate

By Marcy Gordon


Sampling local wines is a popular activity in the many wine growing regions throughout 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.

The U.S. is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world after Italy, France and Spain, respectively. California produces over 80% of it.  Spanish missionaries brought the first vines to California in the late 1790s and settlers from Europe began developing the modern wine industry of today during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. 

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. 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.


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 400 wineries open for tastings along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. While the majority of visitors go to the big-name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Sterling, those in the know are heading for Coombsville.

For serious wine collectors, Auction Napa Valley has been the premier charity event of the season for over 40 years. Love music and wine? Make plans to attend BottleRock in May; it’s the hipster festival of the year. 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 Festival in May; and the Winter White Wine Weekend in February, focusing on Alsace-style white wines.

In Sonoma County, Healdsburg reigns as the king of the tasting rooms in California. The three most popular annual events in the area include Winter Wineland in January, Barrel Tasting in March, and foodie favorite Wine and Food Affair in November.

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, but now wine lovers come in search of riches in liquid form. The main street of Murphys is lined with Gold Rush-era buildings and over two dozen tasting rooms equal parts rustic and sophisticated. The El Dorado Hills Art, Beer & Wine Festival is the perfect place to view fine art from over 80 artists along the town center boulevard while enjoying food, live music and tastings from local wineries and breweries.


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 Winemakers’ Celebration in Carmel-by-the-Sea where you can stroll the charming streets, sample some of the area’s best wines and enjoy light-bites from popular local restaurant 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, one of the oldest wine regions in California, was founded by Italian immigrants in the early 1800s and has now grown to more than two dozen wineries.

Looking to meet the next great winemaker? The Garagiste Wine Festival in Paso Robles will introduce you to the small guys with bright futures.


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. The end of September brings the annual Celebration of Harvest, four days of wine and culinary experiences in Santa Barbara Wine Country.

In the Central Valley, Lodi Row x Row is a famous and long-running festival for Zinfandel lovers. Lodi is recognized as one of the top wine regions in the New world, a hotbed of production growing more than 100 varieties in addition to its 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 San Diego Zoo Food, Wine and Brew Celebration 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.




BottleRock—May 24-26 bottlerocknapavalley.com

Barrel Auction Napa Valley—June 2-3 collectivenapavalley.org/events


Winter Wineland—Jan. 13-14 wineroad.com/events/winter-wineland

Barrel Tasting—March 2-3 wineroad.com/events/barrel-tasting-weekends

Wine and Food Affair—Nov. 4-5 wineroad.com/events/wine-food-affair


Anderson Valley Winter White Wine Weekend—Feb. 17-18 


Anderson Valley Pinot Fest—May 17-19 avwines.com/pinot-noir-festival


Monterey Winemakers’ Celebration—June 8 montereywines.org/events/

Garagiste Wine Festival (Paso Robles)—Nov. 7-10 garagistefestival.com/paso-robles


El Dorado Hills Art, Beer & Wine Festival—May 13-14 eldoradohillsartfestival.org

Lodi Row x Row (Lodi Lake Park)—May 19-20 lodirowxrow.com

San Diego Zoo Food, Wine and Brew—Sept. 23 zoofoodandwine.com



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