If you love wine tasting and visiting wineries then California should definitely be on your travel list. Today I would like to share with you some of the most important things to know before visiting California wine country that will hopefully make your trip planning easier and the whole experience nice and memorable rather than stressful.
1. What is Actually California Wine Country?
It is not one specific area; there are several wine growing regions in California. The most famous are Sonoma County and Napa Valley. But beyond these two well-known regions there are many more wine growing enclaves that are worth your attention: Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, Temecula, Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino County, Carmel Valley, El Dorado County, Lodi and Livermore Valley.
2. Grape Varieties + Quality
The grapes varieties that are most popular among California wine growers are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel. Northern California wines tend to be drier and wines from the regions with hotter climate, such as Paso Robles, for example, tend to be a bit sweeter.
3. The Atmosphere
The Napa Valley region is considered to be the fanciest of them all. It is a go-to place for limo parties from the San Francisco Bay Area for bachelorette parties and such. The further away you go from Napa Valley, the more family friendly wineries you will encounter. In fact, every single winery that we visited in many other California wine regions listed above was family friendly. And by family friendly I mean not just the atmosphere but also activities offered for kids, such as games, garden exploration and sometimes even a playground. In addition to that, the further away you go from Napa, the more relaxed and down-to-Earth is the atmosphere.
4. The Crowds
Out of all California wine regions, Napa Valley will always be the most crowded. And not just because of its popularity. It is a narrow piece of land with one major road (Highway 29) and one secondary road (Silverado Trail) going through it and for the most part both roads are one lane in each direction. Pretty much all famous wineries are located along these two roads so you can imagine the congestion. In Sonoma County and in Paso Robles, in comparison, the wineries are located all over the map, in small clusters at times, instead of all being concentrated in one place—and we have yet to encounter a traffic jam there, even during the busiest of seasons.
5. The Prices
The prices for wine tasting tend to be the highest in Napa Valley out of all California wine regions. The fancier the winery, the higher the price. As a rule of thumb, the further you go away from major metropolitan areas, the less you will be asked to pay for a wine tasting, which does not at all correlate with the quality of the wine you will be offered to try. Outside of Napa you even have a chance to find free wine tastings (Korbel in Sonoma, J. Lohr in Paso Robles and others).
6. When to Go
Late spring, summer and the harvest time tend to be the busiest times to visit California wine regions. If you would like to avoid crowds my suggestion is to go early spring or in November. Check wineries’ schedules before going because in the off season they may be open only a couple days a week.
I have a lot of great California travel itineraries that include wineries. I hope you will enjoy your visit!