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How to Drink Your Way Through Each of California’s Wine Regions

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In the realm of domestic viticulture, California undoubtedly reigns king. The state’s myriad of soil types, climatic influences, and topography make it a hotbed for cultivating grapes and producing a variety of wines. From sun-drenched vineyards in Napa to saline-tinged growing sites in Sta Rita Hills, California’s viticultural scene truly has something for every palate preference out there—though why limit yourself to just one region? Here’s how to taste your way through all of California’s top wine-producing regions. Get ready for a delicious ride.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About California Wine Country

North Coast

Signature Grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc

There’s no better place to start your wine-soaked trip through California than at the top. Although Napa and Sonoma are more famous, hitting Lake and Mendocino counties first always promises a good time. Start in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley with a glass of something sparkling (Roederer Estate, Lichen Estate, and Scharffenberger Cellars are a few great places to start), then head over to Lake County for a pour of fresh sauvignon blanc on Clear Lake, the largest inland body of water in the entire state.

After a quick jaunt through Mendocino and Lake, head south to Napa and Sonoma, California’s claims to viticultural fame. Here, sun-drenched days and foggy mornings create ideal conditions for cultivating cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and pinot noir. Upon arriving in Sonoma, be sure to hit the town of Sebastopol and visit Pax Mahle’s tasting room, where you can sample his namesake wines, as well as cuvées from Monte Rio Cellars, Jaimee Motley Wines, and Jolie-Laide. Grab something sweet at Patisserie Angelica, wash it down with an organic coffee from Taylor Lane, and quench your evening brew craving at Woodfour Brewing Company.

Related: This California Wine Destination is Experiencing a Renaissance

Next up: Napa. Home to some of California’s biggest and most opulent names, this fierce appellation is known for boisterous reds, Michelin-starred restaurants, and some of the state’s most breathtaking accommodations (Meadowood, we’re looking at you). It’s important to note that many of Napa’s big name wineries operate on an appointment-only basis, so getting your spots secured prior to arrival is key. However, one thing’s for sure: lovers of big reds, opulent chardonnays, and delicious food, you’re going to adore this region.

Central Valley

Signature Grapes: zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot

Before heading south, we recommend heading east to the Central Valley. This overlooked and underrated region doesn’t often get the love it deserves, though we can’t recommend exploring its off-the-beaten-path sites enough. For fans of juicy zinfandel and big-boned red blends, this region is just for you. As prices in Napa and Sonoma continue to climb, seeking out value-driven wines from the Golden State is key. We suggest making Lodi your home base and sipping your way through the town’s many tasting rooms. Grab a bite at Sergio’s Missione or Johnny Napkins, hit the hay, and get ready for tomorrow’s adventures.

Central Coast

Signature Grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay, Rhône Varieties (syrah, grenache)

Grouping all of California’s Central Coast offerings into one day can be a bit overwhelming, as there’s so much to see (and taste!). From Lodi, head to Livermore Valley, located just east of the San Francisco Bay. This is one of California’s oldest growing regions and is home to some of the oldest (and continuously operating) family wineries. Fun fact: 80% of California’s Chardonnay genetically stems from this region.

From Livermore, visit Monterey County and the Santa Cruz mountains for some of the state’s most breathtaking wine-soaked experiences. Here, influences from the Pacific Ocean and Santa Cruz Mountains create optimal balance in fruit, which is mostly dedicated to pinot noir and chardonnay. Explore the Arroyo Seco and Carmel Valley AVAs in Monterey, post up in the harbor, and road trip throughout the mountains, with pit stops for sipping and snacking along the sea. Be sure to hit Hahn Winery and Partage Winery for two of the area’s best.

Related: Destination Wineries: Where to Experience Wine Country Around the Globe

Next up: south Central Coast. From Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, this magical growing area has so much to offer. Here, ocean sea breezes temper the area’s warm climates, which helps keep acid high in fruit. Chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah thrive in Central Coast-based vineyards, and these bottles are consistently some of our favorites to come out of California year in and year out. Be sure to get your hands on some of Lompoc’s best (Sandhi, Stolpman Vineyards, Holus Bolus), then head straight to Santa Barbara for some surfing, sea air, and seriously delicious tasting room experiences. We recommend giving this portion of your trip at least 48 hours.

For the city’s best wine bar break (including blind tasting opportunities), Satellite is your answer. For a dose of something stronger, head to milk & honey for cocktails, and when the need for caffeine comes your way, there’s no better place to go than Handlebar Coffee Roasters.

South Coast / Southern California

Signature Grapes: chardonnay, merlot, viognier, syrah

California’s South Coast hasn’t always been known for its viticultural scene, though things are changing by the day. Upon leaving Santa Barbara, head an hour south to Temecula, the South Coast’s most popular and fast-growing viticultural zone. Taste your way through the region’s smattering of varieties, though we recommend focusing on viognier, pinot gris, and other unique plantings to switch things up a bit. Make your way down to San Diego and conclude your trip on a high note, or if you’d like to continue to explore, cross the border and head to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe for a whole new tasting adventure.


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