California - Wine Country
California is the largest producer of wine of any state in the USA. Each year, it produces many millions of liters of good quality table wines and an increasingly large volume of high quality vintage wines. The best-known wine growing regions in the state are the Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley along with the neighboring regions of Mendocino County and Lake County. They are located about 50 to 150 miles north of San Francisco. The Central Coast Wine Growing Regions are situated on the slopes and valleys of the coastal mountains from Monterey south to Santa Barbara. Several lesser-known wine-growing regions are scattered throughout the remainder of the state.
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The best-known wine growing regions in the state are the Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley along with the neighboring regions of Mendocino County and Lake County.
A visit to the California Wine Country can be quite interesting and a lot of fun. Many of the wineries offer free tours and free wine tastings. The scenery in the wine growing regions is picturesque, and there are a number of fine restaurants featuring California cuisine with wide selections of local wines. You can spend a very pleasant day touring one of the wine districts, visiting the wineries and pausing to sample the local vintages. Be careful driving after you have sampled a lot of wines! California laws are rather strict about driving while under the influence of alcohol. Fortunately, there are bus tours, limousine tours and even a train tour that allows you to sample as much wine as you like without having to drive home.
If you decide to visit any of the wine regions, it is a good idea to get a good map of the winery locations. You can usually obtain a free winery map at most hotels and tourist attractions in or near the region. Winery tours and sampling rooms are usually open 9 or 10 AM until 5 PM every day during the summer tourist season. Some wineries open only on weekends during the off season.
Napa Valley, California
Beginning in Vallejo just north of Oakland, the Napa Valley stretches about 35 miles northward along Route 29. In most parts, it is only a few miles wide with low volcanic hills defining its sides. The flat valley floor and the surrounding hillsides are covered with orchards and vineyards. Small towns and villages like Napa, Yountville, Rutherford and Calistoga are set amidst the quaint farmlands.
Signs near every intersection invite you to free tours and free wine tastings at famous wineries. Some of the wineries are located at small farms. Others are in beautiful estates with palatial mansions, in Victorian houses or even in European-style castles.
Sonoma Valley, California
The Sonoma County region begins at Petaluma about 30 miles north of the San Francisco Bay area and extends north to near Healdsburg. It includes an area about 35 miles long by 35 miles wide containing broad flat fields, gently rolling hills and parts of the adjacent Pacific Coast. Highway 101 bisects the district with the town of Santa Rosa near its center. Sonoma County is divided into several sub-districts such as Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley. Santa Rosa and its neighboring towns, nestled among the rural farmlands and vineyards, offer some great restaurants, inns and spas.
Mendocino County and Lake County California
Mendocino County and Lake County lie immediately north of the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions. They are less popular with the tourist crowds than Napa and Sonoma, but they also contain many wineries that produce top quality wines.
The climates and soils in California are extremely well suited for growing a few specific types of grapes that produce outstanding wines.
Central Coast Wineries
The Central Coast wine-growing region extends from Monterey Bay south to Santa Barbara. Its northern part is also known as the Monterey Region and includes numerous wineries scattered about the hills and valleys of the coastal mountains near Monterey and Big Sur. The southern part is sometimes called the Santa Barbara Region and includes many wineries in the hill country extending from Santa Barbara north to San Luis Obispo.
Wineries are also scattered about the state in smaller, less known districts such as the Sierra Foothills, the Sacramento area, the Central Valley, the Los Angeles area and the San Diego area. If you consult a good guidebook, it should give directions to wineries offering tours or wine tastings in these various locales.
The varied terrain of California with its mountains, valleys and deserts provides an almost limitless array of microclimates suitable for growing nearly every variety of grape. Today, California wineries produce many different types of wines, and growers are constantly experimenting with new varieties. The climates and soils in California are extremely well suited for growing a few specific types of grapes that produce outstanding wines. California chardonnay and sauvignon blanc make excellent white wines, while Cabernet Sauvignon produces an outstanding red wine. Zinfandel is a distinctive California grape variety that creates a great red wine. (White Zinfandel and Blush Zinfandel are popular inexpensive table wines of lesser quality.)
Most of the restaurants in the wine growing regions offer good selections of the local wines. The waiters and waitresses in those regions are usually very knowledgeable about the various vintages and can recommend some excellent ones to compliment your meal.
Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: California vineyard