The Complete Guide to California Wine Country for 2021



This article is part of a summer California winery series, California DreamingDiscover more articles here!

From redwood forests to star-paved sidewalks, California has something for everyone: spectacular beaches, world-class museums, towering mountains, and miles of rolling vineyards. This summer, the Golden State is calling every nature lover, culture craver, and, of course, oenophile to come take a spin across its sunny landscape.

California is a clear leader in the world of wine. Over 635,000 acres of prime California land is dedicated to over 100 different incredible grape varieties, accounting for over 80 percent of all U.S. wine production. With thousands of wineries to choose from, it’s not just the country’s top producer but fourth in the world.

While this is exciting, it’s also, understandably, quite overwhelming. To help you navigate this wine-filled wonderland, we’ve consulted with a few of our favorite California wineries to help you discover the finest spots for sipping, dining, sleeping, and more. Check out our list of some of the best wineries, restaurants, resorts, and activities in the state’s top wine regions.

NAPA

Drink Up

With more than 375 wineries open for tasting and 90 urban tasting rooms, Napa Valley offers plenty to eat, drink, and explore.

At Louis M. Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon lovers may explore the wine in its truest form and learn why the winery has kept this variety the primary focus of its portfolio.
At Louis M. Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon lovers may explore the wine in its truest form and learn why the winery has kept this variety the primary focus of its portfolio.

We’ll start in St. Helena with Louis M. Martini, an iconic Napa Valley landmark and contemporary wine destination. Since 1933, Louis M. Martini has made Cabernet Sauvignon the focus of its portfolio, sourcing from the most coveted mountain vineyards throughout Napa Valley. One of the founding wineries in Napa post-Prohibition, it has been restored to reflect its storied legacy. Today at Louis M. Martini, you’ll find world-class wines and a diverse portfolio of Cabernet Sauvignon. Enjoy your tasting in stunning new spaces like the Heritage Lounge and Winemaker’s Table or outdoors in the expanded Martini Park that opens into a beautiful sycamore grove featuring al fresco tastings, bottle service, and private cabanas.

Pro tip: When booking your reservation, be sure to ask for a tour of the historic underground cellar for a chance to see decades-old artifacts and explore how the Martini family helped shape Napa Valley’s reputation as a world-renowned wine-growing region.

Another must-stop in St. Helena sits nearby at Orin Swift Cellars, where you’ll find well-crafted, creatively named wines such as Mannequin, an inky Petite Sirah, and 8 Years in the Desert, the famed Zinfandel blend that Orin Swift winemaker Dave Phinney explains “marks [his] return to the grape that started it all.”

When it comes to Orin Swift, every packaging element, glass selection, and label material is designed by Phinney himself. Many of the designs come from ideas he has incubated for years, while others originate from fleeting thoughts of inspiration throughout his day.

Visit Orin Swift for the chance to see and taste the rare Mercury Head bottle in person.

“I’m not trying to make some statement. I’m just doing what I like. And if you like it, that’s great. And if you don’t, I totally understand. [The designs] just are what they are: telling the story,” Phinney says.

Pro tip: Each bottle itself is a piece of Dave’s Phinney’s artistic expression, so be sure and ask about the unique story behind each label and see them in person (one of our favorites is Mercury Head, whose label is a rare Mercury dime applied to the bottle).

For a different setting and view, head out to William Hill Estate Winery. For more than 40 years, William Hill Estate Winery has offered rich and expressive Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux varieties from select vineyards in Napa Valley and the California coast.

Located just 10 minutes outside downtown Napa at the foot of Atlas Peak along the Silverado Bench, William Hill Estate produces a collection of wines that is rooted in the character of the unique, rolling hills of its 200-acre estate. “Our small-lot and single-region wines convey the nature of the vineyard, letting the fruit’s inherent flavors and complexity unfurl in the glass,” says winemaker Mark Williams. “With blends, the fruit’s contrasting qualities offer layered flavors and structure, creating complex, seamlessly integrated, and generously fruited wines with depth and nuance,” he adds.

Come see for yourself how special William Hill Estate Winery truly is – surrounded by beautiful, rolling hills and vineyards for a truly unique Napa wine country experience
Come see for yourself how special William Hill Estate Winery truly is — surrounded by beautiful, rolling hills and vineyards for a truly unique Napa wine country experience

When it comes time to sip these wines, there are five tasting experiences to choose from. The Arbor Picnic Basket pairing is a fantastic choice that allows you to take in the glorious views of the property while enjoying four of their meticulously crafted wines accompanied by a picnic basket of culinary delights.

Pro Tip: Spot the 2019 Benchmark Chardonnay? Ask for a taste — it recently received 97 points from renowned critic James Suckling and a 94 from the Wine Advocate.

If you’re unable to make the trip out to the winery, you can still get a taste of William Hill Estate through its North Coast collection, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This coastal tier reflects the ocean’s influence over the wine and can be found in stores near you.

If you’re in the mood to sip another type of libation, look no further than California Brandy House in downtown Napa — the first standalone tasting room showcasing California brandies. We suggest exploring both brands (Argonaut and Germain-Robin) with a flight featuring five brandies and enjoying your tasting out on their redwood deck. Then, consider bringing a few customized engraved bottles and one of their popular Old Fashioned cocktail kits home from the shop — or maybe even join the club.

Pro Tip: California Brandy makes for a fantastic ingredient in classic and innovative new cocktails. Ask for the Cocktail Concierge list of the best spots nearby to find cocktails using Argonaut and Germain-Robin.

Explore luxury brandy –– and all the category has to offer –– at the California Brandy House.
Explore luxury brandy — and all the category has to offer — at the California Brandy House.

Lastly, fizz fiends will love Be Bubbly, a sparkling wine lounge in historic Downtown Napa. Helmed by a “chief bubblehead,” the bar features an array of Champagnes and global bubbles, with dozens available by the glass, bottle, or flight, plus a stellar selection of small bites.

Eat Up

Let’s talk about wine’s best friend: food.

Located in Yountville, BRIX Restaurant & Gardens is situated among gardens and orchards on 16 acres in Napa Valley, where produce from the farm-to-table menu is often sourced from the 25 vegetable beds that decorate the green grounds.

Another slice of garden-to-table magic, FARM is one of three restaurants at the Carneros Resort and Spa, where chefs source inspiration and ingredients from the 1,300-square-foot organic gardens on site. Enjoy live music and dine al fresco at the outdoor lounge, which features fireplaces to keep you cozy all year long.

Cook, a petite eatery in St. Helena, also spotlights locally sourced ingredients — all artfully adapted into Michelin-approved Northern Italian cuisine. Envision a daily rotating risotto (with vegetarian and vegan options) and dishes featuring the restaurant’s house-made pasta and hand-pulled mozzarella.

Rest Up

As for staying (maybe forever?), there are some lovely, luxurious hotels where you’ll find experiences that are remarkable on their own.

Bardessono Hotel and Spa in Yountville has lush gardens, a rooftop pool, a spa with seasonal treatments, and a field-to-fork restaurant. Guests may also use the hotel bicycles to pedal around town and visit nearby wineries.

Sights set on St. Helena? Try the Harvest Inn, where you can enjoy panoramic vineyard views and walk among the redwoods. Whether you stay the night or not, it’s worth hitting this hotel for the restaurant Harvest Table, where — once again — farm-to-table rules supreme.

If downtown Napa is your destination of choice, The Archer promises five-star comfort and a particularly tempting bonus: a rooftop bar featuring 360-degree views of the valley. Up there, you’ll discover a water deck with semi-submerged lounge chairs to keep you cool during the day, fire pits to warm you up at night, and a variety of wines, cocktails, and small plates to keep your culinary side happy.

Finally, if you want to infuse your wine country visit with some friendly competition, Silverado Resort has you covered with an acclaimed, PGA-level golf course and one of the best tennis resorts in the world. Of course, there’s also a spa, should poolside lounging and deep relaxation top your agenda.

Beyond the Bottle

There is much to see and do in Napa Valley beyond exploring the best of wine and food. For a different type of flight, take in the scenery from a new perspective with a sunrise hot air balloon ride over one of the most incredible vistas in wine country, watching from above as the valley wakes. If defying gravity isn’t your style, enjoy the great outdoors from the ground with trails and tours that will guide you through Napa’s natural wonders.

A wealth of parks, hiking and biking trails, and even horseback riding alongside vineyards gives you plenty of options. Enjoy a leisurely picnic downtown at Fuller Park or Oxbow Commons or check out Old Faithful Geyser of California in Calistoga for a family-friendly activity. If you’re feeling more adventurous, Skyline Wilderness Park near Napa and Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga both offer some beginner and more challenging trails, but the rewards of incredible views of Napa Valley and beyond are well worth the effort.

Want to catch a show, check out art exhibits, or walk away with a souvenir that isn’t imbibable? Give yourself the gift of rest and relaxation with a full-day spa experience, or stop to admire the local and international artists on display throughout Napa Valley. Check out the Gordon Huether Studio in Napa for dramatic glass and metal sculptures, or stroll along Main Street in St. Helena, stopping into the art galleries along the way. The culture is as rich and ripe as the grapes, so be sure to check out the theaters, museums, and galleries that play off the wine to make this area so special.

Sonoma

Drink Up

With more than 425 wineries in Sonoma County, the options can be overwhelming. Why not let an expert serve as your guide — and, even better, your chauffeur.

Customize your adventure at California Wine Tours or Pure Luxury Transportation, where a concierge will design private and personalized tours throughout Sonoma based on your unique preferences and their experts’ hand-picked favorites.

However, no matter what else your tasting to-do list entails, be sure to stop at J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, where its portfolio of top-notch sparkling wines, single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay blends, and more has been earning acclaim for more than 30 years. If you were to try only one wine, J winemaker Nicole Hitchcock recommends the Vintage Brut sparkling. The first wine produced after the winery was founded in 1986, the limited-production Vintage Brut is only available direct from the winery.

Crafting a dozen different Traditional Method sparkling wines, J has a style to fit every taste.
Crafting a dozen different Traditional Method sparkling wines, J has a style to fit every taste.

“Unlike most domestically produced sparkling wines, it is aged in the bottle for more than five years prior to release — so tasting it is like uncovering a time capsule and discovering a treasure inside,” says Hitchcock. “The extended aging time allows for the development of intriguing qualities that you don’t see in wines with less time spent aging: notes of brioche, bread, toast, nuttiness, or similar characteristics.”

Hitchcock also recommends the seated Legacy Tasting, which she calls a “blend of luxury with wine country casual.” The tasting features a flight of five wines — you can choose between an all-sparkling experience or the varietal flight, which includes an overview of all the J winemaking styles

Pro Tip: If you get lucky and see the 2018 Annapolis Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, give it a sip. This stunner got 95+ point scores from both the Wine Advocate and James Suckling!

Choose their artisan cheese pairing plate and you’ll also enjoy five incredible cheeses topped with tasty house-made accompaniments ranging from roasted nuts to spiced fruit to sweet-and-salty brittles and rich fudges.

Eat Up & Rest Up

Let’s start with where to drop your bags and rest your head.

Located in the Russian River Valley region, the Farmhouse Inn is not the standard hotel experience. One of the most highly rated hotels in the world, it takes the hospitality experience to the next level with sommelier-led wine tours, nightly tastings, a Michelin-starred restaurant, an on-site spa, and a VIP welcome at 23 local wineries (plus a curated selection of wine in each room).

Next up on the list: Montage Healdsburg, a luxury hotel, is described as “a refined wine country retreat … nestled among 258 acres of rolling vineyards and oak tree groves.” Plus, with one-third of each lodging space dedicated to either a deck or balcony, Montage gives you plenty of room to sit and sip outside.

As for Healdsburg dining, while there are three options at Montage (including a poolside restaurant), Barn Diva is well worth heading into town for a culinary treat. A farm-to-fork restaurant (and cocktail lounge with an award-winning wine bar), the motto here is “eat the view” — and given how gorgeous the Sonoma County scenery is, you can only imagine how good it’s going to taste.

One more can’t-miss restaurant, located right in the heart of the town of Sonoma, is Wit & Wisdom. A wine-country venture from award-winning celebrity chef Michael Mina, this tavern features regional California cuisine — like fish from the Pacific Coast, wood-fired pizzas, and handmade pasta — with a strong list of local wines and an on-site bocce ball court.

Beyond the Bottle

Trade the wine bar for the beach — or the mountain, lake, river, or forest — at one of Sonoma County’s state parks, where in true California fashion, there are miles and miles of beach and trails to hike, bike, and ride. Take a leisurely hike among the redwoods and lakes at the 300-acre Riverfront Regional Park in the morning, then dip into the refreshingly cool waters along the Russian River in the afternoon. Check out the nearby Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, a summer tradition for locals and visitors alike. To see where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean, head out to the sandy Goat Rock State Beach to watch the thunderous waves (and probably a few seals, too).

If you fancy yourself more of an indoor kid, Sonoma still delivers. Here you’ll find plenty of establishments and events to please, including museums, performing arts centers, art galleries, film festivals, and more. Fans of the “Peanuts” comic strip can visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, where the artist made his home. You can explore a full list of fun things to do in the region — wine-related and otherwise — here.

Carmel-by-the-sea

Drink Up

While Napa and Sonoma reign as famous wine destinations, a lesser-known, but equally fascinating wine scene thrives in the world-famous Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Sleepy Hollow Vineyards, Talbott’s crown-jewel vineyard, offers near-perfect conditions for growing cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Sleepy Hollow Vineyards, Talbott’s crown-jewel vineyard, offers near-perfect conditions for growing cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

One of our favorites is the Talbott Vineyards tasting room, where sea, vine, and story come together in an airy, coastal-chic bungalow. Before we head through the quaint cobblestone streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea to Talbott’s tasting room, we need a little backstory: Talbott Vineyards helped put the Santa Lucia Highlands, a small but mighty AVA, on the map. Talbot was among the first to realize the near-perfect conditions for growing elegant, cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir –– and has been doing so for nearly 40 years. Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, one of the first planted in the Santa Lucia Highlands, has earned recognition for consistently producing exceptional and distinctive Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Sip through a flight of exclusive single-block Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that are only poured at Talbott’s tasting room, and marvel at how Talbott has captured the essence of this magical place in its wine. Winemaker David Coventry was born and raised in Monterey, giving him a lifetime of perspective about what makes this region so special and how to translate the provenance into each glass.

Ask David what he hopes guests at the Talbott tasting room take home and he’ll offer a poetic guide on how to experience the coast and vineyard coming together in the wine. “Feel the same breeze rolling off the water that cools the grapes and allows them to ripen gradually,” he says. “Or, taste the minerality influenced by the jaw-dropping terrain in a glass of Chardonnay. Catch a glimpse of the sapphire waters of Carmel Bay. There’s no other place where ruggedness and elegance deliver such a sublime experience.”

Pro Tip: Buy a bottle of your favorite Talbott wine and take it to lunch or dinner at The Pocket just across the courtyard, where there isn’t a corkage fee for any Talbott wines.

Eat Up & Rest Up

When it’s time to wind down, we suggest Carmel’s Bernadus Lodge & Spa, which is nestled among vines with stunning mountain views. The Lodge prides itself on stimulating all the senses, with amenities including an award-winning restaurant, estate vineyard and rose garden, live music, signature massages, complimentary yoga, and an adults-only jacuzzi. We suggest you go see, smell, hear, feel, and, of course, taste it all for yourself.

Then, there’s the Quail Lodge & Golf Club in Carmel, where you’ll find “luxurious accommodations,” waterfront dining starring seasonal American cuisines, and the “Best Golf Playing Conditions” in all of Central California.

Another excellent option for R&R is Carmel Valley Ranch. A few of the fun things you’ll find on the Ranch’s 500-acre property? Swimming pools, equine experiences, spa treatments, tennis courts, and a resort golf course that was spotlighted in Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best” readers’ survey. Post-play, consider dining at one of the four restaurant options, including the Valley Kitchen.

Monterey, a one-of-a-kind place that bustles with people and sea life, can’t be missed. When the hunger pangs hit, look no further than the Sardine Factory. Located just blocks from the ocean in the Cannery Row setting of Steinbeck fame, the restaurant serves sustainable seafood prepared by award-winning chefs. It also has some serious local cred in the form of a laundry list of Readers’ Choice wins, including Best Restaurant in Monterey, Best Fine Dining, Best Date Night Dining, and — most importantly — Best Wine Selection.

Beyond the Bottle

When you think of California’s beaches, you may envision SoCal’s palm trees, surfers, and celebrities, but it truly doesn’t get more gorgeous than California’s Central Coast.

When in Monterey, take in the salty air and pristine Pacific with a windows-down drive across the legendary Highway 1. Stop and have a picnic on the sand at Lover’s Point, or go tide-pooling to catch a little glimpse of life beneath the sparkling surface.

And because the only thing better than gazing out at the water is being out on it, be sure to book a unique whale watching adventure when you have the chance, or consider checking out the Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club, a non-profit yachting and social club, where you’ll find premier sailing, boating, and racing.

This article is sponsored by Louis M. Martini & Orin Swift



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