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California is a hotbed of winery activity. From vineyards and vineyard estates to wineries of all sizes, you’re sure to find a winery you love somewhere in the state. While there are wineries all over the country and all over the world, there’s something special and unique about California wineries.
Along with New Mexico, California produces the majority of American wines. If California were its own country, it would be ranked fourth in the world in wine production. It’s only three-quarters the size of France but is responsible for ninety per cent of the production.
California’s wine production is also one third larger than Australia’s. California has a rich wine history dating back to the eighteenth century. Today, there are more than 1200 wineries. Some are small boutiques and others are large corporations with a worldwide distribution network.
With so many wineries and so little time, you’ll want a guide to the best wineries California has to offer. Here, you’re guaranteed the experience you want, the wines you deserve, and the prices you can afford, no matter what that entails.
If you’ve never been to a winery, it’s high time you visited. They’re places where wine lovers can gather and enjoy tastings. You’ll experience new wines, learn about the wines that particular winery sells, and perhaps even find a new favourite.
Sometimes a winery is a small boutique with a limited number of wines on display. These experiences tend to be more personal. It’s rewarding if you’re looking for some one-on-one attention from someone with a more intimate knowledge of the product and its production.
These people tend to be members of the family, close friends, long-time community members, or someone else who has an established relationship with the winery. There are situations in which this is not the case, but generally, small boutique wineries are quaint and feel more like family.
Larger wineries can still offer an intimate experience, but with more marketing, comes more visitors, and if you visit during peak times, you may experience a wait or miss out on someone’s undivided attention.
The benefit to these larger wineries is they generally have more selection. You’re more likely to find wines you like (although small wineries also have excellent wines) and these wines are more likely to cost less.
However, mass production comes at a price, sometimes (but not always) including the atmosphere of a big corporation, very busy peak times, or a tourist feel. You’ll need to decide for yourself if this is the type of winery you want to visit.
Other wineries are vineyard wineries, which means it’s a winery on the same property where the grapes are grown and the production of the wine happens. These can be large or small. The benefit to these types of places is that you can often enjoy tours of the vineyards, a detailed look into wine production, and excellent views during your tasting.
And for good measure, here are some tips for how to visit a winery or vineyard, in case you’ve never done it before.
California Wine Regions
California has more than 427,000 acres of vines overland of more than 700 miles. It starts in Mendocino County and stretches south all the way to Riverside County. There are more than 1200 wineries in more than 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). This includes the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley, and Rutherford.
While the Central Valley is California’s largest region with more than 300 miles of vineyards from San Joaquin Valley north to the Sacramento Valley, it’s certainly not the most well-known. It produces more than seventy per cent of California’s wine grapes for companies you may have heard of, including Franzia and Gallo.
The four main California wine regions are the North Coast, containing the North Coast AVA, which covers the most area; the Central Coast, which includes more than twelve AVAs; the South Coast, which has more than four AVAs and stretches to the Mexican border; and the Central Valley.
California Grapes and Wines
There are more than 100 grape varieties grown in California. There are Italian, Spanish, and French varieties as well as some hybrids. The seven leading grape varieties are Zinfandel, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other red varieties of importance are Tannat, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Malbec, Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Franc, and Barbera. Other white wine varieties include Viognier, Trousseau Gris, Semillon, Roussane, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Marsanne, Gewurztraminer, French Colombard, and Chenin Blanc.
While some California winemakers craft Old World and European wine styles, most California wines are considered New World wines with bright, fruit dominant flavours. The warm weather encourages very ripe fruit, which produces fruit-forward aroma and taste with higher alcohol content.
What’s Special About California Wineries
California is bright and sunny. Wines made in California tend to be crisp and bright as well. Even dry California wines are more fruity than they are minerals and earthy. If you like your wine to reflect the warm sunshine, California is the place for you.
California is also known for its rich wine production history. You’ll find a lot of knowledge and expertise nestled in the valleys than many other wine regions in the country. It’s the perfect place to visit if you want to visit a lot of wineries in a short amount of time.
Often, wineries are within driving distance of each other, and you can visit up to ten a day if you plan your visits strategically. It really is a wine lover’s haven of rest…or very busy visiting and tasting, if that’s what you prefer.
Best Wineries in California
Categorizing a few wineries out of 1200 in California as the best is highly subjective. It depends on what you’re looking for and what you like. Here are some of the best wineries in California based on size, type of wine, price, and other characteristics that may be important to you.
Best Winery With Affordable Tastings
Highway 12 Winery is located in legendary Sonoma County. Even better, they are on Wine Road, with dozens of other wineries if you want to visit several along the strip in a single day. Their plantings date back to 1825.
Here, you’ll enjoy the quaint experience you crave with hands-on owners who are immersed in the business every day. They have gorgeous wine labels and California’s ever infamous Cabernet Sauvignon. Tastings are free and friendly. Don’t forget to ask about private reserve wines that they may be willing to share.
Korbel is best known for their California champagne, but the winery, located in Sonoma County, also offers free tastings. This winery has a wider distribution network than Highway 12 Winery, so you may experience a bigger winery or corporate feel when visiting.
In addition to your free tasting, you can take a winery tour or a garden tour of the beautiful grounds, both of which are complementary.
Best Large Winery
The Beringer Winery is a large estate located in Napa Valley. They offer tastings, tours, cooking classes, and other winery events on a regular basis. It’s a pricey experience, but it’s well worth the visit.
Beringer Winery has an important heritage, a wide distribution network, and a significant number of wines in their collection, including signature bottles and private reserves. You can choose your experience based on what you want to see, whether that’s the old winery tasting room, a tour of the legacy cave, or a veranda tasting. There’s a lot to see and do here, and it all feels extravagant and exclusive.
E&J Gallo has six different locations in California, including Bridlewood Estate Winery in Santa Barbara, Gallo Family Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Louis Martini and William Hill Estate in Napa Valley, Frei Brothers, and J Vineyards.
They’re a huge family of wineries with a large portfolio of wines. You’ll find anything you could ever want at one of their locations. Bridlewood Estates Winery is a Spanish-style estate located in the Central Valley that feels a bit more quaint.
If you want the big-box corporate winery production experience, visit the E&J Gallo Winery headquarters in Modesto, California. It’s a massive operation of impressive proportions.
Best Small Winery
Sonoma is also home to the Vallejo-Castenada Adobe, which is home to Three Sticks Winery. The family still lives on-site and it’s one of the oldest adobes in town from California’s Mexican period.
The history, architecture, and style aren’t all you’ll enjoy here. They’re famous for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They offer focused tastings of both varieties as well as a blind tasting for club members.
You may also want to enjoy a food and wine pairing experience while on site. It’s an exotic, beautiful, exclusive experience offered by a small family winery with lovely expansive vineyards and breathtaking gardens.
Bump Wine Cellars is small and rustic with an art room featuring pieces from local artists. They also host gallery events on a regular basis so the community can come through, look at art, and enjoy wine.
This place truly has a taste of the local flair and is the perfect place to visit if you want to see the local community in action with excellent wines that don’t get a wide reach and you likely won’t find in your hometown.
Best Winery Vineyard Experience
Caldwell Winery and Vineyard is appealing to me, because of my name. I mean, if it’s named Caldwell, it has to be awesome, right? Right. You don’t have to agree. I already know. This winery and vineyard experience is about family and fun. You can taste their love and passion in their wines.
However, the unique thing about Caldwell is their edgy approach to marketing and distribution. Their history includes a bit of misbehaviour, in the most playful way. The winery’s past is mysterious and layered behind smokescreens of secrecy, but you’ll learn all about that when you visit.
J Vineyards and Winery feature trendy and sophisticated venues at six different locations. Each has a vineyard view, five-course tasting menus, casual terraces, and limited edition wines available for purchase.
The Bubble Room offers fun and lively tastings while the J Legacy Tasting Room is a more elegant experience. Combine your tasting with a tour of the grounds to complete your visit.
Best Winery for Red Wines
HALL St. Helena offers tours and tastings in lovely Napa Valley. Modern architecture and expansive balconies overlook acres of vineyards that you can enjoy when you visit. There’s a member’s lounge, gleaming stainless steel bar, platinum experiences, and ultimate Cabernet tastings.
If you’re a fan of Cabernet, this is the place to go because it’s the speciality. Bring along your friends because they offer a large portfolio of reds including Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Famous for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Raymond Vineyards has tastings of all kinds from the main tasting salon to the barrel tasting cellar. Stay above ground for an elegant experience or go down below for a lively atmosphere and a few four-letter words.
The Crystal Cellar is a dark room full of dark deeds if that entices you. From crystal decanters to crystal chandeliers, this tasting room will make your tasting experience sizzle. Also, enjoy a tour of the grounds or the Winemaker for a Day Blending Room.
Best Winery for White Wines
JUSTIN Winery Sauvignon Blanc is aged to perfection. With two tasting room locations, you can choose whether you’d like a booming metropolis or the quaint countryside. Fans of white can also enjoy Voignier, Chardonnay, or Rose.
There are a restaurant and a hotel on-site, so you can take off your coat and stay awhile. Enhance your experience with a chocolate pairing, and exclusive chateau tasting or a library tasting to feel like a member of the elite wine society.
Don’t let their antiquated website fool you. You’ll be awestruck with beauty at the overgrown pony barn built in the early 1900s. The rustic tasting room is filled with country charm.
Picnic on the deck or camp out under grape arbours and waste away the afternoon. There is a self-guided tour of the vineyard and a gazebo down by the pond. This is the perfect winery to enjoy a leisurely afternoon and their signature Chenin Blanc.
Best Winery for Wide Distribution
Quality wines that are mass-produced are everywhere. You don’t have to go to California to enjoy great California wines.
- Beringer Winery isn’t just a great place to visit. Their wide distribution network makes its fantastic wines available all over the country. They make whites and reds with affordable quality, so pick up a bottle at your corner shop and enjoy it today!
- Sutter Home is another Napa Valley winery with a huge reach. It’s available everywhere. They’re affordable wines in all varieties.
- The Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley features quality wines that are slightly more expensive, but still widely available. They have a lot of highly rated wines that have received acclaim, and definitely worth a try.
If you’re making a trip around the corner to the local store, I highly recommend picking up a bottle of the following selections from California wineries to enjoy at home.
Beringer White Zinfandel
Zinfandel is the bastard child of the wine industry. Many people love it, but true wine snobs snub it. For more information on why you can read up on Zinfandel here. However, Beringer’s White Zinfandel has just enough effervescence out of the bottle to dance on your tongue, and is smooth, crisp, and affordable.
Sutter Home Red Zinfandel
What can I say? I love Zinfandel. This one is even more bubbly and exciting, with fruit-forward flavours and a beautiful pink colour. I would classify it as a Rose and it tickles your nose as you drink. It’s fun and flirty for a Friday night with the girls.
Robert Mondavi Merlot
If you like pie just out of the oven, you’ll love the heavenly taste of fresh nutmeg, vanilla, and liquorice with aromas of blackberry, raspberry, and cherry. It’s a smooth, decadent, versatile wine that everyone can enjoy.
Now that you have a better idea of which California wineries may be worth your time, here are some frequently asked questions that may pique your interest.
The largest winery in California is owned by E&J Gallo. They process more than 7000 tons of grapes per day and employ at least 450 people during peak harvest time. They have a huge production and it definitely has a big corporate feel.
However, it’s awe-inspiring to visit, even if you prefer the more quaint experience.
California’s Napa region is most famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa wines are highly sought after, so even if you’re not a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll find other excellent varieties here.
Despite how famous the counties of Napa and Sonoma are for the quality of wines that come out of them, together they produce less than ten per cent of the grapes used to make California wines.
Most of California’s wine grapes come from the Central Valley. This region grew seventy per cent of the wine grape harvest in California in 2018.
Napa and Sonoma are known for their quality, not quantity. There are great wines that come out of all regions, but these two became famous for their exceptional product.
There are way too many California wineries to count and far more excellent choices beyond what’s listed here. If you plan to make a trip to California, any of them are worth a visit. Pick one or two you’d like to see, and plan the rest of your trip around where those wineries are located.
Rich with history and teeming with vineyards, California is a wonderful vacation spot for the honeymooning couple, and girl’s road trip, or the entire family. You can’t beat the sun, the surf, or the wine.