(This article appeared originally in the Fall 2009 edition of Touring & Tasting)
Baja California, Contra Costa County, El Dorado County, Livermore Valley, and Mendocino County
Where are you off to next? Uncle Fred’s wedding in San Francisco? A camping trip in California gold country? A week of surf and sun in Baja California, Mexico? Well, you’re in luck! We’ve put our feelers out and found some great wine regions and unique things to do in each.
Baja California, Mexico
Few Americans realize that the heart of Mexican wine country starts just 90 minutes south of San Diego, California. Nearly 90 percent of Mexico’s wines are grown and produced in Baja’s valley region, and wine tourers are spreading the word. Many are making a day of it, driving down from San Diego or Tijuana along the scenic coastline via Highway 1. If you want to enjoy a real getaway, plan to stay in or around the quaint seaport town of Ensenada. There are more than 20 wineries in Valle de Guadalupe, just off Highway 3 between Ensenada and Tecate. Valle de Guadalupe has grown grapes for centuries, but it is still a young region and its wineries are small. Not all provide tasting facilities, but those that do are welcoming and often family-run. Stop in the Russian-influenced town of Francisco Zarco to see the last Dominican mission built in the Californias and a local museum that offers fresh Russian-style breads and cakes on weekends.
Contra Costa County, California
Perhaps if the San Francisco metropolitan area hadn’t expanded so rapidly during Prohibition, Contra Costa County would be a better known wine country today. It has certainly never lost its reputation as a great grape-growing region, and now the area is reemerging as a producer of excellent wines. Its location between the Livermore and Napa valleys is convenient for many sophisticated wine enthusiasts. Much of the area is considered suburban, which also means there are nice restaurants and interesting places to visit. One such spot is Round Valley Regional Preserve, nearly 2,000 protected acres filled with hiking and bicycling trails, grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands. More Contra Costa County wineries are popping up on the map each year, and their wines are being recognized at wine competitions and by noted wine critics. Reaching the area is easy and well worth it if you want to experience the joy of blazing an old trail. El Dorado County, California
If you want to find wine that grows above the fog line in the cool, pristine mountains of California, head for the Sierra Foothills and, more specifically, El Dorado County. Grapes get plenty of direct sunlight, but the cool temperatures allow them to ripen slowly. Around 50 varieties made famous in other parts of the world are planted in El Dorado’s hills, including those from Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Germany, Italy, and Spain. El Dorado County is a fun place to visit alone, as a couple, or with the kids. Stay in the historic town of Placerville at a bed and breakfast or at the noted Cary House Hotel, which has proudly provided lodging since 1857. There is an old stamp mill, a museum, and the Gold Bug Mine, where you can still pan for gold—all within the town limits. Wineries are located along Apple Hill to the north of town and in the valley just south of town. Although Apple Hill has plenty of orchards as its name suggests, it’s a good idea to find picnic food or eat a meal in downtown Placerville before you venture out into the countryside. Livermore Valley, California
Around 40 wineries lie less than an hour east of the city of San Francisco in the beautiful Livermore Valley. The terrain often surprises first-time visitors, who are pleased to discover picturesque canyons and rolling blankets of vines so close to urban and suburban life. Winemaking is anything but new to Livermore Valley, where guests are often reminded that the region put California on the international wine map when it captured America’s first gold medal in 1889 at the Paris Exhibition. The Wente family planted the state’s first Chardonnay here in 1916. Today, Livermore Valley offers wine touring in a serene setting. For golfers, there are premium golf courses, and for everyone, there is the unique Camp di Bocce of Livermore—a festive spot complete with eight state-of-the-art bocce ball courts and Italian cuisine. Mendocino County, California
Known for its rugged coast, redwood forests, and scenic roadways, Mendocino County is also home to more than 75 wineries. The area is a forerunner in the green movement, with an estimated 25 percent of its vineyards recognized as Certified Organic. Located about 90 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino County is an ideal weekend getaway. Stay on the coast or, for a more singular experience, head for Ukiah and Vichy Springs Resort, a 150-year-old natural spa and personal oasis. Soak in the only naturally heated and carbonated Vichy mineral baths in North America, just as Mark Twain once did. (They have the pictures to prove it!) At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Vichy waters are warm—not hot. They have unique characteristics, and soaking in the ancient tubs feels terrific. This is said to accelerate the healing of cuts, burns, and poison-oak rashes. Drinking the waters soothes the stomach and more. The resort covers 700 acres and offers hiking trails, spa treatments, and good old-fashioned silence. It’s the ideal way to complement a day of touring and tasting.
Touring Temecula Valley is easy because nearly all of the wineries here—ranging from small and charming to large and elegant—are located close to each other. More than two dozen wineries call Temecula Valley home.
The breath-taking Lake County rests amid the slopes of coastal mountains rich in volcanic soil with fertile valleys, the crispest, cleanest air in the state, evergreen tree forests and deep blue lakes.
San Francisco Bay
Too often lost in the shadow of its giant neighbors, the San Fransisco Bay Area is certainly a wine region to explore.
For Starters from the Bay Area
We asked noted chefs of the region to share starter recipes to whet our readers’ appetites, and they certainly obliged
The Bay Area and Livermore's Rising Stars
Although the San Francisco Bay area actually enjoys a long heritage of winemaking, its wines—crafted in the city proper as well as Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, and a short drive east in Livermore Valley—have just begun to receive the international recognition they deserve.
Tasting in the City by the Bay
Bustling, beguiling, breathtaking San Francisco is a tourist’s dream with a list of exciting things to do that stretches as far as its city limits.
First-time visitors to nine-year-old Miraflores, located in the Sierra Foothills, often remark that the winery building, reminiscent of a Tuscan retreat, looks as though it has been there for decades.
Springing from a tale as old as California itself, Murrieta's Well is defined by its distinctive blended wines, stunning location, and a rich heritage that began during California's Gold Rush era.
Wente Vineyards is owned and operated by fourth- and fifth-generation descendants, making it the oldest continuously operated family-owned winery in California.
Graziano Family of Wines
It’s been said that Greg Graziano, owner of Graziano Family of Wines, never met a grape he didn’t love. The third-generation winemaker and winegrower has an unmistakable passion for handcrafting wine.
Tamayo Family Vineyards
Located just a little more than an hour east of downtown San Francisco, Tamayo Family Vineyards was founded with Jeff and Sara Tamayo’s love of wine and belief in the miraculous soils of the emerging Contra Costa region.