5 Cool California Wine Regions That Aren’t Napa or Sonoma

May 3, 2019

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Wine aficionados visiting California may initially think of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. And it’s true that the 1,000 or more vineyards here continue to rack up international accolades at wine-tasting competitions. But California’s winemaking extends well beyond these well known destinations, and should not be overlooked by oenophiles. Drink in the bounty of lesser-known wineries by visiting California’s most under-appreciated wine regions.

Paso Robles

For many wine lovers, and especially for Californians, Paso Robles isn’t exactly an up-and-coming wine region, since wine making there dates back to the late 1700s. Today, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA), located in San Luis Obispo County, is home to 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres. More than 40 varietals are produced throughout the region, including some of the top varietals such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône-style blends like Syrah, Grenache and Viognier.

Consider visiting Paso Robles vineyards such as JUSTIN, Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyard, DAOU Vineyards & Winery and Mitchella Vineyard and Winery. For a break from wine tasting, visit any number of Paso’s nearby hot springs, including River Oaks Hot Springs Spa.

Photo of vineyard in Southern California by Spencer Spellman.

Temecula

In less than an hour and a half from most Southern California cities, you can be in Temecula, the wine region of Southern California. Wine making in Temecula dates back to the 1800s, but its reputation in the industry has really grown in the last few decades. Today, Temecula has more than 40 wineries, and was recently named one of the top wine destinations of the year by Wine Enthusiast.

The valley’s unique microclimate makes it suitable for growing a wide variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Viognier and Zinfandel.

A few of our favorite Temecula wineries such as Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery, Leoness CellarsSouth Coast Winery Resort & Spa and Wilson Creek Winery. Take a break from all that imbibing with activities like the Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival, which is held in early summer. Hot-air balloon rides are available year-round from several companies, however, including A Grape Escape.

Mendocino

Mendocino County, located just north of Sonoma County, is home to a few small AVAs, including the Anderson Valley, which sits just east of the Pacific Ocean. Highway 28 takes visitors on a winding route from Sonoma into the Anderson Valley, where many wineries dot the landscape between Boonville and Navarro. Perhaps most notable is the Roederer Estate, the US sparkling wine outpost of its famous French parent company, Champagne Louis Roederer.

Anderson Valley’s microclimate means that an array of varietals can be grown here, although Pinot Noir reigns supreme. Anderson Valley even has a Pinot Noir Festival in the spring. For a truly exceptional Mendocino experience, visit Pennyroyal Farm, which is part sustainable farmstead, part creamery and part vineyard. Alternatively, if you have only a day to tour the vineyards, start at The Madrones, which is a collection of several wine tasting rooms and a restaurant, in Philo, or visit other recommended wineries such as Roederer EstateLula Cellars or Goldeneye Winery.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara may evoke images of surf against the backdrop of rolling hills, but there are also thousands of acres of vineyards amid those hills. There are around 200 wineries and several appellations scattered throughout the county, which benefit from a microclimate that yields several different varietals, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

Interest in Santa Barbara wine country has increased in the last 15 years, aided by the movie “Sideways,” featuring Paul Giamatti and set in Santa Barbara County. Visitors can take a “Sideways” Wine Tour, visiting a number of places from the movie set. For those travelers with just a day or two, or those who want a taste of Santa Barbara County wine country without spending time in the car, there’s the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. Stretching across a couple of neighborhoods, the Urban Wine Trail features more than 20 tasting rooms, many of which are within walking distance (or short Lyft or Uber rides) of some of Santa Barbara’s best hotels and restaurants. Grassini Family Vineyards, Babcock WineryRefugio RanchRusack Vineyards, and Brander Vineyard are a few of the area’s top wineries.

Livermore

Livermore is actually the closest wine region for those visiting the San Francisco Bay Area — 45 miles from San Francisco International (SFO), and just 30 miles from Oakland International (OAK). Timed right, travelers can be out of OAK and in Livermore in 30 minutes. Although Livermore’s wine country isn’t large and does not have as many wineries as nearby Sonoma or Napa, it has the virtue of accessibility, a laidback vibe and smaller crowds.

Livermore has grown to more than 60 wineries, including Wente Family Estates, dubbed the oldest continuously operated, family-owned winery in the nation. Classic, big red wines, like Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and white varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, are among the most common wines found here. And exclusive to Livermore is the Livermore Wine Trolley, which is available for public tours to three wineries, or for private charters for weddings, birthdays and other big group events. In addition to Wente Family Estates, travelers should check out Concannon Vineyard, Wood Family Vineyards and Bent Creek Winery.

All photos by Spencer Spellman. 

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