By Ari Bendersky
When people think of California wine country, first thoughts often move toward Napa. The Napa Valley has been on most people’s radars for a few decades, but great wine is produced all over California. Instead of hitting the obvious, next time you plan a California vacation, think about visiting one of other spots in Northern California, or checking out wineries in other areas of the state. In this first of three installments, I offer tips for a wine-tasting Northern California vacation outside of Napa.
If you want to hit some of the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Northern California, you can fly into either San Francisco International, San Jose or Oakland airports. You can either head north toward Sonoma, Lake or Mendocino counties or go south to Monterey, Santa Cruz or Paso Robles (details to come in my next installment). I’m breaking California wine country down by county to make it easier to navigate, but know wherever you go, you will find natural beauty, great wine, amazing local food and fun activities.
Travel to Sonoma for your California vacation, where you can bike, eat and drink to your heart’s content. This is one of the larger wine areas and is on par with Napa in breadth, depth and popularity.
There are plenty of Sonoma hotels, inns and B&Bs to choose from, but some I like include, the Sonoma Coast Villa Inn and Spa, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, Timber Cove Inn and the Kenwood Inn & Spa. All of these Sonoma hotels offer access to many wineries and also have spas on site so you can relax following a day of wine tasting.
When it comes to wine tasting, I don’t think a California vacation in Sonoma would be
complete without visits to the following:
- Ridge Lytton Springs for jammy Zinfandel,
- Gloria Ferrer for a stroll through their wine caves while sipping sparkling wine,
- Gary Farrell or Gundlach Bundschu for beautiful Chardonnay
- Buena Vista for spicy Syrah,
- Chalk Hill for leathery, herbaceous Cabernet Sauvignon and
- La Crema for some of the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever had.
You could drive — or better, hire a driver — to visit these wineries, but a fun way to explore Sonoma is by bike. Check in with Wine Country Bikes, where you can plan out different tours varying in length from a day to a weekend. And when it comes time for dinner, your choices are pretty open, but I think you’d be remiss to not try to get into Cyrus or Dry Creek Kitchen, by famed chef Charlie Palmer.
Lake County is good spot for a more quiet California vacation. With fewer wineries, you may also want to explore the outdoor activities in the area, including hiking, biking and water sports on Clear Lake. It is an easy day trip from Sonoma, but if you want to spend more than a day, the area has some charming inns. While it is more rustic, I think the wines are quite refined. Visit the legendary Guenoc and Langtry Vineyard Estates, where former Hollywood starlet Lilly Langtree lived, or pop into Ceago for beautifully produced biodynamic wines.
I think Mendocino is one of Northern California’s most beautiful and pristine areas, with natural hot springs, wild forests and laidback lifestyle. Anyone wishing to, well, get back to nature on a California vacation should check out Orr Hot Springs. I think it’s a perfect place to relax and let it all go. For something less rustic, the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites, which was recently rated the No. 1 lodging in Mendocino by the readers of the San Francisco Chronicle, is a quaint, full-service Mendocino hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Mendocino, in the Anderson Valley, opens up opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts who also happen to love wine and good food. You can spend the morning kayaking or biking and then explore wine country in the afternoon. About 25 percent of Mendocino’s wineries are certified organic, which is attractive to anyone interested in eating and drinking more sustainably. The area provides a steady, cool climate, allowing for the finicky Pinot Noir to grow and thrive more easily, and I think wonderful sparkling wines are produced here. Take for instance both Scharffenberger Cellars and Roederer Estate. Both are well-known sparkling producers and both are in Mendocino. Just across the road from Roederer is Husch Vineyards, where you can taste Pinot Noir and Gewurtztraminer in a rustic hut. Another stop: Edmeades for classic, iconic Mendocino Zinfandel.
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Ari Bendersky, the co-creator of foodie the app, is a Chicago-based food, wine, music and lifestyle journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, RollingStone.com, the Associated Press, Hufﬁngton Post, Time Out Chicago, NBCChicago.com and the Chicago Tribune. He was also the editor in chief of UR Chicago magazine.