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California vacation

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Photo: Santa Cruz County CVC

By Ari Bendersky

In my first story about wine-tasting on a California vacation (Beyond Napa … ), I focused on wineries and hotels in Northern California — in Sonoma, Mendocino and beyond. This time we travel south of San Francisco to Central California wine country.

Santa Cruz
Getting to Santa Cruz from San Francisco or San Jose is an easy, breathtaking drive over the mountains or down Highway 1 — with a quick stop in Los Gatos, Calif., to sip a few acclaimed glasses of Pinot Noir at David Bruce Winery or to San Martin, Calif., to the sprawling mission-like Clos la Chance for some beautiful red blends and citrusy Chardonnay.

The bohemian town of Santa Cruz is a hippie haven and a bastion of liberalism — and has some fantastic attractions. If you like the beach and a boardwalk, Santa Cruz is a must for your California vacation. You could spend an afternoon in SC en route to Monterey, but make sure you swing by Bonny Doon to indulge in the creative craftiness of winemaker and owner Randall Gramm. He’s known for deep, rich Syrah and other Rhone varietals (like Grenache and Mouvedre),but he’s also quite the court jester — just look at his wine labels.

Monterey County

California vacation

Monterey County coastline (Photo: Monterey County CVB)

The Monterey Peninsula — including Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove — is one of the most magical places for a California vacation. Gorgeous beaches. Lush landscapes. Golf. Spas. Quaint shopping and more. Check in to the Intercontinental Clement Monterey on historic Cannery Row and ask for a room on the top floor facing Monterey Bay. You’ll wake up to the sound of otters splashing about and sea lions barking. Walk down the street for a coffee and then hit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or head down to Carmel to unpack at the picturesque Carmel Mission Inn and have dinner at the quaint and seasonal Basil in downtown Carmel.

California vacation

Carmel Valley vineyards (Photo: Monterey County CVB)

During the day, swing by the Ventana Vineyard tasting room where you can sit outside on a tree-covered patio and taste through a variety of wines, including the flagship Le Mistral. En route to Paso Robles, head down Highway 101 toward Soledad, Calif., where you’ll encounter Estancia Estates and Hahn Estates. Both are well known for crafting delicious, full-bodied and highly acclaimed Meritage (blends with Bordeaux varietals). Estancia also has some beautiful whites, including a lovely honey- and peach-flavored Riesling; while Hahn has a number of different brands in its wine family, crafting a variety of wine from Cab to Pinot Noir to Pinot Gris.

Paso Robles

wine country

Paso Robles wine country (Photo: Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance)

You’ll be tempted to call this area Pah-so Roh-blays but if you want to feel like a local, just let the name roll off the tongue: Pah-so Ro-bulls. Sure, it seems odd, but in this area, anything goes — and that’s especially true for the wine. Paso has more than 180 wineries and various microclimates, allowing for disparate grapes to grow mere acres from each other where on one side of a hill it might be blazing hot, but the other side has cool ocean breezes. This allows for a variety of grapes from Pinot Noir to Syrah to Zinfandel to grow and flourish. The latter is a star in Paso, being the area’s heritage grape. Turley Wine Cellars produces some of the most acclaimed Zinfandel wine anywhere on the West Coast, and its tasting room is just a couple of miles off Highway 101. But it’s not the only one. Check out the lively Peachy Canyon and the award-winning Four Vines as well. And to experience Cabernet from an area veteran and pioneer, visit Eberle Winery.

Before you continue your California vacation with a drive down the coast toward Santa Barbara, you may want to make a stop at Hearst Castle, and spend the night listening to waves lap against craggy rocks on the wild cost from a room at one of the many beachfront hotels in nearby Cambria/Moonstone Beach.

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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,, the Associated Press, Huffington Post, Time Out Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune. He was also the editor in chief of UR Chicago magazine.

Tagged: California

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