California Wine Tourism – Why You Need to Visit in the Next 3 Months
Many of us enjoy a nice glass of wine, or a sophisticated wine tasting. Without leaving the United States, one way to handle your interest in wine is to travel to California. Did you know that California has over 4,000 wineries statewide? Whether you’re looking to travel to Malibu, which has 50 independent vineyards; explore the birthplace of California wine in San Diego County; or simply sip some delectable chardonnays and cabernets in Napa and Sonoma, California has an opportunity for you. But to plan your best visit into California wine country, it’s important to understand the best times of year to visit. We suggest that you visit in the next 3 months – right during and after harvest season!
A History of California Wine
California wine-making began in the 18th century. Spanish missionaries planted and sustained a vineyard at Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1779. The grapes produced by the vineyard, called the Mission grape, became the prime grape used in wine-making in California until the late 19th century. San Diego County, which some may consider the be the “birthplace” of California wine, now has at least 50 vineyards. They specialize in smooth, fruity merlots and crisp, high-quality chardonnays.
Viticulture dominated the Southern California scene, particularly after imported European vines were planted in Los Angeles. Northern California became a more popular wine scene after the Gold Rush brought people to California. With an increased amount of citizens, wine production also increased.
But the California wine industry really began in the late 1800s, when a Hungarian soldier named Agoston Haraszthy made his way into California. Haraszthy imported wine vines from 165 European vineyards into California. He founded Buena Vista Winery, and also inspired others to begin getting involved in the wine business as well. Advocating for more people to begin planting wine vines throughout Northern California, Haraszthy also contributed to the wine industry by creating cellar caves and conceptualizing non-irrigated vineyards. Buena Vista Winery is now California’s oldest commercial winery, and is one of the reasons why Sonoma Valley is thought to be the start of the California wine industry.
California wine had become an entire industry by 1900, with wines being exported worldwide. But after Prohibition, wine production dropped by 94%. New vintners (wine-makers) came to California in the 1960s to regrow the industry. One such name was Robert Mondavi, who founded the first winery that had been located in Napa Valley since before Prohibition.
California Wine in Modern Times
California’s wineries currently account for somewhere between 85-90% of all wine production throughout the United States. In fact, if California were a country, it would be the 4th greatest wine producer in the world, following France, Spain, and Italy. Over 20 million visitors travel to California yearly for wine tourism. The average age of visitors is around 44, with an even split of male and female visitors. That makes sense, because wine tasting is a great experience for all!
California offers a variety of wine regions. Heading to Malibu opens up the door to 50 independent vineyards, such as Casa Dumetz, which is owned by Sonja Estevez. Does her name ring a bell? She is the wife of actor Emilio Estevez. Heading south of Los Angeles will bring you to Temecula Valley, with its 30 wineries known for Italian varietals.
Travel to Northern California to experience Napa and Sonoma. Sonoma offers a variety of wines ranging from pinot noir and cabernet to chardonnay and zinfandel. The wine road is a great place to explore some of Sonoma’s wine offerings.
In inland California, head east of San Francisco to discover Lodi, which is the area which really thrived during the gold rush. Lodi is known for its cabernets and zinfandels. Or go a different route – explore the Sierra Foothills, in between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Placer County is a great wine region. But the thin soil near the Sierra Foothills is perfect for growing zinfandel grapes. Stop by some of the oldest vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley for a taste!
Santa Barbara, on California’s Central Coast, offers its own unique experience. The “funk zone” is a revitalized warehouse district in Santa Barbara that is chock-full of art galleries, wine tasting, cellars, and restaurants. This is perfect for the foodie or wino, who can use their discerning palate to sample various wines and snacks.
Why Visit in the Next 3 Months?
Around harvest season is one of the best and most interesting times to visit California’s wine country. This can happen from around March to May, or around September through November. Napa Valley and Sonoma are generally pretty mild year-round in terms of temperature, with September through November averaging around 64 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Harvest season will introduce visitors to a variety of fruity and fragrant smells, as winemakers harvest bins full of fresh, ripe, and delicious grapes.
During peak season, many of the wineries and vineyards offer special tours and tastings. Not only can you watch the process of wine being made and barreled, but you are able to participate in wine tastings.
The fall is also a beautiful time to see the changing colors of Napa Valley. As the leaves begin to change, Napa Valley becomes a magical splatter of color, akin to unique artwork. Visitors can experience this stunning natural scenery alongside their wine. Hopping on the aerial gondola to travel up to Sterling Vineyards presents an unbeatable overhead view of Napa Valley. Making reservations at Stony Hill Vineyard, known for their white wines, will take visitors on a beautiful one-hour drive up Highway 29; this outdoorsy adventure gives you a preview of the melding of colors.
Interesting Wine Experiences
When you make it into Napa Valley, don’t miss the Napa Valley Wine Train! Travel on the Wine Train, a vintage Pullman train car, for dinner to experience the “magic hour,” when the sunset over the vineyards creates an elegant and romantic ambiance. The Napa Valley Wine Train offers numerous packages, many of which include multi-course gourmet meals and winery tours. The Castle Winery Tour, for example, takes you to the Castello di Amorosa, a 13th-century Tuscan castle and winery. Gaze out onto the expanse of Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Primitivo vineyards. Get a guided tour of the expansive castle, full of art and Italian authenticity, before your exclusive wine tasting.
You can also sip wine and learn about Hawaiian culture at the Napa Valley Aloha Festival in September. Driving north of Napa to Mendocino is another welcome trip, where you can try sweet rieslings and crisp pinot noir while taking in the sights of the colossal redwood trees.
Another unique opportunity for visiting wine country is to try out a hot-air balloon flight. These will take you high above the vineyards to give you a spectacular view at the region, including some of the breathtaking colors.
If you just want to be able to taste as much wine as possible, consider heading near the Sierra Foothills and following the Madera Wine Trail. Madera County is known for making sweeter wines, ones that serve dessert or are port-style. Enjoy the Wine Trail for a sweet and tasty treat. If you’re on the Central Coast, you can find the River Road Wine Trail instead!