There’s nothing quite like driving the back roads of California’s wine regions and sampling local wines at the source. Tasting rooms are now concentrated in cities, towns, and communities, creating often pedestrian- and bike-friendly wine trails with an appeal all their own.
SANTA BARBARA URBAN WINE TRAIL
“The American Riviera” plays host to in-town tasting rooms
Choose from more than two dozen wineries, most within walking distance from downtown and the beach, dotting the wine trail in this inviting oceanfront city. Settings range from the 360-degree views of the Conway Family’s Deep Sea Tasting Room on Stearns Wharf, to the six premium tasting rooms making up the Wine Collection of El Paseo, in the historic Presidio neighborhood. A large concentration of in-town wineries and tasting rooms cluster in an area known as The Funk Zone, a narrow band of warehouses between U.S. 101 and the beach that has become an enclave of tasting rooms, artists’ studios, surfboard makers, and bohemian-cool restaurants.
While sampling different wines on your way to the beach is great anytime, participating wineries also sprinkle the calendar with special events and tastings, like live music in the Carr Winery Barrel Room on Salsipuedes Street, or afternoon Wine Time events at Jamie Slone, with tastings and discounts on featured wines.
SAN FRANCISCO WINERIES
Grapes from the countryside create big-city winners
Winemakers in San Francisco may not be growing their grapes in the city, but they can boast a long wine-making tradition. Before the great fire of 1906, there were several wineries based in the SoMa (South of Market) area, which used to go by the less lyrical nickname South of the Slot. That tradition has been revived in the past 20 years, fueled largely by grapes from Napa and Sonoma. JAX Vineyards, for instance, started in the 1990s with David Jackson’s Calistoga vineyard grapes, but his tech-sector son, Trent, was the one who started to make wines from them in his San Francisco garage. Come to their Brannan St. tasting room for happy hour Tuesday through Friday, and try their red-blend Taureau (named for a prized family bull), paired with charcuterie and cheese.
Nearby, Bluxome Street Winery uses grapes from the Russian River Valley, but you can taste the resulting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and more at its airy warehouse location; pair your wines with nibbles and watch the actual wine-making process on the other side of giant glass windows. Bluxome’s second location is in Ghirardelli Square, in the exposed-brick and warm-woods space of the former Pioneer Woolen Mill, which once made uniforms for Union soldiers during the Civil War. While you’re in Ghirardelli Square, stop by Wattle Creek Winery, which serves wines made from its Alexander Valley grapes.
Winery Collective, meanwhile, reminds you that San Francisco is an excellent hub for tasting a range of California wines. Its Fisherman’s Wharf tasting room features some three dozen wineries from around the state—like Copain Wines and Donum Estate—offered up in rotating flights.
Interested in making your own wine? Go to Dogpatch WineWorks, which sources grapes from a variety of regions’ vineyards, but makes wine in this industrial-neighborhood cellar. You can even get hands-on: Book a time and you can make your own handcrafted wine to take home.
DOWNTOWN NAPA TASTING ROOMS
Car-free wine tasting in Napa Valley’s gateway city
Over the past few years, the city of Napa has invested millions in making its downtown core gleam with gourmet markets, outstanding restaurants, a pretty-for-strolling riverfront, and plenty of places to sample the region’s world-class wines. Walk the downtown grid of streets to enjoy outdoor art and dip into a variety of tasting rooms.
Start at Vintner’s Collective, housed in Napa’s oldest stone building, and focus on the best Napa Valley wines you’ve never heard of. Tasting flights change daily and may feature wines from any of more than 25 boutique producers. Next, check out Mark Herold Wines, adjacent to the popular Oxbow Public Market (a great place to graze and pick up gourmet picnic lunches). At Mark Herold, the decor is funky, the servers are engaging and ready to share their wine knowledge, and the wines are eclectic (try the Flux Blanc and Acha Red). Now head to Prime Cellars for a taste of the Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon, a great choice for that special occasion down the road. (Bonus: Trahan Winery shares the space with Prime Cellars, so you can sample wines from both producers with one stop.) The tasting room is intimate, and the winemakers themselves are often the ones pouring—a rarity in Napa Valley.
TASTING ROOMS IN MURPHYS
The “Queen of the Sierra” pours great wines in town
Known during the Gold Rush as a spot for some of California’s richest gold finds, this Sierra foothills town has grown into a winery-rich destination with an Old West feel. “I think we are pretty close to 24 tasting rooms within walking distance on Main Street, but frankly I have lost count,” said Jeff Stai, owner of the town’s Twisted Oak Winery. You’ll need a car to reach all the spots on the wine trail, but there is a good concentration of tasting rooms lining the town’s pleasantly walkable main thoroughfare.
Begin your tour at Lavender Ridge Vineyards, set in a beautiful old stone building. The winery specializes in Rhône-style wines, but you can also pick up artisan cheeses, olive oils, and other gourmet goodies. Next, hit Newsome-Harlow for some of the region’s best Zinfandel—especially the peppery Shake Ridge Ranch Zin—or its crisp Sauvignon Blanc, which tastes just about perfect on the patio.
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