Wineries For Dummies
June 3, 2009 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Seeking info on touring California wineries

My dad's going to be flying out to visit me in California around the 4th of July and we had talked about visiting some wineries, which neither of us has ever done. What do we need to know? Is that time of year well suited to touring wineries? Are there any particular places we should see?

I live in LA, so it may be easier to stick to closer wineries around Santa Barbara, etc., but if it's worth the trip up to Napa that's not out of the question.

Any info/suggestions/other things to check out in the area would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by fishmasta to Travel & Transportation around California (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure about LA (Sorry!) but if you do decide to come up north, think about Sonoma Co, in lieu of Napa. In July Napa can be brutally hot, and at least you are much closer to the coast in Sonoma. (NOT NAPAIST, it's lovely many other times of the year, but height of summer means coast wineries to me).
posted by gofargogo at 7:38 PM on June 3, 2009

Response by poster: Gofargogo:

Oops! Suggestions relating to Sonoma are welcome too. It just slipped my mind cause everyone always talks about Napa. Good to know about the heat though.
posted by fishmasta at 7:51 PM on June 3, 2009

Are there any brands you or dad really enjoy? We went to a very prestigious (and stuffy) winery tour in Napa that friends set up for us, then noticed on a map they had at said winery that one of our fav brands was nearby, so we went there and it was soo much more relaxed and fun. So I'd suggest going to wineries whose juice you like:)
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:03 PM on June 3, 2009

Napa Shmapa. Sonoma is a decent bet, but there's so many places to explore in the Central Coast AVA and it's not too far from LA. Think Santa Ynez and Paso Robles.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:05 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sonoma's prettier than Napa, IMO. If you look around near Castle Road, east of the Sonoma town center, you'll find a very relaxed environment and a number of very good wineries. This area is very bicycle-friendly too. The only problem with tasting via bicycle is you must pick up big purchases later.

Seconding cestmoi15 that seeking out your favorites is a good idea, but if you spend all your time at only those wineries you will miss many opportunities to find something new and delightful.
posted by jet_silver at 8:39 PM on June 3, 2009

My advice is to avoid Napa. In my experience, you are dealing with snobs and jerks there, who are used to an assembly line tourist trade. You'll pay for tastings, and there's a cattle call like atmosphere. Firmly in the grip of the crassest of crass merchandising. Utterly disgusting. I'm sure there are exceptions, after all, two-headed cows also occur, but why subject yourself to that revolting experience hoping to find an exception, when there are some really nice regions like Russian River Wine Country.
posted by VikingSword at 8:47 PM on June 3, 2009

I had a great time a couple of years ago visiting Monterey County wineries along the Carmel Valley.
posted by gimonca at 9:05 PM on June 3, 2009

When plotting a wine tour with my parents to the Santa Ynez area (driving up from LA), I relied pretty heavily upon this website of Santa Barbara County wineries/vineyards for maps and descriptions of the sorts of wines they make.

One thing I regret not doing is not packing a picnic for our journey. Our dining options were limited and it's hard for a lightweight like me to taste wine all afternoon without some food to to buffer the intoxication.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:59 PM on June 3, 2009

Man, I hated the wineries around Santa Barbara -- though admittedly I only went touring there a couple times. They seemed to have decided that People Will Pay approximately $30-40 for a bottle of wine at the winery they're visiting, pretty much independent of quality. I had some good wines, but nothing I'd consider a good value, and nothing I'd consider earthshattering. Oh, and there's a winery right in Santa Barbara (sorry, don't recall the name) that makes some good juice -- but here's a sample experience for you: The first wine they poured us when we visited was good but not spectacular, and ran something like $40/bottle. After we taste it, they tell us it's their "loss leader" wine -- which, I'm sorry, no. Enh, maybe I just got unlucky; I didn't know that area's wines to begin with, and now I'll probably never learn.

But yes, yes, a thousand times yes to going up to Russian River or Dry Creek. So laid back. Such good wine. Such a pleasant area, such good values, so ... aw crap, I need to fly back to California. Anyway, get yourself up there. If you want specific winery recommendations I'm happy to oblige, but you might want to let us know what kinds of wine you're most interested in.
posted by chalkbored at 11:03 PM on June 3, 2009

I live in Sonoma, but recommend Paso Robles. It's simply way closer to you and still offers some really wonderful wineries and excellent wines.

There are several 'best times' to go. You might enjoy seeing the grapes on the vines (Aug-Sept) as you travel—but you will find a little heavier traffic at that time. Or go in the spring when everything is green and lush. Remember you are not tasting today's wine, but wines that have been cellared for several years.

A few that I can recall and suggest are: Minassian-Young, Justin, and Turley. But everyone has favorites, depending on what type of wines you like, and whether you prefer a small laid-back operation or the other end of the scale that offers 5 star restaurant service and massages.

Definitely use Yelp to make decisions.

If you decide to come up to Nor Cal, well we can help you with more specifics.
posted by artdrectr at 11:13 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The wine around Santa Ynez is more than decent enough to merit a day or two popping around the wineries there, especially if its your first time, and especially if you're not going as serious buyers. There are only a couple or 3 wines worth buying in that area, in my opinion, and you really have to hunt for them - but that's part of the fun of tasting, finding something you like.

As suggested above I would pack some sandwiches and take it at a slow pace - get a good winery map and enjoy exploring, spend some time in the afternoon exploring the quirky little town of Solvang next door, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant (although there aren't a ton of options). You could even stay the night and spend another late-morning / early-afternoon seeing a couple more wineries before heading back home.

If you're up for more than a 2-day adventure, I'd nth Russian River, but from LA you really need to plan more than half a day driving either way.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:30 PM on June 3, 2009

Some good experiences to be had in Sideways country--northern Santa Barbara County and areas a bit north of that. (I assume you know of the film.) Generally feels less crowded, corporate and Big Wine Experience than Napa and Sonoma. (I like the bumper sticker, Napa is for car parts, Sonoma is for wine.

Dunno of your interests, experiences in that region, but Jalama Beach is excellent, great cheap Mexican food to be had in Santa Barbara, the ever popular Santa Maria tri-tip BBQ, the coast in that area is nice, elephant seals may be lurking about.
posted by ambient2 at 12:44 AM on June 4, 2009

Napa is too crowded for wine tasting, but if you are a foodie, there are amazing restaurants. If you stick to your neck of the woods, there are a few wineries on the way up to Paso Robles as well.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:22 AM on June 4, 2009

Best answer: I think that there are a lot of hidden gems in the Paso Robles-Monterey region. You may not get a big fancy winery feel, but in my limited experience, there are still a lot of good places to go. I've heard good things about:

Paso Robles
Tobin James

Monterey/San Benito
Pessagno (A little biased here, I know the family, but their wines are very highly rated)
Leal Vineyards
Pietra Santa
posted by JauntyFedora at 6:50 AM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you decide to head to the Sonoma/Mendocino area, consider Navarro Vineyards. It looks from their website that they only do one small tour a day, but they have a little shop that's open for tastings all day. And they make my favorite Pinot Noir!
posted by dnash at 7:16 AM on June 4, 2009

I agree with Pasa Robles. Also, you might enjoy the Carmel Valley (although that is sure to be crowded on 4th July).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:27 AM on June 4, 2009

I just got back from Livermore, and I enjoyed visiting several of the wineries there. I'm far from a connoisseur, and the employees at the wineries I visited were friendly, informative and (most importantly) not pushy about buying their wines after the tasting.
posted by LouMac at 8:21 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Been there, worth a stop. Actually, everywhere I stopped in Monterey was accessible, fun and/or interesting.
posted by gimonca at 8:53 AM on June 4, 2009

I'd stick with the more local Santa Barbara wineries. The drive up there from L.A. is a wonderful drive.

There are great wines in that vicinity. Foxen is an absolute favorite, as is Sanford (the Pinot Noir really is that good). Foley has great wine as well. Cambria has very nice whites, and you might as well hit Gainey with its gaudy setting (it's kind of at the entrance to the wine valley).

I think that visiting the Santa Barbara is a great gateway for wine-visits for us Angelenos. It's way more low-key than Napa, especially over a holiday weekend. Napa and Sonoma may have a lot of great wineries, but I don't know if it's worth the trip up there on your first wine visit. Keep in mind that some of the best wine places in Napa require you to set reservations.

Try the Santa Barbara wine valley. Part of the fun is discovering new wines that you've never heard of that are practically right next door. Drink and be merry.

*To enhance the visit, maybe you can watch Sideways first - but warning!! - scene with Thomas Haydn Church getting it on with Sandra Oh.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:32 AM on June 4, 2009

Best answer: Someone mentioned a winery in downtown Santa Barbara. That's probably Jaffers. They make some really fantastic wine, and doing the tasting thing in a different environment can be a nice change of pace. I would definitely recommend them. And while you're there, you could go to La Super Rica, which is right up the street and some pretty amazing Mexican food.

I would also agree that it's not necessary to go up to Napa/Sonoma - although there's some damn-fine wine touring to be had up there. There are more than enough good wineries to visit between Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez and Paso Robles.

I like to stick to smaller places. Some wineries have a philosophy that they love making a great wine and sharing that experience with you, while others see it purely as a business and their tasting rooms are accordingly overdone and boring (this is portrayed very accurately in Sideways). You will have a much better experience if you find somewhere small that will have only a few other people there at the same time, and you can have a meaningful conversation with the person working the tasting room.

Also, pace yourself. If you're doing it all day, and you just run from one to the next, you're be drunk and exhausted by early afternoon. Each tasting room will offer 4 - 7 wines. Take your time, and don't be afraid of pouring out one that you're not enjoying. There will be plenty more to try.
posted by frufry at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2009

Oh yeah, if we're talking about technique, then frufry is 100% correct. In fact, it's obligatory - don't drink the wine, even if you like it - take a sip, and spit it out, let your mouth rest. Otherwise you'll get sloshed and your judgment will go out the window. That's the only way to visit a bunch of wineries in a day and still make sense of your experience. Anyhow, nobody will be offended - in fact, they expect that, it's more a mark of a pro, only hopeless amateurs drink up everything in sight. That said, if you're on your last winery of the day, and you got ahold of a particularly good wine, there's nothing wrong with finishing the glass... then you get to buy a case :)
posted by VikingSword at 8:29 PM on June 4, 2009

I'm all for drinking the wine. Especially if it's good. I don't see a need to spit. But if you are going to spit, for pete's sake, learn how to spit out wine before you make your way out there. Or wear wine-colored clothes.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:40 PM on June 8, 2009

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