California’s other wine countries
Head down the coast to San Luis Obispo to discover scores of small family-run wineries. (Lee Foster/LPI)
Everybody knows the justifiably famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but if you are looking to take the next step, try venturing into California’s less-famous wine regions. Here, family-owned wineries welcome novices and experts alike, and tasting fees are low to non-existent. Most of these well-hidden wine countries are near the San Francisco Bay area and are perfect for weekend escapes.
Past the Russian River Valley, no more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, the unsung winemaking region of Mendocino County is hospitable to rich Mediterranean reds and brawny, fruit-forward zinfandels. Family farms line Highway 101 just south and north of Hopland, a tiny farm town. The downtown wine shop Sip! Mendocino should be your first stop. Here, the expert proprietor pours handpicked wine flights from across the county, including rare vintages you might not even taste at the wineries themselves.
Down the street next to a bakery, sunlight-filled Graziano Family of Wines brings together four different labels, distilled from the fruits of labour from the owner’s grandparents, Italian immigrants who planted the first grapes in Mendocino County before the Prohibition era. For earthy, flavour-packed wine-country cooking, dash north to Patrona in Ukiah. Locally grown ingredients glow in garden salads, flatbread pizzas and seasonal game dishes, exhibiting equal helpings of French and Italian tastes.
The biggest appellation in Mendocino is the Anderson Valley, known for its delicate Alsatian whites, sparkling wines and specialty pinot noirs, all thanks to sun-drenched days and coastal fog drifting over the vineyards at night. Follow the winding Highway 153 west, to the town of Boonville, where you can rest up for more tastings at the Boonville Hotel, with its chicly rehabbed, yet still rustic rooms overhanging the highway.
A short drive past Philo, Highway 128 is lined with family-run wineries. With a redwood-built tasting room and picnic deck, Navarro Vineyards is the most popular stop. Starring on a lengthy tasting menu are Navarro’s dry, estate-bottled gewürtztraminer and a smoky pinot noir (also available for teetotalers in juice form). The sparkling wines of Roederer Estate are handcrafted by the same French family that makes Cristal champagne. At this humble countryside winery, delicate pressings of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes use only 70% of the cuvée (ie the first 120 gallons of juice) – the winemakers are picky, and it pays.
In the northern San Joaquin Valley of central California, where breezes from the Sacramento River delta soothe the hot vineyards of Lodi, more zinfandel grapes are grown than anywhere else in the world. The area’s diverse soil is sometimes rocky, sometimes a fine sandy loam, giving its zins distinctive character, and particularly old vines have often been tended by the same family for more than a century. To get here from Hopland, the scenic route takes you east into Lake County around Clear Lake, which has its own noteworthy winemakers. At deeply rooted Steele Wines, an adventurous lineup of whites and reds includes Writer’s Block pinot noir, bottled with a portrait of the Bard. High-society Langtry Estate and Vineyards is a Napa-style winery that makes a bright, soft petite syrah from vineyards planted in the late 19th Century by actress Lillie Langtry.
Highway 29 flows slowly south through Calistoga, St Helena, Yountville and finally Napa, after which Highway 12 slingshots east across the delta toward Lodi. Get your first taste of Lodi’s powerful, sun-soaked zins at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, where 100 local vintages are sold by the solid-wood tasting bar. Then drive out into the vineyards to sample straight from the source. Michael-David Winery is shockingly touristy, with its farm stand, café and tasting-room complex, but its flagship 7 Deadly Zins, a jammy blend of seven different old-vine grapes, merits a stop. Boutique wineries and experimental labels by more famous names are poured at the Italian-style Vino Piazza in Lockeford, where you can park your car, order a bistro lunch and afterwards amble between tasting rooms. For zin lovers, it is heaven to sample dozens of different vineyards to detect the subtle differences of terroir (a French word describing the unique flavour of a geographical place, based on climate, soil and topography). With historical atmosphere and ultramodern amenities, the bed-and-breakfast inn Wine and Roses distinguishes itself with a sophisticated Cal-Ital restaurant, where apple-spinach pizzas and braised pot roast with parsnips are served on a leafy patio.