Family-run wineries near the San Francisco Bay area offer brawny zinfandels, delicate Alsatian whites and estate-bottled pinot noirs, with low to non-existent tasting fees.

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.

A worthy side trip from the Lodi region, Amador County might be something of an underdog among California's winemaking regions. But a thriving circuit of family wineries, Gold Rush history and local characters make for excellent wine touring without a whiff of pretension. The region lays claim to the oldest zinfandel vines in the United States, and the surrounding country has a lot in common with this celebrated variety – bold and richly coloured, earthy and constantly surprising.

To begin the circuit of Amador wineries, leave Highway 49 in Plymouth and follow Plymouth-Shenandoah Road, taking you through rows of vines basking in the heat. You will see hill after rolling hill covered with rocky rows of neatly pruned vines, soaking up gallons of too-bright sun. Tastings at the family-operated wineries around the county have little in common with those in the Napa Valley – most hosts are welcoming and helpful, offering free tastes and information about their operations. Be sure to stop at Drytown Cellars, one of the most fun tasting rooms in the county thanks to a gregarious host and an array of stunning reds, and take a picnic to the bucolic Sobon Estate – founded in 1856 and home to the Shenandoah Valley Museum.

Santa Cruz
Backtracking to the Bay area, you will pass the emerging Livermore wine country, then coast down the peninsula into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Vines were first planted among these coastal redwood forests in the mid-19th Century. One of the first US regions to be awarded its own appellation, it was a cabernet sauvignon from these rugged, little-known mountains that bested mighty French Bordeaux in the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Taste the championship winemakers’ most recent harvests at legendary Ridge Vineyards. Heading over the mountains on twisted Highway 9 or Skyline Drive to Santa Cruz, you will pass dozens more wineries, most open for tastings only on Saturday afternoons or during the quarterly “Passport Weekend” festivals. In case you are wondering, estate-bottled pinot noirs are the specialty around here.

Along the coast north of Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon Vineyard has a cult following for its unusual varietals and original Rhône blends like Le Cigare Volant (“The Flying Cigar” – ask about the actual French law that prohibits UFOs from landing in vineyards). In downtown Santa Cruz, Vinocruz is an airy wine shop with a modern stainless-steel tasting bar, where an ever-changing lineup of wines by famous Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers like Kathryn Kennedy, Thomas Fogarty and David Bruce, to name just a few, are poured. Also downtown, Soif is where bon vivant foodies flock for a heady selection of 50 international wines by the glass and tempting Old and New World tastes.

Central coast
Further south, Monterey County is a much younger wine region. Although most of its vineyards are found far away from the coast, you can taste vintages from as far away as the Santa Lucia Highlands right on Cannery Row at A Taste of Monterey. This wine shop and tasting room has panoramic sea views and thoughtful exhibits on barrel-making and cork production. East of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley Road takes you past organic farms, vineyards and equestrian ranches and into the tiny village of Carmel Valley, where many established Monterey County wineries have tasting rooms, and country bistros have invitingly shady garden patios.

Further south is Paso Robles, a hot spot for San Luis Obispo County wines. With an unprepossessing tasting room, Martin and Weyrich is a stand-out producer of Italian varietals, including noteworthy Tuscan blends. Travel west along Highway 46 to discover scores of small family-run wineries, including many zinfandel specialists, like Dark Star Cellars, which also crafts outrageously rich reds and Bordeaux-style blends. Closer to Highway 101, Zenaida Cellars is a Zen master of zin, along with lush estate-bottled red blends like Fire Sign and Zephyr. Rent its Winemaker’s Loft and watch the sunset over the vineyards from your own private porch. Paso Robles’ downtown square is bordered by even more boutique tasting rooms and outstanding California and European-style wine-country restaurants. Vinoteca wine bar will send you soaring with its wine flights, artisan cheese plates and tapas.

The article 'California’s other wine countries' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.