Friday, August 31, 2012

Five Great California Wine Country Road Trips

This is the sort of thing that makes me wish I had a lot more time on my hands.  September is California Wine Month, and Wine Institute - hard-working champion of the California Wine industry - has come up with five great wine country tours that will introduce you to California wine by roadtrip.

Each tour is a five-day trip that covers different California wine regions, from emerging treasures like the Sierra Foothills and Temecula to the well-known grape-stomping grounds like Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles.  When combining wine tasting and cars, always remember to spit, and have a designated driver.  Look at the video, then start booking hotels.




The following trip ideas come from Wine Institute's Department of Tasting California Wine.  Fire up the GPS and let's get moving.

1) NORTH COAST
There’s nothing like a drive on California’s scenic North Coast to show you not only the Pacific Ocean’s dramatic beauty but also how profoundly it affects the region’s climate.  That coastal influence gives us San Francisco’s famous fog, towering redwood trees, and a perfect home for cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others.  This scenic five-day round trip from San Francisco takes you wine tasting, shopping, dining, kayaking and more.  Visit Sausalito, Muir Woods national park, quaint Mendocino and Sonoma County’s diverse wine regions.

Day One:
Start with an invigorating walk along San Francisco’s lively Fisherman’s Wharf, taking in the shops and eye-popping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, and if you’re lucky, a show-stopping patch of mysterious fog.  Then put the top down and head north on Highway 101 to the artsy village of Sausalito just across the bay.  Treat yourself to a seafood lunch paired with a glass of California wine before continuing north to see some of California’s famous redwood trees at Muir Woods, a national park about 30 minutes away.  Stroll among the giants, and when your neck gives out from too much looking up, get back in the car and drive an hour north to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.  In addition to historic Railroad Square with restaurants, shops and a California Welcome Center to help you plan your journey, Santa Rosa is a great place to spend the night, offering centralized access to various great wine regions and wine towns in Sonoma County.

Day Two:
From Santa Rosa, there are a lot of great options for how to spend the day.  In the morning, stroll Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, and if you’re a Peanuts comic strip fan, check out the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center before heading out for lunch and wine tasting in the pastoral and picturesque Russian River Valley.  If you like to greet the morning with exercise, go to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock filmed The Birds) for a morning kayak ride, then head to the quaint town of Occidental, Freestone, Graton or Sebastopol for lunch before tasting the cool-climate Pinot Noirs of the Sonoma Coast in the surrounding areas.  If your version of the great outdoors is to shop and dine alfresco, visit the fun wine country town squares of Sonoma to the southeast or Healdsburg to the north for lunch and shopping.  If you head to Sonoma, explore the various wineries of Sonoma Valley, also known as Valley of the Moon. If you go to Healdsburg, check out the nearby wine regions where you’ll find Alexander Valley’s rich Cabernet Sauvignons and Dry Creek Valley’s signature Zinfandels.  Overnight in Santa Rosa.

Day Three:
In the morning, take 101 North, exiting at Highway 128 at Cloverdale.  Soon you will be in Mendocino County’s wine region, a great place to stop for brunch and wine tasting.  Once in the postcard-perfect, seaside village of Mendocino, most of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are many options for entertainment. You can explore the charming shops and eateries, buying your loved ones a treat at the Mendocino Chocolate Company.  You can spend the afternoon exploring via scenic Highway 1, checking out historic lighthouses, such as Point Cabrillo Light Station, which features an inn or take a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grounds of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.  Try hiking coastal or wooded trails such as the Van Damme Pygmy Forest Trail (in the winter months you can enjoy whale watching).  Stay overnight in a romantic B&B.

Day Four:
Head up the coast in the morning on Highway 1, passing Fort Bragg, home to the redwoods Skunk Train, and continue until you get to 101 North.  Soon you will see the awe-inspiring Avenue of the Giants, a world-famous drive through more than 51,000 acres of redwood groves. There are many quirky attractions in the area, including places you can drive through a redwood, but don’t miss Rockefeller Forest’s “Champion Redwood” at 370 feet tall.  If you have an extra day, travel north to Redwood National and State Parks for hiking and an overnight stay.  Stop for lunch as you go south on 101 in the early afternoon towards historic Ukiah, where you can check into a charming B&B and explore the area’s wineries.  If you don’t mind a slightly longer drive, before Ukiah take Highway 20 south to stay in scenic Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake entirely in California and a great home base to check out wineries in the Lake County wine region, known for its delicious Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Day Five:
Spend the morning enjoying a stroll or hike in Ukiah or Clear Lake, before making your way south towards San Francisco.  Make sure to stop in the Los Carneros wine region, which straddles both Napa and Sonoma counties.  Los Carneros, which means sheep in Spanish, is aptly named for the sheep dotting the rolling hills.  These natural weed controllers are the perfect reminder that more than 70 percent of California’s acreage participates in California’s Sustainable Winegrowing Program, the largest of its kind in the world.  As you head back to San Francisco on 101 South, you can choose among several enticing small towns in Marin County. Nestled below majestic Mt. Tamalpais, Mill Valley’s Lytton Square is reminiscent of a European village, complete with cafes, and fashionable boutiques.  With celebrity musician residents like Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir and Sammy Hagar, it’s no surprise that Mill Valley is home to the famous Sweetwater, one of the top roots music clubs in the nation, well-known for its famous guest musicians who occasionally “drop in” for an evening to improvise.  The historic railroad town of Tiburon is reminiscent of a New England fishing village.  Its chic Main Street – filled with trendy shops, art galleries, high-end waterfront restaurants and popular casual cafes -- is known as "Ark Row" because of the 1890s recreational houseboat lifestyle enjoyed in Belvedere Cove by sea captains, Bohemian artists, and summer residents from San Francisco.  San Rafael, the oldest, largest and most culturally diverse city in Marin, boasts one-of-a kind shops, ethnic eateries and lovely Victorian buildings. Here you can also cruise down Fourth Street in San Rafael, where part of “American Graffiti” was filmed.

2) SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA

This five-day round-trip itinerary is a foodie’s paradise, with stops from San Francisco’s Chinatown and Little Italy to Berkeley, the legendary birthplace of California cuisine.  It also takes you from mountains to the sea: you’ll take in the thrilling scenery and wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Livermore Valley and Half Moon Bay.

Day One:
Take advantage of San Francisco’s food and wine culture.  In the late morning, try one of the city’s walking foodie tours, such as North Beach/Little Italy, Chinatown or the Mission District (Latin Quarter).  Head to Jackson Square and sample some California wines at the various wine bars.  Follow up with antique shopping in this lively neighborhood, or general shopping in Union Square.  Take a spooky night tour of Alcatraz, paired with wining and dining on Fisherman’s Wharf or nearby North Beach. Overnight in San Francisco.

Day Two:
Spend the morning at a San Francisco museum or two, then put your day in gear and head east over the Bay Bridge to charming university town Berkeley.  Take a guided or self-guided walking tour of the city’s famous Gourmet Ghetto, sampling the neighborhood’s culinary offerings.  If you’re not too full, don’t miss Chez Panisse, the landmark eatery owned by Alice Waters, pioneer of California’s locavore movement and California cuisine.  For those who love wine bike tours, skip Berkeley and head straight to Oakland, where you can do a guided or self-guided biking tour of various urban wineries, including lunch.  For dinner head back to San Francisco, leave the car at the hotel and walk to any number of eateries, where you can enjoy great California wine paired with regional cuisine.  Overnight in San Francisco.

Day Three:
After a leisurely breakfast of San Francisco’s famous sourdough pancakes, drive southeast to beautiful Livermore Valley, one of California’s oldest wine regions.  Enjoy lunch in charming and historic downtown Livermore, filled with quaint shops, eateries and galleries.  Enjoy wine tasting downtown at one of the tasting rooms or wine bars, or check out one of the local renowned wineries, some of which date back to the 1880s!  In the late afternoon, drive 40 minutes southwest to San Jose for fun and dinner on Santana Row, a Mediterranean-style shopping and entertainment district filled with chic boutiques, trendy eateries, hotels, wine bars and lounges. Overnight in San Jose.

Day Four:
In the morning visit a museum or gallery in the charming, tree-lined streets of downtown San Jose, all within a quick stroll of each other.  Or go for chills and thrills at the spooky Winchester Mystery House, featured on many haunted and mystery television shows.  At lunchtime, stop by the beautiful wine country town of Los Gatos for a bite and a short stroll.  Then go wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of California’s first designated wine regions and an area rich with wooded peaks and small vineyards tucked into quiet hillsides.  Noted by “Food and Wine” as a region to watch for Pinot Noir, the region boasts smaller wineries known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the west side, and Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel on the east.  Dinner and overnight in Santa Cruz.

Day Five:
If you like to start the morning with an adrenaline rush, head to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest amusement park.  Or if you’re more in the mood for hiking, head north on Highway 1 for a coastal trek at Año Nuevo State Park, where you can catch a rare glimpse of elephant seals.  Travel north on Highway 1 to the inviting Half Moon Bay, a crescent-shaped bay filled with surfers and fishermen.  Watch the surfers and enjoy lunch, wine tasting and shopping on Main Street.  Return to San Francisco for the night.

3) NAPA VALLEY TO THE HIGH SIERRAS

This adventurous round-trip itinerary starts in Napa Valley, any wine lover’s dream destination, where exquisite Cabernet Sauvignons await alongside pampering hot springs and bike tours.  Then it heads for the hills, exploring Gold Country and the Sierra Foothills for gondola rides, panoramic views and off-the-beaten-path wineries before winding back down to earth in Lodi, home to some of California’s oldest Zinfandel vines, as well as the Madera Wine Trail.

Day One:
Travel about an hour northeast of San Francisco to delightful downtown Napa.  Stroll the shops and tasting rooms, then enjoy a gourmet snack paired with local wines at the Oxbow Public Market.  Head up Highway 29 and get an eyeful of scenic Napa Valley, stopping at renowned wineries for tasting and fun facts about Napa’s 16 smaller appellations.  Take a break in charming wine country towns, filled with great restaurants, artisan food and gift shops, tasting rooms and wineries, such as Yountville and St. Helena.  Next, head north to Calistoga, where you can enjoy strolling the shops of Lincoln Avenue or take a guided biking tour of local wineries.  Or if you’d prefer some pampering, take advantage of one of several hot springs resorts, where you can relax in a natural hot spring or enjoy a rejuvenating massage or mud bath.  Dinner and overnight in Calistoga.

Day Two:
It’s worth the early morning rise to check out a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, which culminates with a brunch paired with local wines.  Next, explore the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, or spend the afternoon heading south on Napa’s other main artery, the Silverado Trail—once the only road to Calistoga’s silver mines and patrolled by bandits Black Bart and Buck English—to check out more wineries or any of the cool wine country towns you missed on Day One.  As late afternoon approaches, head northeast about 90 minutes to Sacramento, taking scenic Highway 128 past Lake Berryessa over to hook up with Interstate 80.  Explore historic Old Town and enjoy a trendy eatery and nightclub/comedy club downtown.

Day Three:
Spend the morning at a museum, such as Crocker Art Museum, one of the leading art museums in the state, the California State Railroad Museum in Old Town, or the Discovery Museum Science & Space Center.  Head 50 minutes northeast to the hidden gem Sierra Foothills wine region, known for Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah, Viognier and incredible scenery.  A great place to stop first at the Gold Rush town of Placerville for lunch, shopping and winery tasting rooms. (If you’re visiting in late spring when the snowpack melts, grab a sandwich at a deli and go whitewater rafting nearby.)  To explore more winery activities, you can’t go wrong with El Dorado County wineries or other Sierra Foothill regions such as Amador County, Calaveras County, Nevada County and Placer County.  Spend the evening an hour northeast in beautiful South Lake Tahoe, filled with great restaurants, glittering casinos and shows.  Overnight in South Lake Tahoe.

Day Four:
In the morning, ride the Heavenly Ski Resort Gondola for panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.  Spend the morning hiking, or if you’d rather get on the road straight away, head southwest 90 minutes on Highway 88 for lunch in the fun Gold Rush Town of Jackson.  Shop or savor a tasting room in town, or check out a winery or two in Calaveras County, which offers 21 tasting rooms in historic gold rush towns bordered by giant sequoia trees—and was made famous by Mark Twain’s story, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”  If wine tasting in town is enough for you, and you want to live a bit of history, try panning for gold in Pine Grove.  Head about 45 minutes southwest to Lodi, home to some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California.  Stop in the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, which has an expansive tasting bar featuring a wide selection of regional wines, educational demonstration vineyard on grape growing and a gift shop featuring handcrafted products and Lodi giftware.  If you’re out of time, make a plan to go there in the morning.  Overnight at a local B&B.

Day Five:
Armed with information from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, explore the Lodi wine region’s wineries, enjoying lunch and shopping in picturesque downtown.  Another way to explore the region is the Lodi Wine & River Tours, where you glide down the beautiful Mokelumne River while sipping local wines and looking for birds and other river creatures.  If you have time to venture further two hours south to check out the dessert wines of Madera, gateway to Yosemite National Park, the Madera Wine Trail is a great wine adventure.  Spend the evening in San Francisco.

4) CENTRAL COAST – HIGHWAY 1

Nothing says California more than driving a convertible with the top down up Highway 1.  With the ocean in view, wind in your hair and wine on your mind, this trip takes you from Santa Barbara’s “Sideways” movie territory to the cool-climate wines of San Luis Obispo and red-wine mecca Paso Robles, then swings back to the ocean and beautiful Monterey before ending in San Francisco.  Besides wining and dining, there’s a zip line, hiking, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to interest you!

Day One:
From Los Angeles, head north on California’s iconic Highway 1 about two hours to Santa Barbara County, whose wine regions were featured prominently in the hit film “Sideways.”  Visit Old Mission Santa Barbara, one of the state’s most famous spots on California’s Historic Mission Trail.  Stop for lunch and shopping on beautiful State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.  Make sure to sample regional wines at one of the street’s many tasting rooms. Dinner and overnight in Santa Barbara.

Day Two:
In the morning, head north to the unique historic Danish town of Solvang.  Enjoy breakfast and coffee at a Danish bakery or café, followed by shopping for souvenirs and admiring the Old World architecture.  Do a self-guided Sideways Tour of Santa Barbara’s wine regions, including a stop for lunch at the Hitching Post, famous for Santa Maria-style barbecue and featured in the film.  After the tour, head north on Highway 1 for a seafood dinner in downtown Pismo Beach.  Overnight in Pismo Beach.

Day Three:
Today, you have a choice to make: stay near the coast or head inland?  To keep it coastal, spend the morning in downtown San Luis Obispo, featuring museums, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the world-famous bubblegum alley and many shops.  Enjoy lunch in one of the renowned restaurants before exploring various San Luis Obispo wineries including those in Edna Valley.  Your other great way to spend the day is to head to downtown Paso Robles for shopping and dining, followed by winery hopping in the Paso Robles wine region, known for day/night temperature swings that create bold red wines.  If you’re seeking a more adventurous way to explore wine country, go zip lining over the historic Santa Margarita Ranch or hiking on a coastal trail.  Enjoy dinner and overnight in the charming seaside town of Cambria.

Day Four:
In the morning, stroll the shops in Cambria and head 15 minutes north to San Simeon. Sneak a rare peek at elephant seals before heading to the world-famous Hearst Castle, the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.  You can see his wine cellars on the Kitchen & Cottages tour, and taste his descendants’ wines nearby at Hearst Ranch Winery.  Head an hour north on Highway 1 to Big Sur, the most famous stretch of the road, featuring dramatic oceanfront cliffs.  Enjoy lunch at one of Big Sur’s scenic eateries, followed by a short hike among the woods and beaches of Andrew Molera State Park.  If you don’t feel like hiking, take a short drive north to historic Cannery Row in Monterey, made famous in the John Steinbeck novel. Stop by the Taste of Monterey, the Official Regional Wine Visitors’ Center, where you can learn more about Monterey Bay’s unique “Blue Grand Canyon” and how it creates a unique cooling effect on the vineyards.  Sample cool-climate wines from throughout the Monterey County wine region and plan your explorations for the following day.  Dinner at Monterey’s Cannery Row or nearby Fisherman’s Wharf areas.  Overnight in Monterey.

Day Five:
Enjoy the morning at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, followed by lunch in the elegantly charming Carmel-by-the-Sea, filled with great galleries and eateries.  Spend a couple of hours exploring nearby wineries before heading two hours north to end your day in San Francisco.

5) SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE:
HOLLYWOOD AND GRAPEVINE

For a wine lover, there’s more to Southern California than blue skies, surf and sunshine—it’s full of surprising wine regions, where winemaking has been taking place since the late 1700s.  On this five-day round trip, you’ll hit hot spots like Malibu and Palm Springs while also exploring wineries in Temecula, Cucamonga and even San Diego and Malibu.

Day One:
Start the morning with a guilty pleasure.  Head to Grauman's Chinese Theater on the Hollywood Boulevard strip, and see how your hands and feet measure up to the autographed imprints of Hollywood legends.  There you can sign up for Starline Tour’s latest two-hour tour of the celebrity homes and hangouts, the TMZ Tour.  This hilarious tour, created by TMZ producers, shares insider information and the guides are on the lookout to film celebrities in action.  Following the tour, grab some lunch and visit the intimate, high-elevation wineries in Malibu and other neighborhoods of Greater Los Angeles.  Dine and play at the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade in the late afternoon and evening. Overnight in Los Angeles.

Day Two:
Drive two hours south to playful San Diego, where there are many ways to enjoy fun in the sun.  Start in magnificent Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, boasting 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, lovely gardens and many other cultural and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo.  Options for the afternoon include Mission San Diego de Alcala, home to the oldest grapes in California, or visiting some of the San Diego area’s 50 wineries, known for Merlot and Chardonnay.  End the night with dinner and nightlife in the historic Gaslamp Quarter downtown. Overnight in San Diego.

Day Three:
There are several “must see” attractions to explore in the morning.  In addition to the zoo, Sea World and Legoland are sure bets.  In the afternoon, head off the beaten path (about an hour northeast) to the fast-growing Temecula wine region, which has been growing grapes since the late 1700s.  Tempered by coastal fog, this warm region is best known for its Italian and Rhône varietals—and its annual Balloon and Wine Festival.  Enjoy dinner and overnight in charming and historic downtown Temecula.

Day Four:
A popular pursuit is an early morning hot air balloon ride or biplane ride over Temecula Valley, which gives you a great view of the local wine country and ends with a champagne brunch.  If you’d rather sleep in, spend time exploring the shops of downtown Temecula.  In the afternoon, don’t miss the amazing bargains at Desert Hills Premium Outlets on the way to Palm Springs.  Enjoy the impressive collection of Art Deco architecture in downtown Palm Springs, as well as great restaurants for dinner.  If you’re feeling lucky, head to one of the many casinos, or fun evening shows like the campy Palm Springs Follies, a Broadway-caliber celebration of the music, dance, and comedy of Mid-Century America with a delightful cast old enough to have lived it.  Overnight in Palm Springs.

Day Five:
If you’re feeling adventurous, take a morning desert jeep tour, with stops at oases, ghost towns and the San Andreas Fault.  If you’re feeling more laid-back, travel to the eerily beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, made famous by the top-selling U2 album.  You can drive through the park at your own pace, but don’t miss the ranger-led tour of Keyes Ranch inside, which lets you get a hands-on glimpse of the tough pioneer lifestyle in this land shaped by strong winds, unpredictable torrents of rain, and climatic extremes.  On the way back towards Los Angeles, check out a winery or two in the Cucamonga Valley, which preserves the past with historic ranches and vineyards and is known for Port-style wines and old-vine Zinfandel.

For more ideas on these and other great California wine country road trips, including California wines, wine regions and winery activities—from tastings to tours, picnics, concerts, bocce ball and more—go to Wine Institute’s lifestyle and travel website.


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