Heading to wine country and not sure where to go? Use this guide for visiting tasting rooms and wineries all over California. We put an emphasis on wineries that make exceptional quality wine in an elegant, restrained style. These wines tend to have lower alcohol, balanced acidity, less perceptible oak and light-handed winemaking methods.
SF Bay Area:
There are more and more “Urban Wineries” popping up all over the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This is a great way to get the wine tasting experience without having to venture far from home (if you live here, that is). Land is so expensive in California that it doesn’t make sense for most new winemakers to buy land and have a proper winery out in wine country. As a result, many of them are buying up old warehouses, converting them to wineries and operating exclusively out of these locations. Most are only open on the weekends and many make exceptional quality wines. Here’s some of my favorites.
95 Linden Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Campovida is the newest urban winery in Oakland, so new they aren’t even open yet. We met the staff at the Rhone Rangers wine tasting on 3/23/13 and they told us the tasting room should be open by 3/28/13. Campovida is making Organic & Biodynamic wines from their estate vineyards in Hopland, CA. They produce a lot of Rhone varietal wines and are some of the best we had at the whole Rhone Rangers tasting. If you are doing the urban winery circuit in Oakland, be sure to pay them a visit. Hours & tasting fee TBD.
Treasure Island Wines
995 9th Street
San Francisco, CA 94130
There are a few wineries on Treasure Island these days but this is by far my favorite. It’s a co-op space used by several winemakers that all share a facility and resources. Come by this winery on a Saturday to taste through their whole collection of wines. This is an excellent value since they will often pour through anything they have open, which can be as many as 15 wines. Lately they have been showcasing a particular winemaker each weekend so results may vary. Open Saturdays and some Sundays from 1pm to 5pm. $5 tasting fee refunded with purchase.
Bluxome Street Winery
53 Bluxome Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
This is a beautiful winery and event space located in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s a pretty new facility but they make some tasty wines (mostly from the Russian River Valley AVA) and are open during the week. So if you work in SoMa and are looking for a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, this is a great place to stop by and do a quick tasting at (or enjoy a whole glass of wine). They sometimes have a food truck parked outside and will let you eat the food inside with your wine. Open 12pm-7pm Tuesday thru Sunday. Tasting flights are $10-$15 and full glasses are $6-$14.
Donkey & Goat
1340 5th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
This is my favorite urban winery in the Bay Area. Jared Brandt is the winemaker; he and his wife Tracy interned with Eric Texier in France. Their wines are super-natural and made with Rhone varietals, Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. D&G makes some really interesting and unique wines which are setting the benchmark and paving the way for the California natural wine movement. The tasting room is located near the fancy shops at 4th Street in Berkeley and you shouldn’t miss this if you are in the area. Tasting room is open from 2pm-6pm, Friday through Sunday. Tasting fee is $10 and waived with a purchase.
805 Camelia Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Chris Brockway is the mastermind behind this great little winery located just a half a block away from Donkey & Goat. He produces wines with a natural slant at a reasonable price point ($20-$36) and with an interesting point of view. These wines are mostly Rhone varietals plus a little Zinfandel (and some white Zin!). Stop by Chris’ winery if you are in the area and be sure to also visit Donkey & Goat while you’re there. Open Saturday & Sunday from 1pm-5pm. $5 tasting fee waived with purchase.
55 4th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Dasche Cellars is located right by Jack London Square and makes some really outstanding Zinfandels. I am particularly fond of their ‘Les Enfants Terrible’ native yeast Zins which are not only delicious, but are also affordable at around $24 per bottle. These wines are made in a more old-world style with older French oak barrels, low SO2 levels, and without fining or filtering. They also produce a rosé, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon & Petite Sirah. Open Thursday thru Sunday from 12pm to 5pm in the winter, and until 6pm in the summer. Tasting fee is $5 and refunded with a purchase.
Dry Creek Valley
This AVA is part of the greater Sonoma area and is warmer than much of the rest of the area. As a result, the wines produced from these vineyards tend to be richer, riper, bolder, fuller, and higher in alcohol. Because it’s a valley, this area is pretty flat which makes for great bicycle riding. Stay on the low-traffic roads such as West Dry Creek Road. The scenery is particularly serene and beautiful with rolling hills, cute houses and vineyards for miles.
Preston of Dry Creek
9282 West Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Rhone & Italian varietals. Organically certified since 2001, Preston of Dry Creek makes delicious, balanced, native yeast wines. No appointment is needed to taste. There are beautiful picnic benches out front, a farm stand you can buy organic produce from, and lots of kitty cats looking for people to pet them. They even make their own olive oil and bread that you can buy in the tasting room. Open from 11:30am to 4pm 7 days a week. $10 tasting fee, waived with purchase.
Rhone & Italian varietals, sustainable farming, native yeast, extracted, big & bold style red wines. These wines will knock your socks off and are very well-made. Appointments are necessary and they do not accommodate groups over 6 people. Open 7 days a week from 11am-4pm. $5 tasting fee, waived with purchase.
650 Lytton Springs Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Rhone Varietals. Big, bold, fresh wines with great acidity. No appointment necessary for groups of less than 8. This winery has an amazing view, great outdoor seating and is particularly lovely. This is one of two tasting rooms; the other is in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Open 7 days a week from 11am-4pm. Tasting fee is $5-$20 depending on which one you choose.
Russian River Valley
Do you love Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? Then this is the AVA for you! Some of the best wines being produced in California are coming out of this area. The Russian River Valley AVA is particularly big and has a few sub-regions within. The climate here is much more coastal and cooler than the surrounding areas which produces wines that are more restrained, elegant, high in acidity and low in alcohol. There are tons of really great wineries to visit and it can be a little overwhelming if you aren’t sure of where to go. Below are some of my favorites that shouldn’t be missed if you are in the area.
Porter Creek Vineyards
8735 Westside Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Get ready to fall in love with Pinot Noir, if you haven’t already. Alex Davis, the winemaker, trained in Cote Rotie and Burgundy which greatly influences the style of wine he makes. These are natural old-world style wines; native yeast, subtle, elegant, low in alcohol, and affordably priced. Porter Creek produces mostly Pinot Noir but also has unbelievable Chardonnay, Carignan, Syrah, Viognier and Zinfandel. I think this is one of the best values in the RRV. The wines are superbly made… you will be tempted to join the wine club (and you should, for the discount!). Open from 10:30am-4:30pm 7 days a week. $10 tasting fee, waived with purchase.
Iron Horse Vineyards
9786 Ross Station Road
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Iron Horse vineyards is located in the heart of Green Valley, a small sub-region of the Russian River Valley AVA known for it’s elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This beautiful winery is located on top of a hill overlooking the vineyards of Green Valley. The views here are spectacular all year round and this is an excellent spot to bring out-of-towners. Iron Horse makes outstanding sparkling wines as well as still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Get two different flights and share with a friend to get the full experience. Open 7 days a week from 10am to 4:30pm. $15 tasting fee and worth every penny.
11750 Mays Canyon Rd.
Guerneville, CA 95446
This Organic and Biodynamic vineyard is farmed by Luke Bass (winemaker) and his family. This might be one of the most stunning pieces of property in all of the Russian River Valley. Tastings are poured by the winemaker underneath a tree on a simple table made of of boards and wine barrels overlooking the gorgeous vineyards. This winery is completely off the beaten path and not 10 minutes from the town of Guerneville, which makes it an excellent place to visit if you are staying nearby. Luke makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel from their estate fruit. His Chardonnay is some of the purest I have ever had. He uses 100% neutral French oak, native yeast, spontaneous MLF, and minimal intervention winemaking techniques. Tastings by appointment only, 7 days a week.
3100 Gravenstein Highway North
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Dutton-Goldfield scores high with critics and magazines while still making wine that is age-worthy and in balance. Their most recent claim to fame was their 2010 Rued clone Chardonnay which scored 97 points in Wine Spectator magazine. This is a great little spot to stop by if you are in the area (it’s near Iron Horse) and try out some of their increasingly famous wines. Tasting room open 7 days a week from 10am to 4:30pm. $15 tasting fee waived with purchase.
Napa is the land of opulent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. There are a fair amount of other grapes being farmed but many are used for blending with more expensive “Bordeaux” style wines. Unfortunately, the land in Napa is extremely expensive, so wineries have to make wines they can get a lot of money for. Napa is the quintessential wine tasting destination where most of the out-of-town-ers and wine tourists end up. This isn’t a bad thing; Napa is all about the experience. Here you will find stunning architecture, breath-taking scenery, gondolas that take you to castles on hillsides and etched souvenir wine glasses. Tastings are almost always in the $20 range and generally include a pour of something very old (by California standards) and expensive (usually Cab Sauv). I have a few favorite wineries and tasting rooms which I will list below.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
6320 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
RSV makes one of the first wines I ever fell in love with. One thing led to another and I eventually ended up in their wine club, exposing me to the huge variety of elegant, pure, balanced, expertly crafted wines that they produce from their privately owned vineyards all over Napa and Carneros. They make a little bit of something for everyone. Their white wines are crisp, aromatic and pure; you won’t find a drop of Chardonnay here. Their Carneros Pinot Noir is exceptional and I particularly enjoy their Merlot. Seriously, no matter what you think of Merlot, you need to try their Merlot. They also have a high end Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon that is one of my favorite Napa Cabs. Open 7 days a week from 10:30am to 4:30pm. Tastings are $25 and include a small plate of food pairings.
Hope & Grace Wines
6540 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
I don’t know much about the winemaker or the ethos here, but I do know their Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is one of my favorite California style Pinot Noirs recently. This adorable tasting room is located in the heart of Yountville (not a winery) and is just a few steps away from the famous Bouchon Bakery. Brave the lines for a French macaron, then head over to the tasting room for a lovely wine tasting experience. They make all sorts of wines from all over California so find a comfy seat and share a tasting with your friend. The tasting room is open Monday-Saturday from 10:30am to 5:30pm and Sunday from 11:30am to 4:30pm. The tasting fee is $10-$20 and waived with a purchase.
2153 Sage Canyon Road
St. Helena, CA 94574
Neyers Vineyards is a breath of fresh air in the often crowded and over-the-top wineries of Napa Valley. It’s off the beaten path but still just a short drive from the winery superhighway Silverado Trail. Neyers has been around since 1992; the husband & wife owners Bruce & Barbra produce about 15,000 cases of wine per year. Their Conn Valley vineyard is organically farmed and they produce wines that while still Napa in character, are beginning to show more restraint and elegance than their neighbors. Last time we visited we were told that they just purchased a concrete egg or two, so you can expect some interesting wines from them in the future. Neyers is open 7 days a week by appointment only and a $10 tasting fee is waived with a purchase.
The Monterey AVA is part of the larger Central Coast AVA and we feel it’s still relatively rough around the edges in terms of the wines being made there. Many of the wines are still made very ripe, high in alcohol, out of balance, and with lots of oak. There are, however, a few that are making very elegant wines that are noteworthy and affordably priced. It also makes a great wine tasting trip because the scenery is just so beautiful, particularly in the winter when there is snow on the Santa Lucia mountain range and miles of rolling green hills.
645 River Road
Salinas, CA 93908
A producer of Rhone varietals, the white wines in particular really shine at this quaint little tasting room located on River Road in Salinas. This is the northern-most tip of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and is also the coolest part of the area. Although they make wines from all over Monterey AVA, the wines here are more balanced and have better acidity than many of the others in the area. Marilyn Remark also uses French & neutral oak for the aging, producing wines that are transparent and pure. The wines here are also reasonably priced and the hosts are lovely. Tasting room is open weekends & holidays from 11AM to 5PM, all other times by appointment.
24 West Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93924
This cute tasting room located in the heart of Carmel Valley Village is producing some nicely balanced Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel & Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands & Carmel Valley AVAs. They have two tasting rooms; make sure you go to the one in Carmel Valley Village as the other one usually isn’t open unless you make an appointment ahead of time (it’s their estate winery & vineyards). Definitely stop by here if you are in the area and check out some of the other tasting rooms in the village. Tasting room hours are not listed on their website, so be sure to call and confirm their hours prior to visiting.
Santa Cruz Mountains
If you are a native to the Bay Area, you are probably familiar with the little-known AVA of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This ridge of mountains runs the length of the San Francisco peninsula and separates the coast from the San Francisco Bay. It is home to not only grape vinyeards, but mountain lions, expansive redwood forests, wildberry patches, seasonal streams, and Christmas tree farms. Some of California’s highest elevation vineyards reside here. While it’s nothing like Napa Valley or Sonoma, half of the fun of wine-tasting here is just meandering through the windy mountain roads beneath this temperate rainforest (with your designated driver, of course!).
Thomas Fogarty Winery
19501 Skyline Blvd.
Woodside, CA 94062
Use these directions, not your iPhone
As one of the closest tasting rooms with an actual vineyard to San Francisco, many locals have been here or driven past it. It’s located on the main drag that runs through the Santa Cruz Mountains – Skyline Blvd. It’s pretty far north and really only an hour away from SF (without traffic, of course). Thomas Fogarty Sr. purchased this land back in the 70’s as an investment, and soon learned from friends that the best thing to do with the land was plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (he had planned on planting kiwis, which were all the rage). So he did, and the winery began making wine from grapes in 1981. Organic farming practices are used here, as well as natural winemaking methods in the winery. We love their rich, American-style wines, and especially enjoy the stuff they are making from a very small planting of Nebbiolo. They have one of the most beautiful tasting room views that we have ever seen, and the facility doubles as an event venue. Definitely stop by here if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city without having to drive too far. Hours: Monday 12-4pm, Wednesday-Sunday 11am-5pm. Closed Tuesdays
Tastings from $10-$20/person, with free tasting on Wednesdays!