Anyone who has spent some time travelling in California will likely concur that wine tasting is one of the finest of west coast hobbies. Yes, the Europeans perfected the production and craft of wine, but California wine tasting is a distinctly American refinement and a thoroughly pleasurable way to spend a day.
In the listings below, I highlight some of my favorite wineries in various regions in California and even include New York state to make sure the east coast has its deserved representation. A comprehensive list of wineries would be extensive and likely unnecessary as many websites provide a similar service. Moreover, the fact is that most wineries are not all that unique. Wood furnishings, accessories for sale, standardized tasting menus, and rote sales pitches are very familiar to the habitual wine taster. Certainly, one wouldn't suggest that these places are poor in any way, and indeed many of the most generic places produce fine wines. Certainly, inventiveness in wine artistry outweighs a lack of imagination in atmosphere. Nevertheless, recommendations will be limited to those wineries that provide a little more of a special experience.
But first, some preliminaries for those who are new to the enterprise of wine tasting. Let's acknowledge the fact that wine tasting potentially allows you to consume a good amount of wine for free or for cheap, depending on which wineries you go to. Many consider this fact the main appeal of wine tasting and do their best to take advantage of the opportunity. These types are easy to recognize. They either pile out of busses in noisy groups or drive in front of you with an evident lack of control that makes you maintain a good distance. You can hear their laughter and unintelligible comments before you even enter a tasting room. You can watch servers roll their eyes and wish they were in a different profession when they have to smile and politely pour wine for these people. You can be one of them, or you can consider the other opportunity that wine tasting provides.
If you really want to learn about wine and its qualities and don't want to take a sommelier course to do so, wine tasting is an unbeatable way to start. At a single winery you can compare four or more different types of wine for much less than buying them by the glass at any wine bar or restaurant. Imagine being able to try a Cabernet Franc and a Cabernet Sauvignon side-by-side and learning how to tell the difference. Imagine trying out two different vintages of the same grape from the same vineyard and discerning the unique characteristics two different harvests can produce. Imagine having a trained server who likely knows the wine intimately and is able to answer any questions you may have. Finally, imagine being sober enough to comprehend and appreciate all the complexities of the wines poured for your willing palate. It's very simple. Pace yourself. Feel free to share tastings or pour out what you don't want. Take breaks to enjoy the scenery or picnic at the tables that wineries invariably provide. You will get so much more out of it, and you will find you will be much more welcome at all the wineries you visit.
A brief word about tasting fees. I find that they are rarely a mark of quality as some of the more popular wineries seem to coast on their reputations and charge for mediocre wines, knowing people will come anyway. Likewise, a small winery with a very good product might give free tastings to attract tasters. Conversely, a large, established winery might offer free tastings because it can afford to do so, and a small, family-run winery might charge to keep its costs low. There really is no set rule.
Finally, buying wine is a great way to get even more out of the experience. I never feel obliged to buy a bottle at a winery. Maintaining and staffing a tasting room is basically a form of marketing for a winery, and no one will resent you for walking away with a friendly and sincere expression of thanks. And you certainly shouldn't feel obliged to buy if you don't like any of the wines you tasted or don't feel the bottles are worth the prices. But if you do like a specific wine, I would urge you to pick up a bottle. For one thing, you will be getting a better price as you are buying from the source, and many smaller producers don't sell outside the winery so you may not get a chance to purchase it otherwise. I frequently pick up an extra bottle if a server has been especially friendly or helpful, but I'm cautious about buying at the last winery of five I'm visiting in a day, for obvious reasons.
One really doesn't need any more than the beaches, coastal drives, and tasty cuisine as an incentive to visit the Monterey/Carmel area. But how perfect that the region is made even richer by the addition of a solid group of wineries? The best strategy is to try the tasting rooms at the cluster of wineries along Carmel Valley Road (G15), though the more adventurous can seek out ones that are farther afield (check the official site for a map). You can easily spend a day here, especially if you feel inspired to follow up your tasting ventures with al fresco dining on the beach or a ride down the coast.
2999 Monterey-Salinas Highway, Monterey
Located just off of Highway 1, Ventana should be mandatory on a trip to this area. For one thing, their generosity is stunning. A visitor can taste several wines from a long list for free. The wines are all carefully crafted and a delight to taste; the orange Muscat is justly popular as a fruity dessert wine. Ventana is also a great place to buy bottles, and they frequently have wines on special. On my last visit, I picked up two bottles of a blend called Doug's Pizza Wine for $6.00 each, a simple red table wine whose character easily surpasses many wines three times the price.
Château Julien Wine Estate
8940 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel
With its French architecture and large private event rooms, Château Julien may seem both overwrought and a bit generic, but I have always had a good experience here. In particular, the winery tour (which needs to be reserved ahead of time) is instructive and includes tastings. The open, leafy grounds are also one of the better locations in the area for a picnic.
Where? Yes, Morgan Hill and Gilroy, two small communities just south of San Jose off of Highway 101. Though San Jose holds few tourist attractions, the city certainly has its share of business travelers. Should you find yourself in town for any reason and don't have time to make a trip out to the other wine-tasting regions, you should really visit the Santa Clara Valley wineries. Because they don't get a lot of traffic, you will find that wine tasting around here comes with a local, personal touch that other places may lack. The Wineries of Santa Clara Valley web page has a listing and map. Along with the two listed below, one of my favorites is Guglielmo, where the wines are particularly fine and the Italianate setting inviting.
11550 Watsonville Road, Gilroy
I will confess that part of my attraction to this small winery is the cricket field outside, and apparently the current owner acquired the property to facilitate his favorite sport. Thankfully, they also offer some nice wines in a pleasant setting. One of my favorites is their Malvasia Bianca, a rare Sicilian grape that yields a distinctive and slightly sweet white wine. The crowd pleaser is the Vino de Mocca, a fortified dessert wine served in a chocolate cup.
Thomas Kruse Winery
3200 Dryden Avenue, Gilroy
His name may remind you of a notorious Scientologist, but Tom Kruse's real claim to fame is his devotion to winemaking. On a recent visit, Tom himself chatted with me and my companions on a diversity of topics in the rather makeshift but inviting tasting area. I always like it when a winery owner finds time to engage his customers. One of the highlights of the tasting was three very different Merlots, offering an opportunity to explore the range of a common varietal.
The river that gives this wine tasting region its name meanders through lovely forested land north of Sonoma and holds a plethora of wineries in its environs. Because the area is farther removed from San Francisco than either Sonoma or Napa, the wineries tend to be more family-run, small, and welcoming, and you will likely feel rewarded for taking the time to make it out here. You can find maps on the official site, which you'll certainly need as many of the wineries are nestled in secluded forest glades along the river. In addition to the ones below, I can recommend Ridge Vineyards/Lytton Springs, Lambert Bridge, Dry Creek, and the tiny tasting shack that distinguishes Porter Creek.
6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg
If you like picturesque tasting rooms, Hop Kiln is the place. Tastings are done in a 19th-century ranch house with a distinctive look and spacious interior. And Hop Kiln is not just about atmosphere; the wines are very nice too. One of their more unique offerings is called "Thousand Flowers," a light and fruity blend of a number of white wine grapes.
Johnson's Alexander Valley
8333 Highway 128, Healdsburg
Small and family-run are the key words at this winery. When I visited, I was impressed by the friendly service and the generous tastings. I was probably less impressed by the organ doing a poor rendition of the theme to Star Wars, but that touch certainly added to the charm. Johnson's tends to specialize in white wines, and I think their Rieslings are particularly nice. As far as I know, they don't currently have a website.
Sonoma County is the second most well-known wine tasting region in the state (I won't make much mention of Napa beyond saying that I find it heavily touristed, crowded, and over-priced), and many of the heavy hitters in the industry are located here, but you can also find plenty of small, less-frequented wineries with a friendly atmosphere and a good product. The official site has all the details. The little town of Sonoma itself boasts a historical center with fine dining and the Sonoma Cheese Factory, which is worth a visit just for the free samples.
Valley of the Moon
777 Madrone Road, Glen Ellen
I can assure you that I don't just love Valley of the Moon because of the poetic name, nor for the bottles with their distinctive and elegant platinum etching design. I am much more impressed by the friendly reception I get every time I visit and the quality of the wines. The Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Syrah inspire me every time.
2000 Denmark Street, Sonoma
The distinctively European name of this winery is due to its founders, Jacob Gundlach and Charles Bundschu from Bavaria and Mannheim, respectively. True to its heritage, the estate includes some German-style wines like Gewürztraminer among the standard offerings. The tasting room itself is pleasantly located in a cave hollowed into a hillside, an attractive and cool venue for sampling.
Ice age glaciers carved out the Finger Lakes in the central part of New York state and left a lush, gorgeous region that can be as readily appreciated for its landscape as for the abundance of wineries. Seneca Lake has the most wineries and is flanked by Keuka Lake to the west and Cayuga Lake to the east, both of which have several wineries of their own. Check the Uncork New York website for the best maps. At one time, the local wines were pressed from native grapes, which are still used to produce very sweet table wines that some wineries offer cheaply to less discriminating customers. Eventually, enterprising growers started transplanting more complex European grapes. German varieties seem to thrive due to a similar climate, and you're in luck if, like me, you're a fan of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. You can also find interesting wines made from hybrid grapes. Most of the wineries offer several tastings for a very reasonable $1.00 fee.
I find that the best strategy when visiting the region is to stay at either the southern end (around Watkins Glen) or the northern end (around Geneva) of Seneca Lake, thereby maximizing the number of wineries at the three lakes within easy reach. For a great glimpse at the area's natural wonders, I recommend a visit to Watkins Glen State Park (on Route 14 in Watkins Glen), where an easy 1.5-mile hike takes you on a trail along a fantastic gorge filled with waterfalls and rock formations. In addition to the ones below, other wineries I like include Hermann J. Wiemer, famous for award-winning German-style wines, Atwater, which offers a glorious view of the lake, and Lakewood.
5289 Route 14, Dundee
Though most of the region's wineries offer red wines, few are very successful at cultivating the required grapes, and you will generally find the whites more palatable. Hickory Hollow is an exception, and I was very pleased with their Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
1401 Caywood Road, Lodi
Just south of the sprawling, crowded Wagner winery and at the end of a long, bumpy dirt road is the small, artisanal Silver Thread. Instead of drawing in the bus and limousine tours, this small organic winery concentrates on providing friendly, informative tastings to wine aficionados who can appreciate the care they put into their product. Plus, the delightful A-frame tasting room offers a great view of the lake.
About a half of Seneca's length, Keuka still has a number of wineries nested on both its east and west coasts. The famous and gloriously titled Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinefera Wine Cellars is on the west coast, but I confess I have not had the chance to visit it.
280 Route 54, Penn Yan
The pleasant tasting room at this winery offers some fine product with its magnificent views of the lake. I'm a fan of their Gewürztraminer, which I find very full bodied for the style. They also have a good example of a Lemberger, a red wine made from a grape originally from Austria.
Cayuga is the longest of the lakes, though it doesn't beat Seneca by much. Most of the wineries are clustered along Route 89 on the west coast. Also on 89, near the town of Trumansburg, is Taughannock Falls State Park, whose glorious falls can be reached with a short, easy walk that makes for an ideal break in a day of wine tasting. At the lake's southern end is the town of Ithaca, home to Cornell University and two other state parks, Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk, both with hiking trails along cascading waterfall gorges. Along with the winery and cidery listed below, you may also enjoy Buttonwood Grove if you are interested in meeting some friendly goats.
6999 State Route 89, Ovid
Hosmer is good at putting out award-winning wines, and the ones I have tried deserve the accolades, particularly the Dry Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Bellwether Hard Cider
9070 State Route 89, Trumansburg
If you spend all day wine-tasting, a break with a wholly different taste sensation can be just the thing. Bellwether only produces hard cider, and they do so in five distinct varieties, from still and off-dry to sparkling and semi-sweet, all available for purchase in generous 750 ml botles.
The North Fork of Long Island may sound like a peculiar destination for the wine enthusiast; indeed, the area was mostly farmland until the 1970's, when enterprising vintners established the first wineries. Since then, the region has grown into a cluster of around two dozen producers that offer tastings. Many of the wines are designed in the French style, but the diversity of varietals is impressive. Most vineries are located along the northern (48) and southern (25) routes on the North Fork and are in close proximity to each other. The official site offers a map and a list of most of the wineries. Not only are the wineries pleasant and the scenery lovely, but the North Fork region is only about an hour-and-a-half drive from New York City and makes for a great day escape.
I have to revise my original entry on the North Fork region and advise my readers that it just isn't the way it used to be. At one time, the people who frequented these tasting rooms were genuinely interested in trying and buying the wines. However, of late the wineries seem to have been overrun by crowds of drunkards shipped in by limousine and bus. As a result, the pours have gotten smaller and the tasting fees bigger. More importantly, the settings are less intimate and service more volume-oriented. Basically, the loud and undisciplined have spoiled it for the rest of us. Yet I still enjoy taking a trip to the region and commend the wineries below for doing their best to retain the feel of the old days. I can also recommend Laurel Lake for a lovely covered patio picnic area and Castello di Borghese, an old established winery with friendly service and fine wines.
2600 Oregon Road, Mattituck
You may initially blanche at the high tasting fee at this small winery ($8.00 for the estate flight, $10.00 for the premium), but I think you will find little amenities that make it worth it. For one thing, you don't have to stand at a counter as in most tasting rooms. Instead, the wines are brought to you as you sit at a table in a field by the vineyard. Also, the pours are a bit more generous than usual. Best of all, the wines are exceptionally good, particularly the buttery Chardonnays.
2000 Oregon Road, Mattituck
The tasting room at this small boutique winery isn't quite the same as it used to be as owners David Page and Barbara Shinn have expanded into a bed-and-breakfast business that tends to occupy much of their attention. Still, they manage to make you feel welcome when you enter their very unassuming tasting room. Josie, the friendly dog who easily talks you into playing fetch with her, does her part as well. It used to be that Shinn's tasting fee of $6.50-$8.50 was unusually high, but these days it's typical, and the wines are very good.
The Old Field
59600 Main Road (Route 25), Southold
Imagine a tree-shrouded farm complete with chickens, a dirt parking lot, and a barn combined with a tiny tasting room and you will be able to picture one of the more unique wineries of the North Fork. Tasting is sometimes done outside if the weather is nice. You will likely feel very much at ease as you sip Blanc de Noir sparkling wine or the peppery Merlot, chat with the affable staff, and enjoy a picnic by the pond as chickens peck the grass around you. A definite treasure.
Last update for this page: 23 July 2007