Exploring the California Wine Regions


Well Travelled

Well Travelled writes engaging and informative articles for the mature traveller, helping to inspire their next tour.

11th June 2019

Award winning wines

In a State full of surprises and diverse activities competing for your attention, one of its greatest attractions is all about slowing down – slowing down to savour its wine.

In the land of the towering Redwoods, California’s comparatively diminutive grape vines have quite a lofty stature.

It was a particular Chardonnay in fact in 1976 that swept all-comers in the world’s most prestigious wine awards in Paris.

That historic victory by the Chateau Montelena Winery from Calistoga put Northern California’s whites on the connoisseurs’ radar globally and arguably started a movement that today has the valley bursting with 500 wineries.

Vineyards beyond the Napa Valley

Around 100 kilometres north of San Francisco, Napa Valley and Sonoma are the epicentres of wine touring here.

Napa in particular is the epitome of what you expect of great wine country; dreamy rolling hills, grand chateaux, superb dining, charming boutique accommodation and of course, incredible tasting wines.

At the top of the tree are bold Cabernet Sauvignons borne of the warm climate. In areas where the temperatures drop slightly, it’s Pinot Noir’s time to shine. Over in Sonoma the red wine that started it all here, Zinfandel is the star.

From a white wine perspective, naturally Chardonnay is a sought-after standout after that international acclaim achieved in the mid-seventies but Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier are also Napa favourites.

Highlights of the East Coast

For all those glorious choices of wine, it’s the experiences and uniqueness of the wineries themselves that make this arguably the best place in the world to go cellar-door hopping. Napa Valley is truly wine travel nirvana.

It might be just 50 kilometres long and eight kilometres wide but this Valley packs a real punch. It’s six towns - Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga - are all within easy reach and each has a different appeal.

At the northern end of the valley where those Chardonnay grapes were transformed into world-class wines, Calistoga is also a wellness haven attracting visitors from across the globe for more than a century to it hot springs and mud baths.

Food and wine – The perfect pair

Food and Wine – The perfect pair

In St Helena, you’ll enjoy a touch of decadence with great food, galleries and boutiques while in tiny Oakville and Rutherford, it’s all about the wine and this is Cab Sauv central.

Yountville is a foodie’s paradise with more Michelin-stars per capita here than anywhere and Napa itself, the largest town of the valley, is generally considered the gateway to wine touring with a vibrant street culture and active riverfront of its own.

One of the great rivals to Napa Valley lies in Santa Barbara County to the south, closer to Los Angeles than San Francisco.

The ground composition in the Santa Ynez Valley is the legacy of ancient sea beds; the rich limestone, sandy, silty soils produce wines of a distinct character.

The area is effectively a cluster of six different communities - Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Solvang, Buelton, Santa Ynez and Ballard.

As with most great winemaking regions set up for cellar door experiences, Santa Ynez Valley has some outstanding restaurants to complement its liquid gold. Back Roads Touring has handpicked some of the finest, so you don’t need to do your homework ahead of time.

Exploring California

This is where small group touring escorted by experts really makes a huge difference. When you take to the road, you don’t need to think about finding hotels or booking restaurants for example, everything is carefully curated so you know you are getting the best character-filled options you could possibly find at each location.

With time to sit back, relax and unwind with your new-found friends as you explore the Santa Ynez Valley, you might notice some familiar sights particularly if you are not only a wine-lover but a movie fan as well.

The area was catapulted into the global spotlight with the 2004 movie adaptation of Rex Pickett novel, Sideways. The two central characters toured the valley and the wines of the region played a leading role.

While ‘Miles Raymond’ and ‘Jack Cole’ jousted over their favourites, the region’s signature wine varieties are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah mostly emanating from the western edge of the valley. The area is also suited to Botrytis Cinerea (noble rot) so expect to find complex dessert wines of standout character also.

With so many wine varietals to try, book an indulgently paced Back-Roads tour to discover all of the Tastes of Northern California for yourself.