California’s coastal proximity to the Pacific Ocean and fruitful soil create some of the best wines in the world. And many of the state’s regions are complemented by scenic drives, where a beach town shaded by precipitous cliffs and shining palm trees sits a few minutes away from acres of farmland and thriving vineyards. California has well over 100 specific vineyard zones based on geography and climate—called American Viticultural Areas (or AVAs)—and four wine-producing regions: the North Coast, Central Coast, Central Valley, and South Coast. Subregions within these locations include Napa and Sonoma in the north.
Wine lovers can make tasting appointments at some of the top wine estates in the north and enjoy family-owned boutiques in the Central Coast. Whether you’re returning to the state for another taste of its terroir, or looking to plan your first trip and don’t know where to begin, here are some excellent California wine regions to consider.
Located on California’s northern coast, this region in Mendocino County produces some of the state’s best sparkling wine and pinot noirs—and boasts of some of the largest number of certified organic and biodynamic wines in the entire state.
In the northwest, a thick fog that rolls in from the Mendocino coastline helps create the perfect climate for Maggy Hawk Vineyard’s pinot noir and chardonnay. In 2022, the winery opened a tasting room in the town of Philo where appointments can be made to join experiences like pinot and pizza pairings. Pennyroyal Farms offers tastings of its house-made cheeses and wines as well as farm tours that include a walk through its solar-powered barn full of animals. Try its popular Pinotrio, a dry blend of pinot gris, pinot noir, and pinot blanc. For a bit of bubbly, Roederer Estate was one of the first sparkling wine producers in the region. If you’re feeling decadent, request the Nosh menu, which features Tsar Nicoulai caviar, smoked salmon, duck rillettes, and Marcona almonds.
Slightly less overwhelming than its booming next door neighbor Napa, Sonoma County maintains a come-as-you-are charm that’s rare to find in such a frequented wine region.
Just outside of the city of Healdsburg, a celebration of coveted, juicy red French varietals that helped define California-Bordelaise winemaking takes center stage at Vérité. Here, Pierre Seillan—along with his daughter Hélène—crafts three principal Bordeaux blends (La Muse, La Joie, and Le Désir) from small, individually picked plots called “micro-crus.” In April, Vérité completed a multiphase project on the estate that includes a tasting salon, underground cave, and multiple tasting spaces with views toward rolling hills and vineyards. If a luxury experience with unforgettable wines is your aim, make a tasting room appointment in advance.
Another favorite winery of mine is Three Sticks, located in downtown Sonoma. The boutique, family-owned winery focuses on small-lot pinot noir and chardonnay wines, and its new spring releases—the 2021 Durell Vineyard Origin chardonnay and 2021 Monarch pinot noir—are a great way to get an overview of what it does. Finally, head to Aperture Cellars to taste notes of baked plum and cherries in winemaker Jesse Katz’s cool-climate Bordeaux varietals.
See our full list of the best wineries to visit in Sonoma.
Where to stay
Book now: Montage Healdsburg
After a tasting filled day, check in to the nearby bungalow-style Montage Healdsburg, set among moss-covered oak trees on rolling hills. At its signature farm-to-table restaurant Hazel Hill, French-influenced California dishes like a wagyu strip loin with duck fat potatoes are paired with its robust collection of wines.
California’s Central Coast has no shortage of wineries; San Luis Obispo County has more than 250 vineyards alone to choose from, many of which are family owned. In the Paso Robles region, popular varietals include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, syrah, and chardonnay, and its coastal proximity allows for excellent cool climate friendly viogniers and pinot noirs.
The streets of the city itself are lined with tasting opportunities, including standouts like Copia, Indigené and Détente. For a venture through vines, make your way to L’Aventure, where winemaker Stephan Asseo grows Rhone-style syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot blends to create Optimus and the Estate Cuvée. My favorite is the 2019 Côte à Côte–a blend of grenache, syrah, and a mourvèdre to balance out what becomes a symphony of blue fruits and spring flowers on the palate.
At the family-owned Clos Solène, French grapes take their cue once again from the Central Coast’s terroir. The Fleur de Solène—a red blend of syrah, cabernet franc, grenache—is fresh and drinkable now. For places to eat with impressive wine selections as well, make a reservation at French farm-to-table bistro Les Petites Canailles and order a bowl of mussels with spicy nduja and roasted garlic, or go to the always buzzing In Bloom for contemporary California cuisine. In eastern Paso Robles, Cass offer wines that reflect the cool breezes channeled by nearby river terraces, including its bouquet fresh marsanne.
Where to stay
Book now: The Piccolo
Check into the Piccolo, a four-story boutique hotel with intimate service and a lovely rooftop and lobby fireplace to enjoy.
Often called the American Riviera because of its small city, laid-back feel and Mediterranean climate, Santa Barbara has six regions with AVA status. Mediterranean-style homes tower above a bustling downtown area with some of the state’s best vineyards less than an hour away.
Downtown’s top tasting rooms include Jaffurs, where talented winemaker Stephen Searle makes Rhône varietal wines, including a medium-bodied syrah with notes of cardamom and blackberry sauce. Though not a tasting room, the Lark restaurant is one of the best places to experience some of Santa Barbara’s wines by the glass or bottle, in an alfresco setting and paired with flavorful buttermilk fried chicken thighs and handmade pappardelle with garlic butter beurre blanc. Next door, the Santa Barbara Wine Collective offers winetasting flights from well-loved Santa Barbara region producers like Fess Parker, Notary Public, and Babcock. Just down the street, La Paloma Cafe is well-known for its Baja inspired food and mezcal margaritas, but it’s the wine list—featuring the likes of Casa Madero’s zippy rose and Marcio Lopes Pequenos Rebento’s juicy and acidic pét-nat—that round out an afternoon on their patio for brunch.
Where to stay
Book now: Drift
Check into the new 45-room Drift hotel—where Santa Barbara’s modern coastal decor is on full display. On the lobby floor, Dusk cocktail bar is a favorite for residents looking to enjoy a spicy mezcal cocktail and small plates like avocado tostada.
Los Olivos in Santa Ynez
Just 45 minutes north of downtown Santa Barbara, Los Olivos in Santa Ynez Valley offers a city escape and small town feel with vineyards at every turn. There are over 30 tasting rooms clustered in the downtown area—many family owned. Be sure to make stops at Future Perfect for small-lot sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and syrah and nearby Story of Soil, where winemaker Jessica Gasca pours her incredibly refreshing pinot noir.
One of the best expressions of Los Olivos’s terroir is available at the Brewer-Clifton Tasting Room, where winemaker Greg Brewer produces chardonnay and pinot noirs that showcase the complexity of the region’s marine-based soils. At the wine-heavy seafood tavern Bar Le Cote, chef Brad Matthews works closely with local winemakers and farmers to create fresh dishes like scallop crudo with pickled black pearl mushrooms, producing one of the most sought-after dining experiences in the region.
Where to stay
Book now: Fess Parker Wine Country Inn
At this intimate, 19-room luxury boutique, guests will feel like they’ve checked into a home away from home, with accommodations that include fireplaces and plush sofas.
Santa Maria Valley
A bit cooler in temperature than its neighbor Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley produces zippy chardonnay and pinot noirs that reflect the climate. This Santa Barbara County AVA has over 7,000 acres of vineyards and hiking opportunities and was commemorated in the film Sideways. At the family-owned Cambria Estate, sisters Katherine and Julia produce single vineyard expressions on the coastal ridges of the Valley, including chardonnay and pinot noir. The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail is home to 14 tasting rooms, with standouts that include Tres Hermanas and Rancho Sisquoc.
Where to stay
Book now: Skyview
Skyview in Los Alamos is a 33-room roadside motel turned boutique hotel, just steps away from appealling dining options like French-inspired bistro Bell’s and farm-to-table Pico.