California Road Trip - Let's Hit the Wine Country, Baby!
A great California road trip is one through the wine country in the northern part of the state and the best time to be there is in the summer (except for the first week in June when it becomes a madhouse due to the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction).
Unlike Southern California (where it’s just plain hot at this time of year), the summers of Northern California are sunny and warm during the day and wonderfully cool at night – hence the greatness of the grapes there. What’s good for grapes is good for you, the road tripper, too!
Of course, this California road trip is all about wine, so this vacation is only for those of drinking age. Also, if you plan on drinking more than the tiniest sips of the wines, you’re better off taking advantage of a shuttle or tour of the wineries rather than driving on the days you hit a lot of wineries. Another option is to limit and space out your wine tastings with other activities, like exploring the towns and just driving around and looking at the gorgeous scenery.
Even if you’re not much of a wine drinker, the food alone is a reason to take this trip. Some of the best restaurants in the U.S. are in San Francisco and California’s wine country.
This trip was planned to last around ten days (assuming two days for travel to and from CA), but you can tailor it to your needs. You can drive from home or go on a fly-and-drive road trip (rent a car or use public transportation). Need to make it shorter? Skip one or two of the stops listed here and focus on the stops that you consider must-sees. Here is a hit-list of wonderful places to tour on your Wine Country California Road Trip:
Wine Country California Road Trip – 1st Stop
Start in San Francisco and spend two days seeing the following:
Wine Country California Road Trip – 2nd Stop
- Golden Gate Park and Bridge: Everyone knows about the bridge – it’s the icon of San Francisco, but fewer people know about the amazing Golden Gate Park that has huge redwood trees, a Japanese Tea Garden, and a palace of a glass conservatory that houses an incredible display of orchids of all types. After wandering or driving through the park, take a walk on the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge for mind-boggling views of the bay and the city.
- The San Francisco Ferry Building: To kick off the culinary aspect of your trip, hit the market stalls of this outstanding farmer’s market that offers everything edible – from produce to fine chocolates to some of the finest breads around. There are also excellent restaurants here offering a wide variety of types of cuisine, so make sure to stay for a meal!
- San Francisco’s Chinatown: This is the last real Chinatown in the US – the others, unfortunately, are shrinking or disappearing altogether (how I miss the Chinatown in NYC that I grew up with – it’s now half the size it was when I was a little girl). There’s a pagoda-style gate that you walk beneath to enter the area, and you instantly feel transported when you’re surrounded by the sounds of various Chinese dialects being spoken, the mouthwatering smell of Chinese cooking, and the sight of real Asian markets with their live fish swimming in tanks, dangling headless chickens and ducks still wearing their feathers, and exotic produce unlike anything you’ll find in your hometown supermarket.
Spend three days in Napa Valley – the valley that made California’s name as a wine producing area of note and has a history dating back to 1858. I’ve included not only wineries, but also other must-sees that will add variety to your California road trip.
Wine Country California Road Trip – 3rd Stop
- Hit Highway 29 and hit spend two days visiting the many wineries and towns that line this famous and scenic route. The Napa Valley Wine Train runs alongside of this road – wave at the engineer and passengers when you see it passing and watch everyone wave back! Two wineries of note to visit include the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville (best tours available) and Rutherford’s Rubicon Estate (beautiful grounds on a restored ghost winery – you’ll hear more about ghost wineries later).
- Take a sunrise balloon ride over the valley for a gorgeous view of the area with Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime gotta-dos (if you’re not afraid of heights). The perfect quiet as you float above the treetops allows you to hear all of the birdsong and other sounds of the valley perfectly. This tour finishes with a delicious champagne breakfast.
- Spend a day and take the Silverado Trail that runs through the east side of Napa Valley. This route will probably be your favorite of the road trip as it’s as perfect as a postcard with lots of amazing views and even more wineries (though not as many as Highway 29) to visit. Slow down to take in the scenery and make sure to watch out for other drivers – some people drive far too fast on this route, so caution is warranted.
- Speaking of caution – who knew Napa had ghosts? Well, there really are ghost wineries – old wineries abandoned due to pest infestations followed by the final nail in the coffin of Prohibition. The first ghost winery worth visiting is Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) – first planted in 1882, it has a remarkable stone winery building is its centerpiece and offers 100% organic wines under its current ownership. Two brothers named Grimm started a winery in Calistoga in 1883 using wine caves to create their wines before Prohibition came along. The Seps family found the name Grimm too tempting when they purchased 90 acres of the original land including the caves and named the current winery Storybook Mountain Vineyards. This vineyard is not only pretty in name; it’s one of the most picturesque vineyards in Napa and produces truly outstanding Zinfandels.
- If you have the money, splurge and dine at the French Laundry in Yountville. Always ranked in the top five of the world’s greatest restaurants, Thomas Keller’s restaurant offers a special blend of California and France – food in the French tradition made with the best and freshest ingredients available. Prepare to book ahead (two months ahead to the day starting at 10:00 am).
Spend a day or two in the fun and funky Glen Ellen next. It’s another wine country town, but a little smaller and special unto itself. Famed writers Jack London and M.F.K Fisher both made this town their home and must have enjoyed this town’s unique style with its wooden sidewalks, saloon, farms with grazing cattle, fields of wildflowers, and charming clapboard cottages.
Wine Country California Road Trip – 4th Stop
- It wouldn’t be a California wine country road trip without more wineries! The top rated ones are the Benziger Family Winery (for a great education regarding winemaking), B.R. Cohn (just plain gorgeous from the mahogany tasting bar to the beautiful vistas) and the Mayo Family Winery (excellent food and wine pairings).
- Visit the Jack London State Historic Park – and see the remnants of Wolf House (foundation is all that remains after a fire), the farm, and the home Jack’s wife built after his death, “House of Happy Walls” filled with artifacts from their travels.
Cool down in Sonoma Valley for a day or two where the Pacific’s influence can be felt every foggy morning. This area is much more lush with its redwood forests, fertile orchards, rural landscape, and meandering Russian River.
Wine Country California Road Trip – Head on Home
- Yet another batch of wineries are located here to tempt you and these ones specialize in chardonnays and pinot noirs. The most famous is Kendall-Jackson, but also see all the smaller wineries in the area. Platypus Tours of Sonoma offers a great chance to get out from behind the wheel and let someone else do the driving as you tour the smaller and often family-run wineries in the area.
- Visit Sonoma Plaza – a town square with lots of great shopping (make sure to check out Sonoma Cheese Company) and dining. It has retained a small-town feeling that is great to experience and offers a fantastic farmer’s market with live (and free) music and lots of local offerings to sample.
- Go horseback riding through the vineyards at Roche Winery. Not only will you get the unique experience of seeing the vineyards from horseback, but you’ll also get a great lesson on winemaking from your guide.
This road trip has wound down and it’s time to head home. If you’ve done all of the suggested items on this hit-list, you’ve driven down some amazing roads with breathtaking views, floated over vineyards in a hot-air balloon, rode through vineyards on horseback, and have possibly even seen a ghost at one of Napa’s ghost wineries!
This trip was designed to make sure you had the best of all worlds – not only involving wine tasting but also taking in some history and culture, sampling great foods, and learning a lot about the area and the winemaking process itself. Johnny Mercer was on to something when he wrote “days of wine and roses laugh and run away, like a child at play” – you may find that your California road trip flew by before you knew it leaving you with a swirl of beautiful memories and a bottle or two of the excellent wines you’ve sampled to bring home.
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