Not long ago, the fun-loving website Thrillist asked a bunch of wine authorities to recommend the country’s best wine regions to visit. The resulting rundown was enthusiastic and thoughtful, and prompted me to come up with my own suggestions in hopes they will be as helpful.
My selection is qualified in two ways: The regions must be relatively close to Sacramento, and none is to be named Napa Valley, only because it already is so well known for wine tourism.
In alphabetical order, here’s my 10 wine destinations to check out on summer road trips:
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Best known to Sacramentans as the enchantingly bucolic area through which they zip en route to the Mendocino Coast, Anderson Valley is worth a pause for the grace of its sparkling wines, the elegance of its pinot noirs and the freshness and fidelity of white wines such as gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, chardonnay and riesling.
Linger at: Drew, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Husch, Lazy Creek, Meyer Family, Navarro, Roederer, Scharffenberger.
Half the fun in visiting winery tasting rooms in Calaveras County is the drive up and back. Whether you take Highway 49 or Highway 4 to Angels Camp and then Murphys, where most of the county’s tasting rooms are clustered, you pass through some of California’s more scenic and historic territory. By Sierra foothill standards, the wine trade of Calaveras is comparatively young, but it also is one of the more reliable and diverse enclaves of the region, gaining traction not only for zinfandel but for blends and varietal wines based on grapes traditionally associated with France’s Bordeaux and Rhone Valley.
Linger at: Black Sheep, Chatom, Coppermine, Four Winds, Frog’s Tooth, Hovey, Ironstone, Lavender Ridge, Milliare, Newsome Harlow, Twisted Oak.
Dry Creek Valley
In contrast to the polish and busy-ness of nearby Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley remains a comparatively calm throwback to rural California winemaking as it was four decades ago. This is sauvignon blanc and zinfandel country, for the most part, but it also boasts enough varied terrain and entrepreneurial vintners to draw attention also for its Italian and Rhone Valley varieties such as barbera and syrah.
Linger at: A. Rafanelli, Collier Falls, Dashe, Dry Creek Vineyard, Ferrari Carano, Kokomo, Lambert Bridge, Nalle, Preston of Dry Creek, Quivira, Ridge Lytton Springs, Seghesio, Unti.
El Dorado County
An extensive exploration of El Dorado County’s wine culture takes time, given that its wineries are so scattered. But many of the county’s more pivotal players can be visited in a day just by concentrating on Apple Hill east of Placerville and then looping south to take in Pleasant Valley. A visit to only two or three wineries in each area provides all the briefing anyone should need to understand why El Dorado wines increasingly are recognized for their clarity, momentum and exquisite balance.
Linger at: Boeger, Grace Patriot, Holly’s Hill, Lava Cap, Madroña, Miraflores, Narrow Gate, Sierra Vista.
Lodi’s reputation for commodity grape growing and industrial winemaking is being upgraded by several vintners who show off their understanding and appreciation of the area’s viticultural strengths with all sorts of varietal wines that accomplish the rare combination of authority and grace. It’s still zinfandel land, all right, but promising offbeat whites such as picpoul blanc and vermentino demonstrate that the Lodi tapestry is more colorful and varied than often thought.
Linger at: Acquiesce, Bokisch, Borra, Dancing Coyote, Fields Family, Harney Lane, Heritage Oak, Jessie’s Grove, Lange Twins, m2, McCay, Mettler, Michael David, Oak Farm, Peirano, St. Amant.
Like Lodi, Paso Robles long has been identified with zinfandel. That perspective is being rewritten, however, as cabernet sauvignon and wines made from grapes long associated with France’s Rhone Valley, like syrah and roussanne, raise the region’s profile in flattering new ways.
Linger at: Adelaida, Calcareous, Daou, Eberle, Halter Ranch, Hearst Ranch, J. Lohr, Justin, L’Aventure, Linne Calodo, Niner, Peachy Canyon, Robert Hall, Tablas Creek, Tobin James, Vina Robles, Wild Horse.
Russian River Valley
The Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area is immense, stretching well beyond river and valley to even take in a couple of other appellations, Chalk Hill and Green Valley. It can claim to offer visitors more diversity in wines than just about any region in the state, though it is best known by its chardonnays and pinot noirs.
Linger at: Balletto, DeLoach, Dutton-Goldfield, Francis Ford Coppola, Gary Farrell, Inman, Iron Horse, Korbel, La Crema, MacPhail Family, MacRostie, Merry Edwards, Ramey, Sonoma-Cutrer.
Santa Barbara County
Like the Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara is one huge wine region, subdivided into five sub-appellations and appointed with six wine trails. From Sta. Rita Hills on the west to Happy Canyon on the east, Santa Barbara is known largely as pinot noir and chardonnay territory, but the lay of the land is so varied that partisans of sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah also have a field day in the region.
Linger at: Au Bon Climat, Brander, Fess Parker, Fiddlehead, Gypsy Canyon, Kenneth Volk, Longoria, Margerum, Palmina, Qupé, Stolpman, Tercero, Zaca Mesa.
As the Mother Lode’s principal wine enclave for the range of its wines as well as its long and colorful history and compact accessibility, the Shenandoah Valley is celebrated as red-wine territory, especially for zinfandel, barbera and syrah. Visitors also will find enough whites and pinks to keep them refreshed during a torrid summer tour.
Linger at: Amador Cellars, Andis, Borjon, Bray, C.G. Di Arie, Cooper, Dillian, Driven, Helwig, Iron Hub, Jeff Runquist, Karmere, Renwood, Scott Harvey, Shenandoah Vineyards, Sobon Estate, Spinetta, Terre Rouge, Terra d’Oro, Turley, Vino Noceto, Wilderotter.
The old gold camp of Jacksonville, not far from Medford and Ashland, possesses enough entertainment, restaurants and relaxing accommodations to keep visitors occupied when they aren’t out exploring the region’s numerous wineries. The Rogue, Applegate and other valleys of the area are gaining traction for Rhone Valley varieties, but several other grapes, notably cabernet franc, tempranillo and malbec, provide enough solid diversity to please most any wine enthusiast. Be aware that wineries are widely scattered, but the scenery is terrific.
Linger at: Abacela, Agate Ridge, Belle Fiore, Brandborg, Daisy Creek, Foris, Jaxon, Pebblestone, Quady North, Serra, Weisinger.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.