— CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRY — Napa Valley is a wine lover’s Nirvana. In this lovely and productive area, you can experience some of the world’s best libations, food, and scenery. Nearly 4-million visitors go to California’s most renowned wine-producing region each year; it’s a popular place.
But Napa Valley isn’t the only wine country in California. Within 90-minutes of San Francisco, four wine-producing regions are making award-winning wines in laidback environs that invite you to take a sip of California and watch the sunset.
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For Napa Valley alternatives, explore these four regions. A short drive from San Francisco, each region has a different vibe, from buzzy urban to laid-back agrarian.~Mary Charlebois
1. Anderson Valley/Mendocino County
Ninety minutes north of the Golden Gate, turn northwest into Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley (AV). Two-lane Hwy 128 turns and curls through a long coastal valley. AV is a collage of vineyards, farms, ranches, and micro-towns. Best of all, it’s wine country. Some of the oldest in California.
Make your wine country tour through Anderson Valley a bit random. Learn the art of the U-turn. You’ll pass a tasting room, farm stand, café, or creamery that speaks to you. Then, turn around and go back.
TASTE – Can’t decide where to stop? Try – Maple Creek Winery for wine and a gallery (the winemaker is a celebrated artist), Hush, AV’s oldest winery, Penny Royal Farm for the lovely wine and fabulous cheese, or Disco Ranch Wine Bar and Specialty Market for wine tasting, tapas, and picnic supplies.
EAT, SLEEP & TASTE – The Madrones in Philo, where you can run away to wine country and never leave the grounds. Lodging, restaurant, tasting rooms, and a hidden garden are bordered by vineyards.
AV is casual, perfect for slowing down and unplugging. Learn more at Visit Anderson Valley.
2. Santa Rosa/Sonoma County
Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, is where the big boys play side-by-side with small-batch, handmade wines. The small city is one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
TASTE – Some of the world’s most famous labels call Santa Rosa home – Korbel, Kendall Jackson, and Francis Ford Coppola all have spectacular tasting rooms, restaurants, and experiences beyond drinking wine.
SLEEP – Luxury Glamp at Safari West and take The Rhinos and Winos Tour for an al fresco Sonoma County wine and cheese tasting. It’s an unforgettable tour through an African wildlife preserve with a tasting overlooking the valley.
There are countless wineries and tasting rooms to try in Santa Rosa. Learn more about this wine region HERE. You’ll find breweries on the same page.
Thirty-five miles east of San Francisco, you’ll discover Tri-Valley. The region is made up of Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin. These valleys are known as the birthplace of California Chardonnay.
After prohibition ended, this region had mature vineyards of chardonnay grapes from France. Most vineyards were pulled up and wineries destroyed. However, some Tri-Valley vineyards were exempted and allowed to make sacramental wine.
When prohibition ended, those wineries had a head start on others. Cuttings were shared, and chardonnay became one of the first California wines available after prohibition.
The Pleasanton Farmers Market is the place to sample the diverse array of fruit, veg, and meat produced in the region.
SLEEP at Pleasanton’s The Rose Hotel. This luxurious, elegant, timeless, and casual hotel was built by Coach John Madden for his visiting friends and family. It’s a Tri-Valley treasure.
Find out more about Tri-Valley at Visit Tri-Valley.
4. San Mateo County
Best known as Silicon Valley, this region grew grapes and made wine long before technology ruled the day.
In San Carlos, just steps from the Caltrain Station, wineries have made a community known as the Mid-Peninsula Wine Trail. All wineries are within walking distance.
The collection of family-run, artisanal wineries is winning awards and making fans for their traditional and innovative wines. There aren’t any vineyards outback in the heart of a city, but grapes are sourced from around the county, brought to these boutique wineries, and made into small-batch delights.
TASTE – My favorites in the group are Flying Suitcase Wines, Russian Ridge Winery, Old Country Cellars, and Cuvee Wine Cellars. There are several others. All are inviting and passionate about their creations.
Some wineries on the trail serve food. Eateries and food trucks also occupy the district. This is the place to get an immersive taste of San Mateo County libations and eats.
EAT – at Donato Enoteca in Redwood City, an Italian eatery using local ingredients to make 4-star traditional Italian. Seafood is exquisite here. The wine list includes local, California, and Italian wines.
Farm House in Belmont is a neighborhood secret, showcasing locally made wines, produce, seafood, and meat. House-made everything.
SLEEP – Residence Inn Redwood City/San Carlos is the place to stay when visiting this region of California Wine Country. It’s brand new, jam-packed with every amenity, and designed with guest comfort and experience in mind. I want to live there.
All four wine regions are easy drives from San Francisco International Airport. SFO is a good choice and serviced by all major airlines. Alternative airports are Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.
If you bivouac in San Francisco, you’ll need a car to get to these locations. Rent one for the day; you don’t need an auto in the city. Public transit is efficient, frequent, and budget-friendly.
If you stay in one of these alternative wine regions, a car and GPS will be helpful.
These four wine-producing regions of California are among some of the oldest. Each has its own story and a different personality. Explore, get lost, find your way back. Follow your inner compass. When you need a suggestion, the recommendations I’ve made are places I’ve experienced. I’ve lingered over the wine, celebrated the food, and hugged the pillows. This is my home turf.
*Opening photo – Handley Vineyards, Anderson Valley ©Mary Charlebois