This summer, it’s time to hit the road and explore California’s extraordinary landscape. We know the Golden State is on the top of every winer lover’s summer travel list so we’ve gone ahead and compiled a comprehensive guide with every winery, restaurant, and experience you can’t miss.
Separated by region, we did our research to find the hottest new places — and the most unforgettable, time-honored establishments — that you need to see to believe. So read on to explore every winery and adventure that Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Carmel-by-the-Sea have to offer.
Napa Valley is hands-down the most popular wine region in America. Brimming with elegant tasting rooms, quaint towns, and more than 400 wineries, it is hard to know where to begin when exploring the area.
If you are a Cabernet Sauvignon aficionado, however, a great place to start your Napa Valley trip is Louis M. Martini Winery. The iconic winery was one of the first in the area to open after Prohibition and has since built a portfolio of celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon. Winery guests can swirl, sniff, and sip their way through a flight outside in the idyllic Martini Park.
Out of the winery’s four tastings, the Heritage Terrace tasting is recommended by winemaker Michael Eddy. “We hand-pick a selection of our most sought-after wines and our onsite culinary team carefully curates a pairing menu that can be added on to complement each wine,” he says.
After a tasting at Martini, Monte Rosso Vineyard manager Brenae Royal recommends visitors head to the California Brandy House in downtown Napa. In a town filled with wineries, this is the first stand-alone tasting room dedicated to luxury California brandies — the perfect way to add some spirits into your wine tasting trip.
“You don’t usually think of tasting brandy like you would wine, but brandy is made from many of the same dynamic, layered, and flavorful California grape varieties we use for wine,” she explains.
A 45-minute tasting at the California Brandy House includes five pours from Argonaut or Germain-Robin for guests to compare the flavor profiles of various brandies, an explanation of the production process, and an overview of brandy’s rich history in California.
The California Brandy House is smack dab in the middle of downtown Napa Valley, steps away from incredible artists, designers, shops, galleries, and restaurants. After your brandy tasting, head distiller David Warter suggests exploring the downtown district to get a taste of the Napa Valley wine country lifestyle. There, you’ll find plenty of boutiques and incredible shopping offered around every downtown corner.
For a scenic sipping excursion, reserve a visit to William Hill Estate Winery. From June until October, you can book the First Saturday Sunset Pairing at William Hill Estate, which takes place (naturally) on the first Saturday of each month. The unique tasting experience features a curated food pairing matched with a selection of small-lot Winemaker’s Series wines, like Spring Mountain Chardonnay, Carneros Chardonnay, and the Notch Red Blend. Come sunset, the winery views are just as impressive as the wine itself.
“The views from our tasting room are unparalleled — the rolling hills of our Estate Vineyard and the Mayacamas Mountains at sunset are stunning,” says winemaker Mark Williams.
For more shopping opportunities, head over to St. Helena. Nicknamed Napa Valley’s Main Street, this small town bustles with charming shops, art galleries, gourmet eats, and fashion boutiques. If you want to cap off the day with a fancy dinner, make a reservation at PRESS. The phenomenal Napa Valley restaurant serves prime beef and sustainable seafood along with the world’s largest restaurant collection of Napa Valley wines. It also boasts an amazing collection of rare Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vintages, including a Louis M. Martini Cabernet from the 1970s.
While in St. Helena, pop into Orin Swift for a change of pace. Here, you’ll find intense, well-crafted wine with show-stopping labels crafted by the visionary winemaker Dave Phinney. Set against a playlist curated by Dave himself, your tasting will include several red wines like the winery’s famous dark violet Mercury Head Cabernet Sauvignon and the inky black Machete Petite Sirah. The 8 Years in the Desert Zinfandel blend is a must-try; it’s the wine that marks Phinney’s famous return to the variety after an eight-year hiatus from making Zinfandel. Phinney says: “We offer a laid-back tasting where guests not only learn about our wines, but also our history and the unique story behind each label. From glass selection to the label material, each wine has a distinct point of view, and every element has my touch and design vision.”
It is not all luxurious tasting rooms in Napa Valley (though it could be). If you need to give your taste buds a break, you have ample opportunity to explore the area’s lush landscapes. The Bothe-Napa State Park is home to rare coastal redwoods, while the Bale Grist Mill Historic Park shows visitors a glimpse of what life was like in 1846, including a fully restored water-powered grist mill that still grinds grain today.
“If you aren’t headed to another winery, one of my favorite things to do is grab a bottle of my favorite Napa Valley wine, pick up some sandwiches from one of the local delis, and hike up the trail on Mount St. Helena for a picnic and scenic view of the valley,” says Eddy.
Sonoma is Napa Valley’s bigger, more laid-back neighbor to the west. While Sonoma County has a long list of exceptional wineries to book tastings, sparkling lovers should start their adventures with a glass of bubbly at J Vineyards & Winery just south of Healdsburg. An icon in the Russian River Valley for 35 Years, J offers a stylish (and sparkling!) welcome to wine country. Chic tasting spaces and flavorful, Sonoma-inspired culinary pairing experiences showcase J’s celebrated portfolio of sparkling wines, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and more.
Winemaker Nicole Hitchcock recommends visitors sip on a glass of the current Vintage Brut before diving into the Legacy Tasting upon a serene, shady garden terrace. The tasting blends luxury with wine country casual by pairing small-lot and reserve wines with an artisanal cheese plate.
“There are five cheeses, each topped with their own house-made accompaniments — which can be anything from spiced fresh fruits with roasted almonds, to sesame-brown butter nut brittle, to a silky chocolate fudge,” Hitchcock says. “It pairs beautifully with both our varietal and sparkling flights, highlighting different flavors and textures with each wine.”
Sonoma County is hard to beat for outdoor enthusiasts. Cyclists have their pick of a wide range of terrains to bike across. the Dry Creek ride, which winds through Alexander Valley, is perfect for beginner cyclists who want an easy trip with a few stops to refresh and catch their breath. Conversely, the Valley of the Moon route is more challenging and follows moderately steep roads around Sonoma Mountain.
For those who want to stay on two feet, the county is bustling with thousands of miles of hiking trails. The diverse landscape gives travelers the option of hiking through the redwood forest, along the rugged coastline, or even through active vineyards. We recommend checking out the stunning views across the Kortum Trail, or taking a deep breath of fresh air in the sprawling Annadel State Park. Those looking for a truly extraordinary experience should also consider booking a Sonoma Canopy Tour, where you can take in panoramic forest views from several ziplines, sky bridges, or a towering spiral staircase.
“On a clear day, my family and I enjoy hiking along the coast. You can grab a picnic lunch and walk along the Kortum Trail in the Sonoma Coast State Park,” Hitchcock says. “Choose your favorite picnic bench or beach along the way to watch the waves crash along the shore.”
Though they tend to dominate the spotlight, Napa and Sonoma are far from California’s only wine regions. In the state’s Central Coast, wineries and vineyards blanket the landscape. Tucked between Monterey and Big Sur along the Pacific Coast, a burgeoning wine scene awaits in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming, European-style village. Stroll the endless passageways, and you’ll find tasting rooms for some of the best wineries in the region, which are famous for producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.
Talbott Vineyards, one of the original wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, is one you cannot miss. Located in the heart of downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea, Talbott’s new breezy tasting room offers stunning views of Carmel Bay to delight guests as they sip wine in the refreshingly cool coastal air that plays such an integral role in growing the fruit. Enjoy an exclusive flight of the winery’s estate-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all while experiencing a world-class destination. If you’re looking for a recommendation, be sure to try the outstanding Block 4 North Chardonnay from Sleepy Hollow –– the 2018 vintage scored an incredible 94 points from famed wine critic James Suckling. This and other Talbott wines will all serve as the perfect end to a long day, especially when it comes time to toast the sun setting just steps away over Carmel Beach.
“Our tasting room is a unique place to experience the relationship between the coast and vineyard,” notes Talbott’s winemaker, David Coventry. “You can walk or drive in nearly any direction from our tasting room and experience magic.”
All in all, no matter what region you’re exploring, make sure to spend this summer in California wine country, and toast to something truly golden.
This article is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery.