California's Wine Country is vast, and includes a number of regions throughout the northern and central part of California. While the Napa Valley is the best known of these, there are several other regions to explore for wine tasting and tours. Go to one or several for a multi-day itinerary. The large number of wineries scattered across several counties means that touring California's wine country can be a long, and enjoyable, project.
The core of California wine country includes areas in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties:
- Napa Valley — the best-known of California's wine regions, the Napa Valley boasts a huge number of prominent and well-known wineries.
- Sonoma County — to the west of Napa, Sonoma is a bit-more laid back, but has a variety of delightful small towns and wineries to explore.
- Russian River — meandering through Sonoma County, Russian River wineries are growing in prominence, and specialize in Pinots.
Additional areas of wine production in California include:
- Lake County
- Amador County — in the other direction from Napa and to the east of Sacramento, Amador County wine country provides a more casual experience in the Sierra Nevada foothills, with a variety of smaller but still interesting wineries. Good for visiting on any itinerary between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.
- San Luis Obispo County — south of the Bay Area and Napa, the Central Coast area around Paso Robles is a fast-growing area of wine country.
- Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County further south also produces excellent wines.
- 1 San Francisco — the major city in the San Francisco Bay Area, this cosmopolitan city offers various attractions and excellent food and shopping.
- 2 Sacramento — the capital of California, Sacramento lies just an hour or so drive east of Napa and Sonoma, and is also close to Amador County. Sacramento offers attractions, excellent food and lodging, and has an easier-to-manage airport than the massive terminals of SFO.
There are several airports that serve Northern California and that can serve as gateways to the various wine country regions:
- San Francisco International Airport, +1-800-435-9736 (SFO IATA) located about 10 mi (16 km) south of the city, is the Bay Area's major international airport (and one of the busiest in the nation) and has numerous passenger amenities including a wide range of food and drink establishments, shopping, baggage storage, public showers, a medical clinic, and assistance for lost or stranded travelers and military personnel. SFO has four terminals; as a rule of thumb, Virgin America and American Airlines use Terminal 2, United Airlines has Terminal 3, all other domestic carriers use Terminal 1, and all international flights use the International Terminal.
- Oakland International, +1 510 563-3300 (OAK IATA) in the East Bay provides service to numerous destinations in the United States as well as Mexico. Oakland is primarily used by low-cost carriers, and is a major hub for Southwest Airlines.
- Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International, +1 408 277-4759 (SJC IATA) in Silicon Valley about 1 hour south of San Francisco, is the closest major airport for those going to the central coast and Paso Robles. Southwest Airlines is the dominant carrier here as well, and while Alaska and Volaris service nearby international destinations, ANA now also runs a daily flight to Tokyo from here, making this an option for travelers from Asia.
- Sacramento International Airport (SMF IATA) is the main airport for Sacramento, located 15 minutes north of downtown along Interstate 5 at the Airport Boulevard exit. Air service is available to Hawaii, Mexico, and all regions of the United States. Nonstop flights are available to New York City, Newark, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Guadalajara, Honolulu, Houston, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas City, and all major California cities. Taxis from the airport to downtown are estimated at $27 one-way. Bus service to downtown (from Yolobus) runs hourly from 5:30AM to 10:20PM weekdays and 8:20AM to 10:20PM weekends. The fare is $2; be sure to get on the correct bus--42A goes to Sacramento, 42B goes to Davis.
Oakland and San Jose tend to offer more discount airline flights, while San Francisco Airport attracts more international flights and can be more convenient for those staying in the city. Private pilots should consider Oakland (OAK IATA) rather than SFO, as the separate general aviation field there is more accommodating to light aircraft.
California's wine country is accessible by driving. There are several services for tours, busses and limousines in Napa and Sonoma in particular; other areas may only be served by private car.
The Capitol Corridor train goes between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area, but does not directly stop in wine country.
The most important safety concern when going wine tasting is not to drive while impaired by alcohol. This is especially crucial when you are driving along winding roads you are unfamiliar with. Some parts of wine country also have weak or nonexistent cell phone coverage, making your the sobriety and alertness of the designated driver even more important. So if you are driving and nevertheless choose to drink a bit, know your limits, take advantage of the food offerings of vineyards, drink plenty of water (especially in the summer, when most of wine country is hot and dry) and take the time to sober up before getting behind the wheel if you have one too many.