Napa, Napa, Napa!
Listening to some folks talk about California wine brings to mind that famous line from The Brady Bunch, where one of the younger sisters complains that the talk is always about “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.”
Sure, Napa has some of the best wines on the planet. Sure, the wineries are sleek and sexy. And, sure, the scenery is wonderful, with those meandering creeks and sun-kissed hills and waves of green grapevines that turn red and yellow in the fall like a Canadian maple.
But there are tons of other great areas of California for wine. Here are a few of them that aren’t named Napa.
Next door to Napa, but a different world in my experience. Where Napa can (not always of course but sometimes) be snooty, Sonoma exudes a softer, gentler, kinder approach to my way of thinking. Matanzas Creek has lovely lavender beds and a cool, hillside tasting room with great staff. The road to get there is charming, too. Chateau St. Jean is a busy spot that’ s made to look like a fancy French mansion, while Kunde Estate makes great Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and a fabulous Merlot that’s as rich and tasty as many Zinfandels I’ve tried. The Alexander Valley is a warm spot with deep, dark red wines and crisp whites, while the Russian River Valley is cooler and makes phenomenal Pinot Noir. Unlike Napa, Sonoma County has a slice of the fabled California coast, so be sure to soak up the scenery as you drive along the Pacific Ocean.
Most of the wineries are concentrated up in the Carmel Valley, which gets a good deal more sun than ocean-side Carmel-by-the-Sea. Chateau Julien makes some lovely Merlot and Chardonnay, while the Pinot Noir at Bernardus is sensational. Down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, you can do a great wine room tour with the town’s Wine Walk by the Sea program. For $65 you can try nine of 14 wineries located in town. Sip away without worrying about drinking and driving, then relax at one of the many great sidewalk patio cafes in town. If you have a night to spend in Carmel Valley, try Quail Lodge, where you’ll find lovely units and an in-house PR director named Max; a Toronto-Quebec poodle who handles Pet Relations. In Carmel-by-the-Sea, I love La Playa Carmel for its old-world feel and great staff, not to mention the breakfast buffet and free cookies and milk at night.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Still a relative unknown in international wine circles, the area around Livermore and Pleasanton is about 40 miles east of downtown San Francisco and a fairly easy drive. You’ll find some of the state’s oldest vineyards here, including Concannon and Wente, both of which are often found in Canadian wine and liquor stores. It gets hot out here in summer. Dang hot. Consequently you’ll find some fairly big wines; bold Zinfandels and Syrah and Cabernet and some lovely Chardonnays. One of my favourites is Eagle Ridge, located on a gorgeous stretch of land off winding, pretty Tesla Road, where you’ll find several good wineries. A location that’s just made for a chi-chi convertible.
SANTA BARBARA AREA
This region was made famous, nee infamous, in the hilarious movie Sideways with Paul Giamatti a few years back. It was a real coming-out for this region, where you’ll find marvelous Pinot Noir in cool areas exposed to coastal fog, but then also find huge Cabernets and Chardonnays where the southern California sun goes unchallenged. Some of the best Pinot can be found in the Santa Rita Hills. I love Sanford’s wine but there are many to producers. Los Olivos is a fun, old-time-looking western town that’s equal part wine aficionado and cowboy and urban shopper up for the day from Los Angeles. You’ll find several great tasting rooms, as well as the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa. Nearby is the town of Buellton, famous as the site of The Hitching Post II, a restaurant featured in Sideways where you get amazing steaks grilled over local hardwood at a very reasonable price. Next door is Solvang, an acquired taste that is made to look like a SoCal version of Denmark
THE SIERRA FOOTHILLS
This is another area with hot, hot summers. The coastal fog doesn’t penetrate this far (about 90 miles) inland, so you’ll get some pretty big, jammy reds and very lush whites here. Rhone varieties such as Syrah and Graciano have made big impacts, especially lately. Ironstone is a hugely popular spot with tourists, with nice wines and gorgeously landscaped grounds and one of the best stocked wine paraphernalia and food shops in the area. More to my liking is the old-style feel of Murphys, just down the road from Ironstone. It’s a fun town with a great old property called the Murphys Hotel, recently renovated after a visit from Gordon Ramsay. Try Hovey and Tanner Vineyards for fantastic wines. Stop in for a meal at V Bistro and Bar while you’re there, or wander into Sustenance Books for some literary inspiration.
Another hot spot with Rhone varietals, Paso Robles is gaining huge recognition for its big reds that seem to straddle the old world-new world debate. They’re rich and fruity like many other California wines, but they seem less sweet and jammy than many varieties and consequently make a nice compromise between new world sweet and old world leathery wines. At least, that’s how I like to think of it. I love the drive up into the hills to Opolo, and the town of Paso Robles itself features a cute, old-time town square and fun shops and restaurants. The Amsterdam coffee shop is a great spot to wake up after too many samples of the local vino.