Hot Spots of California Wine Country


The most enjoyable part of collecting wine is drinking it. A close second, however, is buying and storing wines from vineyards you visit. More than 90% of the wine in our cellar comes from vineyard visits: relaxing afternoons that involve tasting the varietals, romping through rows of Cabernet or Chardonnay grapes and getting to know the style and personality of both the wines and winemaker.

Nothing is more satisfying than pulling a bottle of wine off a rack that brings back fond memories of a trip to Napa or Sonoma, California or even more off-the-beaten-path locations like the wineries of Virginia and Hawaii. A tug of the cork releases not only the wine's aroma but also fond recollections of trips through vineyards and tasting rooms.

If you're a newcomer to the experience, a trip to any wine country can be overwhelming. With that in mind, here's a list of don't-miss travel spots in California:

Best Winery Tours

If you're looking for an all-around wine experience, I highly recommend a trip to the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley. While it's commercial, sometimes crowded and somewhat impersonal, few other wine-country tours provide such a thorough experience. You can tour the vineyard and check out the grape-crushing, fermentation and bottling processes. Although the tastings are highly structured, they're good for newcomers; they typically offer a couple of reds and a couple of whites, usually with a "specialty" wine thrown in as well.

Mondavi's well-trained guides provide a good explanation of the winemaking process and the sample wines. After the tour and tasting, you can roam the wine shop, which offers a great selection of Mondavi wines as well as trinkets to make wine drinking that much more enjoyable -- and expensive. I also recommend the additional tasting in the wine shop, featuring some of Mondavi's more exclusive labels. It's worth the extra cash.

A word to the wise: Weekdays are the best time to visit Mondavi because weekends get very busy. Call ahead, as you can make a reservation for a tour. Those who just show up for a tour are likely to be disappointed or find themselves waiting hours for an open tour.

Another fun and educational tour is offered by the Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma. While you don't get a vineyard tour, the guides who take you through the old storage facilities do a great job of describing the winemaking process and the history of winemaking in the region. The tasting room is worth the visit alone. Although you won't find a lot of high-end product, you will find very drinkable wine, affordable prices and friendly people.

Best Tasting Rooms

Tasting is always subjective, so you may have other favorites, but here are two to consider when visiting California wine country.

Silver Oak is a master of Cabernets. In fact, its slogan -- "Life is a Cabernet" -- couldn't be more descriptive. For a small fee, you get a good taste of a current vintage and, on the right day, another vintage that provides for good comparison. You also get access to some of the best tasting guides in the valley. You can call ahead to arrange tours, but the real reason to hit Silver Oak is the wine.

Also worth a stop is Beringer, which combines a good tour with great tastings. But the real find at Beringer is the reserve tasting room that sits behind the main buildings. For a fee, you can taste some great single-vineyard Cabernets and other varietals with the help of very knowledgeable hosts. Take your time and follow the guides' advice; you'll have a great tasting experience.

Best Kept Napa Secret

With so many family-owned vineyards in California wine country, everybody has favorites. Mine happens to be Van der Heyden Winery on the south end of the Silverado Trail. Andre Van der Heyden is one of the most eclectic purveyors I've met.

Ignore your intuition when you walk into the untidy tasting room and hear your somewhat gruff host implore you to sign the guest book. Do as he says, pay the tasting fee and then watch Andre work his magic. Some absolutely terrific Cabernets and blends will make your palatesing. Don't be shy, pay up to taste the dessert wines of the day -- usually a late-harvest Cabernet and one other, maybe a later-harvest Zinfandel or another sweet white. It's like drinking honey.

I guarantee you two things from the Van der Heyden experience: You'll love the wine, and you're very likely to fall in love with Andre himself, one of the most unique vintners of the Napa Valley.

That's a good start in California wine country. Next time, we'll take a look at private tours in the region and some tips on making the most of your wine-tasting experience.

Here's to you!

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