Did you know that more than 80% of the wine made in the U.S. is made in California. It’s the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, behind Italy, France and Spain. If that doesn’t get you excited for a California wine trip, you should keep reading for more tasty wine inspiration.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time touring around California, stopping at wine regions to discover the varied types of wine produced in the state. I can say without a doubt that some of our favorite wine tasting moments were in California.
Below are the California wine regions, along with a few of our favorite AVAs inside each, where you can spend at least a few days going wine tasting, trying local cuisine, and enjoying the vineyards.
Keep in mind that within California there are more than 100 AVAa throughout the many regions. AVAs are the geographical area that have been recognized as having distinguishable growing conditions.
California Wine Map
Before you go, get an idea of where all the top wine regions are situated in the state. If you’re doing a California road trip, you can stop in at many of these regions along the route. The regions we’ll be talking about are:
- North Coast
- Central Coast: Northern Central Coast and Southern Central Coast
- Central Valley
- Sierra Foothills
- Southern California
» See a California wine region map.
Planning a Wine Tour in California
Do you want to visit wineries on your own or would you like to take a guided tour? If you would like to be a part of a guided tour, you will want to make your plans well in advance, especially if you will be visiting during peak tourism times.
Many recommend visiting a combination of wineries that are both large and small in size. When doing so, you often learn and see different things, as well as taste wines that differ in both style and taste.
Of course, you can enjoy a single day of touring and wine tasting in California wine country, but you may want to stay longer. In fact, many wineries recommend spending at least two days touring local wineries and participating in wine tasting events. The longer that you stay, the more you will be able to see, taste, and learn.
Wine Regions in California
In the North Coast, you will find the grape growing regions that put California wine on the map, including the counties of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Solano, and Marin.
More than half of the state’s wineries are located here, and it is also a designated AVA. Many AVAs and growing regions exist within this enormous AVA, like the ones listed above.
If you have the chance to visit this region, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best wineries and views in the state. Below are two of our favorite growing areas within the North Coast.
Sonoma County is home to 13 AVAs and more than 500 wineries spread across a huge swath of the north coast of California. Some of these AVAs are Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Chalk Hill, and Knights Valley.
Visit Adastra Wines if you want a real treat. They are well known for their Pinot Noir, but also offer Chardonnay, Syrah, and more. Next up is Alexander Valley Vineyards. This winery is perfect for the self-proclaimed connoisseur or the complete beginner.
Finally, wrap up your trip at Highway 12 Vineyards & Winery. They take true pride in the wine that they make and are knowledgeable in the different regions of their grapes. Their offerings include Cabernet Franc, Meritage, Zinfandel, and more.
It’s no secret that Napa Valley is considered THE wine country of California. With gorgeous views and vineyards for miles, Napa is a must for wine lovers.
Begin your adventure at Castello di Amorosa. You can take a guided tour of the castle and taste their wines. From there, continue your journey to Markham Vineyards. It’s one of the first wineries that was founded in Napa Valley and has been going strong since 1874.
Wrap up your day at Franciscan Estate. It was founded in 1973 and started by making their own Cabernet Sauvignon. During your tasting, you can sample some of their popular choices like Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon.
If you’re hankering for more wineries, check out our favorite Napa Valley wineries.
The Central Coast wine region stretches from San Francisco all the way to Los Angeles and can be divided into two smaller areas in the north and south.
The Northern Central Coast area encompasses Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, Carmel Valley, and a few smaller AVAs. Its cooler coastal climate is known mostly for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though there are many white varietals being grown there.
The Southern Central Coast area encompasses the key wine regions of Paso Robles, York Mountains, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. The grape varietals found in the south are Rhone varietals, like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese, and Burgundian varietals. Zinfandel, one of my personal favorites, is also being grown here.
Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Tasting
Carmel is a beautiful area, with beaches, vineyards, and lovely ocean views. The entire area around Central California coast is a sight to see. That’s what makes traveling there in an RV so fantastic. You can set up in an RV park near the beach, then set out for day trips to Monterey and Carmel-by-the Sea.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small European-style village that is well loved and maintained by the community. They don’t allow big-box stores or chain hotels, so wherever you choose to stay will be a locally owned inn. There are many adorable shops and restaurants to visit, in between tastings.
If you’re in town for a wine tasting weekend, the best way to enjoy it all is by doing the Carmel Wine Walk. The Wine Walk is made up of 13 tasting rooms that you can visit anytime, on a self-guided and self-paced basis.
» See our full guide to wine tasting in Carmel-by-the-Sea for winery recommendations.
This wine region is known for its dark, full-bodied reds. Located along Central California’s beautiful coast, Paso Robles is the largest AVA in California. With 26,000 acres of vineyards and over 200 wineries producing premium wines, Paso Robles has steadily became recognized as a world-class wine-growing area and no longer takes a backseat to Sonoma and Napa Valley.
With its ideal climate and rustic wine country charm, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a weekend of wine tasting, particularly in the spring before it really starts to heat up. The area has a perfect climate for growing Zinfandel and other hearty red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
There are a couple of distinct tasting areas. The historic downtown area has more than 15 tasting rooms surrounded by local eateries, delis, cheese shops and olive oil producers, and can be enjoyed on foot. The westside wineries are scattered among the rolling hills to the west to town and area bit harder to get to, with winding, narrow roads leading to some.
For a taste of award-winning 90+ point rated Zinfandels, plan stops at Turley Wine Cellars, Peachy Canyon Winery, J Dusi Wines and Adelaida Cellars. If you’re searching for views, drive along Adelaida Road, stopping at Lone Madrone, Adelaida Cellars, Tablas Creek, and Oso Libre.
» See our full guide to the wine tasting in Paso Robles for winery recommendations.
Santa Barbara Wine Region
The Santa Barbara wine region spans 50 miles, so be prepared with a plan before setting out in the car for a day of tasting.
Our favorite Santa Barbara wine tasting areas are the downtown area’s Urban Trail and the Foxen County wineries. These two areas tick all the boxes.
You’ll get a feel for the town of Santa Barbara, where many of the top wineries have tasting rooms, and you’ll get a chance to drive around the countryside and see the vineyards and wineries that are spread throughout the region to the northwest of Santa Barbara.
Downtown you’ll find a collective of tasting rooms in an area called El Paseo. We stumbled upon this enclave and were delighted at the variety of wineries. This is where you’ll find Happy Canyon, Jamie Slone and Grassini.
In the Funk Zone, you’ll find tasting rooms like Riverbench and Santa Barbara Winery — both have some terrific Pinot Noirs to try — and The Valley Project, a modern tasting room with an incredible map of the region displayed on their back wall. It’s a must for newbies to get the lay of the land.
Of the dozens of impressive wine regions of California, the Ojai Valley (pronounced Oh-Hi) is one of the most beautiful and certainly one of the most charming for a weekend wine getaway.
Located 90 miles north of Los Angeles and only 30 miles from Santa Barbara (another great wine tasting region), Ojai is accessible as a quick day trip from nearby cities, but it also makes a fantastic weekend trip. Not only is Ojai packed full of great wineries, there’s a lot of wonderful restaurants and shops to explore.
As you drive into the region, you’ll be greeted by the looming mountain range and citrus groves that line the valley. There are olive orchards and sprawling family ranches. And vineyards surrounding it all.
» See our full guide to wine tasting in Ojai for winery recommendations.
Despite receiving most of the accolades for producing the best California wines, the Central Valley produces nearly three-quarters of the state’s grapes, making it the backbone of the state’s wine industry.
Wines from this region are often just labeled “California”, rather than calling out a specific region, since many of these growing areas are not “popular” or well known.
The Central Valley is a huge area that encompasses Sacramento, Yolo, San Joaquin, Madera, and Fresno counties. However, now there is a division of this region to include Inland Valley regions that are further away from the coast.
The Sierra Foothills Region is located more inland and so isn’t influenced by the cool coastal climate. You might know it as home to the gold mining towns of California’s Gold Rush history.
In this area, you’ll find beautiful rolling hills, old vines, and much warmer temperatures that lead to top quality zinfandel, Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese, and Rhone grapes like Syrah and Viognier.
The Southern California wine region encompasses grape-growing regions in five counties of Southern California: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. As with other regions in California, the larger appellation includes a number of smaller sub-appellations.
One of the most prominent of the sub-appelations is Temecula Valley, which is at an elevation of 1,500 feet and has gaps in the coastal mountain range that allow cooling from the ocean that influences the wine. However, other parts of the Southern California region are starting to stand out as well, like Malibu and San Diego County.
Temecula De Portola Wine Trail
Temecula’s De Portola Wine Trail is off the beaten path, about . Located in the more rural, equestrian side of the Temecula Valley, this route contains quite a few amazing wineries that you must visit. I picked this particular stretch of wineries because one of my favorites is actually located here.
Start your journey at the Cougar Vineyard & Winery. It’s family owned and operated which mean that they truly care about their wine. They specialize in 100% Estate Italian varietals.
From there, travel down the road to Danza del Sol Winery. It’s an Italian-countryside inspired winery that is both dog and horse friendly.
My personal favorite—Fazeli Cellars—is next. From just about anywhere, you can see a spectacular view of the valley. It was started in 2001 by the Fazeli family and has been going strong ever since. Their tasting offerings are Hafez, Saadi, and grape Shiraz. The Shiraz is to die for.
Settled in the coastal mountains of Southern California, Escondido offers both an urban and natural atmosphere with easy access to San Diego. There are many boutique wine tasting rooms and vineyards to visit, along with a variety of culinary experiences and farmer’s markets.
If you’re looking for a unique foodie vacation or a lesser-known California wine region to explore, Escondido has everything you could want right at your fingertips. After visiting once, it’s likely you’ll want to return again. The Lawrence Welk Resort Villas are a great way to do that in affordable-luxury style.
While many vacationers only consider hotels and Airbnb when looking for accommodations in their favorite destinations, like Escondido, it can be more economical and convenient to consider a timeshare instead. They provide you with very nice accommodations and the perfect home base for exploring.
» See our full guide to wine tasting in Escondido for winery recommendations.
With so many great California wine regions to visit, you’ll be traversing the state for quite some time visiting wineries and going on wine country weekends. We love it in California and we know you’re going to love it too.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.