The master winemakers of the Old World once viewed California as an agricultural backwater. Then came the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting organized by the late wine merchant and journalist Steven Spurrier in which French critics crowned two Napa wines, a cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars and a sauvignon blanc from Chateau Montelena, as winners over their competitors from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
In the 45 years since, Napa has become recognized as not only one of the world’s great wine regions, but also a vacation destination bursting with five-star resorts and Michelin-rated restaurants. Other areas have boomed, as well, with hundreds of wineries opening in Napa’s laid-back neighbor Sonoma, in and around Santa Barbara (as seen in Sideways), and elsewhere. A comprehensive guide would be impossible, so consider this a mere first taste. (Note: Be sure to check if an appointment is necessary when planning your visit.)
Ashes & Diamonds
Design enthusiasts will appreciate this Napa tasting room, which boasts a bright, mid-century modern aesthetic. The wines, meanwhile, hark back to the lower-alcohol cabernets that Napa producers were putting out before the region became world-famous.
One of the valley’s most venerable producers—the chardonnays in particular are legendary—Cakebread opened a beautiful new tasting room and visitors’ center in Rutherford in 2019.
Hess Persson Estates
Found up a winding road on the side of Mount Veeder, this winery has a premium art collection, including works by Francis Bacon and Andy Goldsworthy. The recently renamed producer just released its first new estate cab in 20 years, the 2019 Hess Collection Iron Corral Cabernet Sauvignon.
Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola bought this historic Rutherford estate in 1975. The focus is largely on European-style blends, such as the flagship Rubicon Bordeaux. For a family-friendly experience, visit Coppola’s eponymous resort in Geyserville.
Winemaker Rob Lloyd worked at several Napa standbys—Cakebread, Stag’s Leap Cellars, Rombauer—before starting his own business. Book a virtual tasting online to try the wines, which are made from grapes sourced from throughout the state.
Rolando Herrera, who immigrated to Napa from Mexico as a child and worked with legendary winemaker Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Cellars, offers delicious cabs, pinots and blends at his industrial tasting room in Napa.
This gorgeous, LEED Gold-certified winery in the famed Stags Leap District is part of the PlumpJack Group, which is owned in part by California Governor Gavin Newsom and also includes the beloved Cade estate winery nearby.
Perhaps the most famous name in American winemaking, Mondavi offers everything from budget-friendly supermarket standbys to ultra-high-end reserve cabernets. Several tasting levels are available at the Oakville winery, but no matter what you opt for be sure to make a reservation.
This boutique Oakville winery doesn’t have a big name, but its cabernet sauvignons are among the best in the valley. Visitors to the tasting room and gallery can also see a stunning photography collection that includes works by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Alfred Stieglitz.
Jesse Katz, the first winemaker to be named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, produces Bordeaux-style wines, many of them naturally fermented, at his jaw-dropping Healdsburg winery, the design of which is inspired by a camera shutter.
This small, family-owned winery makes sustainably farmed pinot noir and chardonnay, which visitors can try at the Ranch House tasting room, northeast of Santa Rosa in the bucolic Russian River Valley.
Buena Vista Winery
Founded in 1857, the first premium winery in California is now owned by celebrated vintner Jean-Charles Boisset. The stone building that houses the production facility and tasting room is a California Historic Landmark.
Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery
One of the most scenic vineyards in the U.S., this property in Jenner looks out over the Pacific Ocean. The coastal fog lends itself perfectly to pinot noir and chardonnay, which you can try along with locally sourced food in the tasting room.
Iron Horse Vineyards
The rustic tasting room—it’s basically a barn on an unpaved road—belies Iron Horse’s standing as one of the best sparkling wine producers in California. The last six (!) presidential administrations have served Iron Horse bubblies at The White House.
This estate in the Alexander Valley is a fantastic place to enjoy a vineyard hike, gourmet lunch and fine cabernet sauvignon. You may never want to leave—fortunately, the French-inspired château recently remodeled its three guest suites. (You’ll need to join the wine club to stay, though.)
Long a favorite for its pinot noirs and chardonnays, La Crema hosts guests at an estate tasting room built in a 120-year-old barn on the Saralee’s Vineyard property in the Russian River Valley.
One of Sonoma County’s oldest producers, Rodney Strong makes excellent cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, among other varietals, which visitors can try at a newly remodeled tasting room in Healdsburg.
With a focus on biodynamically farmed grapes, this Los Olivos winery leans toward Rhône-style wines (grenache in particular). Enjoy the vintages while sitting on a deck overlooking the pond on the estate vineyard.
The brand-new tasting room at Booker looks out from a hilltop perch over some of Paso Robles’ most scenic acreage. The Rhône-style blends are tasty, and the signature Fracture syrah is a can’t-miss.
The Japanese-influenced decor isn’t even the most artful thing at this Los Olivos tasting room, which pours delicate pinot noirs and chardonnays from Greg Brewer, Wine Enthusiast’s 2020 Winemaker of the Year.
One of the many wineries and breweries in Paso Robles’ industrial Tin City development, Desparada stands out for its use of Bordeaux and Italian varietals, as well as for its quirky tasting room.
This Santa Barbara Funk Zone standby specializes in Rhône varietals and blends. Don’t miss its tasting room, the Valley Project, which offers an in-depth look at how the terroir and microclimates of Santa Barbara affect the region’s wines.
Paso Robles veteran McPrice “Mac” Myers makes excellent Rhône-style blends at his winery in the Adelaida Hills, a few miles east of downtown Paso Robles. A new tasting room is scheduled to open next year.
Margerum Wine Company
Attached to the swank Hotel Californian, this Spanish Colonial-style Funk Zone tasting room is as attractive as its clientele. Don’t miss the single-vineyard pinot noirs and the M5, winemaker Doug Margerum’s take on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
With three different labels (Muni, Potek and Nowadays), this winery offers a variety of interesting offerings, from piquette to table blends to single-vineyard chardonnay. There are two tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara and one in Los Alamos.
This stunning Santa Maria hilltop vineyard just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean specializes in cool-climate wines (pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah). Among the offerings here are gourmet picnics with wine pairings and horseback tours of the estate.
Winemaker Benjamin Silver serves pinot noir, cabernet franc, syrah and his personal blends at his tasting room just off State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.
A ramshackle exterior, an interior decorated with rock ’n’ roll posters, and unexpected varietals (try the counoise), all a block from the beach, make New Jersey native Lenny Germano’s Skyenna a quintessential Funk Zone tasting room.
Story of Soil
Winemaker Jessica Gasca focuses on small-batch, single-vineyard wines that express the terroir (hence, Story of Soil) of Santa Barbara County, which you can try at her Los Olivos tasting room.