Planning a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway? Here is my small, but perfectly formed, tried and tested address book for places to add to your itinerary.
GENERAL PLANNING TIPS
My biggest bit of advice? Don’t rush it.
- Allow at least 3 days to drive from LA to San Fran. Do not try to do it in less. Although it is possible, you will just feel like you rushed it. We learnt the hard way - we had to cut short our trip on both sides - but still attempted to cover the same ground. We had a blast but it's not how I’d plan it again.
- Unless you have loads of time (at least 2 days for each), do not try to do both Napa and Sonoma. And definitely do not attempt to do both in one day. You will spend your whole trip in the car. These regions may look close as the crow flies but they are separated by a huge mountain, and the distances are actually massive.
- You also need to prebook in advance for your tastings. Napa and Sonoma wine tourism is not like the Old World, nor is it like Aus, where you can generally rock up to a cellar door. Cali wine tourism is a law unto itself. Prepare to spend a lot of money on tasting fees, but expect a very polished, curated experience in return. Don’t be shy to ask loads of questions.
- Do not book more than 2 in a day. Even as a hardcore wino, your palate and your brain will become jaded with all the formality and information, no matter how ‘California Casual’ the tasting room manager is.
I recommend to do fewer visits - so you don't feel like you're constantly on the clock, and really getting stuck in to each one.
Here are my top addresses to add into your itinerary:
Providence - Blow Out tasting menu restaurant. Salt baked prawns are off the scale.
SANTA BARBARA COAST
Au Bon Climat
A California classic with a Burgundian inspiration: terror driven single varietal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Eccentric character Jim Clendenen is something of a wine industry treasure.
Ojai Vineyards in Ventura. Top wines, top quality cellar door in a cool little town that feels marginally less touristy than the rest.
SANTA RITA HILLS
You definitely need to check out something in this area because this is one of the most exciting wine areas in all of California at the moment, in my opinion. The Sta Rita Hills have a hotchpotch of different soil types due to their tumultuous tectonic origins. Winemakers are daring closer and closer to the coast, pushing the limits of viticulture in cool, windswept areas just a few KMs inland from the Pacific ocean. In the case of super ambitious producers like Domaine de la Cote, this cool climate, terroir focused strategy is seriously paying off. In their hand-drawn map below you can see just how close to the ocean.
Domaine de la Cote.
Go here. Buy all the wines you can get your hands on (which won’t be many). These were the guys that won the revisited 'Judgment of Paris', in the latest SOMM documentary - SOMM III. Also they have Alpacas!
These guys are serious New World Burgundians with a huge focus on terroir expression. Check out the evidence of the Cote D’Or-like geological mosaic of this, essentially coastal, land they have bagged. These rocks - from the strata of Diatomaceous earth to the rain sculpted clay were only a few moments apart on our drive.
Cambria Beach Lodge.
Total roadhouse, 60’s vibes, right on the coast. Channel your inner hippy. Walk to dinner at nearby at Seachest.
A good old, down-home, cosy little oyster-shucking, margarita mixing crab shack.
You'll find this place further North up the coast towards San Fran. Hippy heaven tucked into the mountainside around Big Sur, with stunning views. This place will make you want to move to California and become some kind of Champagne-socialist hippy. Our waitress took one look at us and like some kind of psychic prescribed us exactly what we needed. On the menu are things like a whole roasted bulb or garlic served with herby goats cheese.
If we’d had time we would have taken a detour away from the coast, up into the Santa Cruz mountains on our way into San Francisco and checked out Ridge Monte Bello.
Ridge Monte Bello
In the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is one of the wineries that came out on top in the original Judgement of Paris, launching it into global fame.
I have just one address for you: Swan Oyster Depot. Only open for lunch and prepare to queue, but be rewarded by a shellfish-induced legal high.
Kistler is one of the top producers in Sonoma, famous for their California take on a Burgundian style of Chardonnay, and a smaller amount of Pinot Noir.
You must prebook and it doesn't come cheap - around $100/person but you will get to experience their hard-to-find, lovely wines, in a beautiful tasting environment (these guys have seriously nailed the glamorous tasting experience). We went for the tasting of 5 Chardonnays and 2 Pinot Noirs, we were not disappointed. Their approach is completely terroir-focused; they make the wines from the same Chardonnay clones, with exactly the same winemaking techniques; the only difference is the terroir.
All wines are pressed whole cluster, then barrel fermented with all native yeasts. They see some Malolactic Fermentation - where share Malic acid (like a green apple) is naturally converted to lactic acid (like yoghurt) - and then aged for 10 months in oak, 50% of which is new, and 60% is 2 years old, meaning they are neutral in terms of imparting oak flavours, but still allow the wine to micro-oxgeginate. They are then bottled unfiltered and unfined for maximum expressiveness.
Having all 7 wines lined up was a wonderful way to experience how small differences in terroir comes to express themselves in a wine. The 2016 McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay from limestone soils, was more like a Chablis in style, whereas the 2016 Durrell Vineyard was richer, more yoghurty, while the 2016 Vine Hill was somehow mineral and saline. The Pinots were smooth, creamy on the palate and delicate.
Seriously beautiful wines.
Other places to check out with interesting curated tasting experiences are:
Gary Farrell (Pics below)
Dutton Goldfield: Pinot Noir Road Trip - we didn't do this but will be on my list for next time.
First let's address a common source of confusion. There are 3 different Stags Leap.
Stags Leap District AVA - this is the 'appellation'. The delineated wine growing region within the overall Napa region. Like Margaux, within Bordeaux. (Note no apostrophe)
Within the appellation of Stags Leap District, there are two wineries with very similar names:
- Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
- Stags' Leap Winery.
Note the different apostrophe placements. As you can imagine, there are many very boring legal battles over usage/naming rights. These are two very different wineries.
- Stags' Leap Winery is a pretend castle with a less prestigious reputation for wine, though it still makes great wine. (It just doesn't have the others one 'Judgement of Paris' pedigree). It looks pretty fun and I’m sure you'll have a roaring good time there to be fair.
- Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is a different winery, with a serious reputation, having featured in the infamous Judgement of Paris. This is the one we visited and which is a must-see on your tour of Napa.
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
This place is a bond villain layer. It’s a thrill to walk through the underground warren of cellars, blasted into the hillside, to the impressive central underground atrium where the walls are encrusted with sparkling crystals (literally) and a pendulum sways mesmerisingly. Imposing corridors move off in all directions, lined with barrels - this is pure Hollywood theatre!
THE CELLARIUM KITCHEN EXPERIENCE
Did you know wires are not allowed to have restaurants in California? They can serve you cheese or nibbles with your tastes, but the region restricts them from developing winery restaurants - it seems in an anti-overdevelopment move.
At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, The Cellarium Kitchen experience appears to be a way of getting round the restriction: it's not a restaurant, it's a kitchen experience. Let me tell you it is worth going to Napa just to have this experience.
For $175/ head we enjoyed an impeccable 4-course tasting menu, beautifully paired with wines. We were attended by the head chef, Travis Westrope, who we had all to ourselves and a very attentive host to talk us through the wines and cater to our every need. We were the only people there, which was a travesty, as more people should know about this and get to experience it. Even had they been booked out, the space is small and intimate and would have still felt completely personalised.
It may sound like a lot, but compared to the general price of fine dining in this part of the world, it's an absolute bargain. You can easily find yourself spending just that on food - wine not included. The quality and attention to detail really blew me away here.
Newton Vineyard - looks absolutely stunning with their beautiful topiary gardens. This will on my list for next time.
We stayed at this Japanese Zen House on AirBnB:
Hotel wise - I would have liked to stay at Auberge de Soleil - breakfast on the terrace looks pretty divine. Or at least drop in for a cocktail.
WINE REGIONS OVERVIEW - BLUFFER'S GUIDE
Here’s the top line briefing you need on the different regions:
Terroir focused, relatively cooler climate (thanks to the coastal influence and all important FOG). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Slightly less glitzy, more homespun than Napa (but this is all relative, we’re still in Cali!). Some of the coolest vineyards are out by the coast in the Sonoma coast AVA.
Within Sonoma County you find:
Russian River Valley - Warner here; wines tend to be a little richer.
Dry Creek Valley - Clue in the name - warm and dry - Gnarly old vine zinfandel (some were originally planted by Italian immigrants)
Alexander Valley - fine Cab Savs.
Folksy, folksy wines, within which you find:
Anderson Valley - Much cooler climate - sparkling wines and even Riesling is possible
The world’s most glam wine region, responsible for bringing the world blockbuster, opulent Cabernet Sauvignon with lashings of new French oak. The Cabernet gets so ripe it it typically doesn't need any Merlot to soften it, as per Bordeaux.
Sub regions include:
Stag’s Leap, Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena.
Carneros - straddles both Napa and Sonoma, it has a cooler climate thanks to a very strong ocean influence. Here you find great Sparkling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but its probably mostly famous for Chardonnay.
Santa Barbara - Made famous by the iconic wino film Sideways. Lots of cool indie, more barefoot wineries; different vibe to Napa.
Sta Rita Hills - up and coming, super trendy - gets the most cooling influence off the ocean so lots of very ambitious producers here looking to push the boundaries.
Hot hot hot. But Lodi AVA gets a nice cooling influence from the ocean, so it the region to know in this otherwise bulk-wine producing area. Lodi makes some great Old Vine Zinfandel from some very old established producers.
TOP PRODUCERS TO SPOT IN WINE LISTS
Top Pinot Noir Producers
Ancien, Au Bon Climat , Calera (Central Coast), Dehlinger, Dutton Goldfield, Merry Edwards ,Gary Farrell (Sonoma/ Russian River. ), Flowers, Kistler, Landmark, Littorai, Marcassin, Peter Michael, Morgan, Navarro, Patz & Hall, Rasmussen, J Rochioli, Saintsbury, Sanford, Domaine de la Cote (Santa Barbara/Sta Rita), Ojai Vineyards, Sea Smoke (Lompoc), Siduri, Talley, Williams Selyem
Top Chardonnay Producers
Au Bon Climat, Calera, Challen, Chateau St Jean, Dutton Goldfield, Gary Farrell, Flowers, Hanzell, Iron Horse, Kistler, Littorai, Marcassin, Merryvale, Peter Michael, Newton, David Ramey, Ridge, Sainstbury, Sanford, Shafer, Stony Hill, Talbott
Top Cabernet Producers
Araujo, Beringer, Bryant Family, Bucella, Cakebread, Caymus, Chimney Rock, Corison, Dalla Valle, Diamond Creek, Dominus, Dunn, Grace Family, Harlan, Hartwell, La Jota, Ladera, Laurel Glen, Long Meadow Ranch, Peter Michael, Miner Family, Mondavi, Newton, Oakville Ranch, Joseph Phelps, Ridge, Screaming Eagle, St Supery, Shafer Silver Oak, Spottswoode, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Terra Valentine, Titus, Viader.