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Trying to select the best wineries in California is no easy task. After all, there are more than 2,000 different wineries in the state, ranging from small boutique wineries to large corporate producers distributing their wines around the world. If California were a separate country, it would be the world’s fourth-largest wine producer. That being said, the state’s best wineries are primarily clustered within just two wine regions: Napa Valley and Sonoma.
If there is one California wine region that is synonymous with great California wine, it’s Napa. As a result, if there were just one place to visit the state’s best wineries, it would be Napa. The following wineries stand out as being some of the best Napa.
Stags’ Leap Winery - Founded in 1893, Stags’ Leap is perhaps best known as one of the two California wineries that competed in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags’ Leap successfully defeated rivals from Bordeaux, and the rest, as they say, is history. If you want to see where the modern California wine industry started, Stags’ Leap is the place to be. It consists of nearly 240 acres near Yountville, California.
Larkmead – This is one of the state’s oldest wineries, founded back in 1895. Today, Larkmead is producing some of the most critically acclaimed Cabernets in the world that are rustic, herbal and powerful. In 2017, chief winemaker Dan Petroski won the “Winemaker of the Year” award. While Larkmead is producing some of Napa’s best wines, it has not achieved the same sort of fame as larger producers.
Hess Collection – Visitors do not only come for the amazing views of nearby Mount Veeder, they also come for a wine experience that also features some of the very best artwork in the world. The Hess Collection is known for its choose-your-own flights as well as its legendary contemporary art collection.
Robert Mondavi – If there is one name that is synonymous with California wine, it is Mondavi. If you want to get a glimpse of how one man - Robert Mondavi – almost singlehandedly built a California winery into a global juggernaut, it’s worth a visit here. There are plenty of tasting options, and Mondavi even offers a Mondavi Twilight Tour on Friday nights.
Antica – This wine estate is located at the top of Atlas Peak, giving it one of the best views of any winery in the state. This winery has its roots with the famous Antinori wine family, which traces its winemaking experience all the way back to Italy in the 1300’s. Today, wine critics rave about the estate’s spicy Sangiovese, which is generally considered to be better than any expression of the varietal in Italy.
Frog’s Leap Winery – Located in Rutherford, Frog’s Leap Winery is known for its creative and humorous approach to wine marketing. For example, Frog’s Leap is known for its “Ribbit” corks. And, at one time, Frog’s Leap produced “Leapfrogmilch,” which was named as a wine industry reference to the German Liebfraumilch. Even the name of the winery is a bit of an inside joke – it is a combination of Stags’ Leap (where one of the founders once worked) and Frog Pond, where the winey is located.
Inglenook – This historic property has been called “the Hogwarts of St. Helena,” and for good reason. It’s an estate that is very evocative of the great wine estates of Europe. It contains a courtyard, bistro and museum in addition to the winery, and tours are given for visitors to explore the entire estate.
Sonoma is arguably California’s second most-famous wine region. While Napa is the place to go for Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma is the place to go for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here is a brief look at some of Sonoma’s best wineries…
Idlewild – This winery is known for producing red wines with rustic, bold and very Italian flavors. A favorite is the Nebbiolo from Idlewild.
Hanzell – This is one of the very best Chardonnay producers in the world. When you go on a tour of this property, you will be able to see the entire Sonoma Valley in all of its stunning glory.
Porter Creek Vineyards – Unlike larger California wineries, Porter Creek prides itself on a homey, laid-back feeling and a distinctive approach to winemaking that includes a focus on biodynamic farming. The centerpiece of this winery is a Redwood-beamed tasting cottage.
Ram’s Gate Winery – This Sonoma emphasizes single-vineyard wines, and is located right at the entrance to the Sonoma Valley. During the winter holidays, Ram’s Gate is famous for its holiday-themed decorations. During the rest of the year, the major allure for wine drinkers is a $65 tasting experience.
The Donum Estate – The name of this winery literally means “gift of the land,” and the focus is on single-vineyard estate wines, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Tastings are by reservation only, but the visit is well worth it – it includes an estate that features world-class sculpture and artwork from Keith Haring, Ai Weiwei and Richard Hudson.
While the Central Coast may not get the attention of Napa or Sonoma, it is well worth the time to visit some of the best vineyards in this wine region, especially the 70+ wineries located in the Santa Cruz Mountains (which are located in the upper part of the Central Coast).
Ridge Vineyards – This winery is considered to be the wine pioneer of Santa Cruz. Vines were planted here both before and immediately after Prohibition. This historic winery is now producing Bordeaux-style wines and is considered a must-visit for anyone venturing outside of Napa or Sonoma.
Beauregard Vineyards – The family history of this winery dates back to the 1940’s. The two main grape varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. What is distinctive about this winery is that the tasting room is actually a small wooden cottage, and guests are invited to take their wines outside to enjoy in the woods filled with giant Redwood trees. Beauregard is located within the famous Bonny Doon region of Santa Cruz. And the tasting room here is actually the site of “The Lost Weekend” bar (there’s even a Sangiovese blend produced here called The Lost Weekend).
Other prominent wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains include Stockwell Cellars, Sones Cellars and Storrs Winery and Vineyards.
There is a good reason why wine tourism has taken off within California. Every winery seems to offer a unique, dynamic, one-of-a-kind experience. World-class wines are the stars, of course, but so are world-class art collections, beautiful historic chateaux and stunning views of the nearby mountains and valleys.