You’re four days into a coastal road trip, winding your way up a hillside just off Highway 1. You pull into the first winery you see, step out of the car and inhale the scent of manzanita and coast live oak trees. Ten minutes later, you sink into a Spanish-style chair on a sunny patio with a glass of buttery Chardonnay or fruit-forward Cab in your hand. You’ve made it.
Wine might feel as if it’s been a part of California forever, but it was actually introduced to the region fairly recently. As Spanish settlers established missions along the California coast in the 16th century, they planted wine grapes they had brought from Mexico. When the Gold Rush caused the state's population to swell in the 19th century, California wine found a viable market, and several pioneering entrepreneurs founded the region’s first commercial wineries.
When the United States prohibited the commercial sale of alcohol in 1919, the California wine industry nearly disappeared. What was left had a poor reputation; even decades after Prohibition was repealed, California was primarily associated with sweet, cheap wine. A few winemakers bucked this trend, though, producing top-notch wine behind the scenes. When those winemakers were invited to a blind tasting in Paris in 1976, they shocked the world by sweeping the competition. From that moment on, several California wine regions became known for the world-class wine we’re familiar with today.
Popular California Wines
The canny connoisseur already familiar with European wines will immediately taste the difference in a Californian quaff. Consistently warm climates mean vintners can always use the ripest grapes; as such, look out for flavorful, fruit-forward wines.
One of the most commonly grown red varietals in California, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. Pick a Cab if you like full-bodied, slightly acidic reds with notes of blackberry or spice
Synonymous with California, these whites are almost always big, oaky and buttery. It’s a great pick for the white wine lover in search of something fuller bodied than a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. Stellar classic Chardonnays can be found in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, while more esoteric wines (with notes of tropical fruit) thrive in the warmer climates near Santa Barbara.
This lush, fruity red is quite common in the United States, and Napa Valley and Paso Robles produce some of the country’s best. Flavor notes range from strawberry and plum to mocha and vanilla.
One of the more subtle reds, this varietal is perfect for the wine lover with a refined and sensitive palate. Pinot Noir picks up tons of flavor from the terroir, or the land on which it’s grown. Pinots from cooler climates, such as Monterey County, pick up notes of spice and dark fruit, while wines from the sunnier regions of Napa and Santa Barbara tend to be fresh and drinkable.
This light-bodied white is the perfect summer wine: zesty, acidic and delicious alongside light food. Look for floral, herbaceous notes alongside hints of tropical fruit. Napa County produces some of the state’s most exceptional Sauvignon Blancs, ranging from easy drinkers with notes of melon and tropical fruit to more unique wines with grassy and herbal flavors.
Commonly associated with cheap, sweet rosé, Zinfandel often gets a bad rap. Look beyond the supermarket bottom shelf, though, and this wine will surprise you. The best California Zins are bold and spicy, often with notes of licorice. Some of the state’s finest Zinfandels can be found in the often-overlooked wineries of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills.
While this massive state can be split into a few primary regions, California wines can’t be categorized so easily. With stunning coastline, gently rolling foothills and soaring mountains, California’s diverse topography creates dozens of microclimates—often within just a few miles of one another. However, the wineries in the various California wine regions do share a few common traits: great service, stunning views and truly world-class wine.
Northern coast This region comprises some of the West Coast’s heaviest hitters, with Napa and Sonoma topping the list. With some of the country’s best-known wineries, those regions certainly deserve the reputations they’ve earned. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the biggest players, though; some of California’s finest wines can be found farther up the coast in Mendocino or just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bad wine here, but look out for particularly fine Cabernets and Chardonnays.
Central coast This region stretches from just south of San Francisco to the southern city of Santa Barbara. Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels and Chardonnays are the standouts here, but you can also find top-notch Merlots alongside less-common Italian and French varietals.
Southern coast The wineries outside Los Angeles and San Diego aren’t just convenient; they also produce some of the state’s most interesting wines. Watch for fantastic whites and lighter-bodied reds from up-and-coming vintners.
Central California This region includes both the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Wines from these two regions couldn’t be more different, though. Central Valley wines form the bulk of the state’s exports, and they are often great, inexpensive wines for beginners; Sierra Nevada wines are more complicated and exotic, comprising Italian and French varietals, such as Barbera and Syrah.
Drinking Wine in California
For the most authentic California wine country experience, we recommend taking a trip straight to the source. Whether by car, bike or organized Backroads bike tour, visiting a winery (or three) is an essential California experience.
If you’re only in California for a few days, though, and don’t have time to leave the city, you don’t have to miss out on the fun. The Golden State is equally well known for its healthy, Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, and restaurants from San Francisco to Los Angeles will recommend the perfect local wine pairing for whatever meal you choose.
Looking to pair your wine with the perfect meal? Check out our California Cuisine article!
Travel to California with Backroads
Backroads offers numerous ways to experience the very best of California on one of our award-winning active travel adventures. Explore the "Sunshine State" in the best and most genuine way possible - away from the crowds, buses and tourist hot spots. From Wine Country to Yosemite to Santa Barbara and beyond, we hope you'll join us! Check out our full list of California adventures here.
Want to learn more about California, including its history, travel tips, highlights and insider info?
Read the full "California: Travel Guide Overview” here.