As fall approaches, some might be eager to slip on their flannel shirts, witness the foliage change colors or take a sip of their first pumpkin spice latte. For winemakers and oenophiles, though, autumn means harvest season, when the grapes are ripe and ready to be picked. As a result, most wine regions host events and festivals to celebrate this special time of year. You can experience harvest season in all 50 states, since every one of them produces wine in some capacity. However, no one even comes close to the powerhouse that is California. After all, they yield 81% of the wine in the United States.
If you want to take part in harvest season festivities, there’s no better place to do it than California. Our guide will go over a handful of the Golden State’s most popular wine regions and what you can expect from each of these areas during harvest season.
No blog about California wine regions would be complete without mentioning Napa Valley, easily the state’s most famous wine region. Boasting more than 400 wineries within a 30-mile stretch of rolling hills and endless vineyards, Napa is extremely condensed, but reminiscent of the picturesque scenery and landscape of Tuscany. It doesn’t matter if you get around on a bicycle, tour bus or trolley, you definitely want to get out among the vines, as experiencing the agriculture of wine can help you gain a greater appreciation for it. Of course, you need to sip and savor Napa’s two flagship grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Stop by Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley Reserve, Eisele or countless other vineyards that offer excellent choices to satisfy your taste buds.
During harvest season, there’s a wide array of activities and events such as grape stomping, harvest dinners and balls. The St. Helena Hometown Harvest Festival is a free, family-friendly event that includes a pet parade, a wine auction and live music. When hunger strikes, there’s no shortage of premier restaurants in Napa Valley. Brunch lovers will adore the seasonal California fare served at The Restaurant at CIA Copia, while farm-to-table enthusiasts will love the modern rustic flair presented at Boon Fly Café.
Sonoma County might be adjacent to Napa Valley, but these pair of wine regions have their fair share of key differences. For one, Sonoma County is much more spread out. Sonoma offers roughly the same number of wineries as Napa, but they’re scattered throughout 1,786 square miles of hills and redwoods along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean. Also, Sonoma is considered to have a more laid-back, country feel than the glitzy, glamourous vibe of Napa. If you’re seeking a peaceful, easy-going experience while enjoying a crisp Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, Sonoma is right up your alley.
Just like with Napa Valley, harvest season boasts a chockful of events and festivals to celebrate this special time of year. Limited to 4,000 guests and featuring performances from Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Harper and Walk the Moon, among others, Sonoma Harvest Music Festival at B.R. Cohn Winery provides the perfect balance of intimacy and top-shelf acts. You can also enjoy three days of grape stomping, food pairings and all-inclusive wine tastings with over 150 wineries at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. If you’re looking to kill two birds with one stone, look no further than J Vineyards & Winery, offering chef-crafted, five-course meals paired with the winery’s renowned sparkling wine.
The title of the 2004 film Sideways, which takes place in Santa Barbara wine country, isn’t just a random name. It refers to the Santa Ynez, a transverse mountain range in Santa Barbara. Usually, mountain ranges run north to south, but transverse mountain ranges run east to west, or sideways. As a result, the Santa Ynez helps create climate conditions ideal for making world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. To get a taste for the region’s grapes, be sure to check out premier wineries such as Presqu’ile Winery, Saarloos and Sons, Bridlewood Winery and Brander Vineyard.
When visiting Santa Barbara during the harvest season, you don’t want to miss The Celebration of Harvest Weekend happening in early October. This weekend-long festival includes vineyard excursions, winemaker dinners and seminars, giving wine lovers comprehensive insight into the region’s wines and culture. Since Santa Barbara is situated along the coast, you have to try the area’s seafood. It’s hard to beat Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant, a waterfront eatery offering fresh-caught cuisine and unparalleled mountain views.
Nestled between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the central coast of California, Paso Robles provides 26,000 acres of vineyards and over 40 grape varieties, making it a large and diverse wine region. If you can only sample one grape variety, make sure it’s a Rhône-style blend such as Syrah, Grenache or Mourverde. The cool, rainy climate of Paso Robles helps these full-bodied red wines thrive and deliver flavors of red and black fruits, herbs and licorice. There’s no better place to taste a Rhône-style wine than Adelaida Vineyards. Sit back, savor the fruit-forward flavors and admire the breathtaking views of the walnut ranch and vineyards.
If you’re planning to visit Paso Robles during harvest season, schedule your trip around Harvest Wine Weekend. With over 100 wineries participating, this annual festival offers three days of action-packed fun including ceremonial grape stomps, barrel tastings, seminars and live music. After an eventful outing, head to the historic downtown area brimming with boutiques, restaurants and upscale wine shops. Don’t hesitate to make reservations at The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar, known for its southern-style cuisine and handcrafted cocktails.
Located north of Sonoma and Napa Valley along California’s coast, Mendocino offers one of the coolest and foggiest climates out of all the Golden State’s wine regions. This cooler weather yields high-quality Pinot Noir, although some vineyards receive more sun than others, resulting in ideal conditions for varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Mendocino not only excels in its diversity, but also its beauty. The region is surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills, redwood forests and stunning beaches, making it the perfect photo opportunity for families and couples. In between wine tastings, reconnect with nature and go for a hike or bike ride.
When it comes to the wineries, you have nearly 100 to choose from in Mendocino. Phillips Hill is a perfect spot for the history buff, as the winery used to be an apple dryer barn in the late 1800s. Order a glass of Pinot Noir or their famed Riesling and marvel at the beautiful creek encompassing the winery. Campovida is another noteworthy winery to visit, particularly for their Grenache Blanc, which offers a breezy, refreshing taste. Whenever the stomach starts rumbling, take a two-minute drive to Piazza de Campovida, a pizzeria owned by the winery.
Located 30 miles east of San Francisco, Livermore Valley touts a rich history that ultimately put California on the winemaking map. For one, Livermore Valley was the first to bottle Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc with a varietal label. In fact, nearly 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines can be traced back to Livermore Valley. Wente Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard are some of the oldest wineries in the area, so if you’re interested in diving deeper into Livermore Valley’s past, make plans for a visit. Aside from its history and influence, Livermore Valley provides many wineries that don’t charge a tasting fee, making it an appealing destination for frugal oenophiles.
Harvest season is a fun time in Livermore Valley thanks to the Harvest Wine Celebration. Occurring on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, this 35-year-plus annual event features wineries all around the region hosting unique activities such as fly-fish casting and beekeeping demonstrations, barrel tastings and harvest tours. The aforementioned Wente Vineyards also hosts concerts throughout the harvest season, featuring popular artists such as Josh Groban and The Doobie Brothers.
The Santa Cruz Mountains may be known for its winding roads, picturesque redwoods and gorgeous ocean views, but you might be surprised that there are over 70 wineries tucked away within these coastal foothills. The climate and soil are huge reasons why Santa Cruz is such a prosperous winemaking area. The foggy climate forces the grapes to ripen slowly, while the soil produces fewer but higher quality vines that yield a more concentrated flavor. To get a taste for Santa Cruz wines, make a trip to Boony Doon Vineyard, which focuses on terroir wines, or Ridge Vineyards, a low-key winery known for producing premium Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
This harvest season in Santa Cruz you can attend the Premier Cruz, A Mountain Cabernet Experience Harvest Dinner at House Family Vineyards. This event features a wine reception and silent auction where you can bid on exclusive wine lots. Don’t forget to stick around and enjoy local farm-to-table cuisine while soaking up the sprawling views of Silicon Valley.
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