Summer weekends in California are all about escaping the monotony that is your life at home and exploring somewhere scenic, fun, and magical. (And if they’re not, perhaps it’s time to change that. After all, what’s the point of living in California if you don’t discover new and amazing things all of the time?) Thanks to our state’s moody weather, there are many great wine-producing regions for you to check out over a weekend. You may never be able to get to all of the state’s 3,674 vineyards, but it can’t hurt to try. So next time you’re in the mood to hop into your car and get out of town for a couple of days, head to one of these gorgeous places where you’ll also find some pretty phenomenal wine.
Santa Barbara Wine Country
Distance from SF: 300 miles
Distance from LA: 130 miles
Why: Santa Barbara is the longest traverse (east to west) on the western Pacific coast and has climate conditions that are perfect for cool-climate wines like pinot noir and chardonnay. The elevations range from 200 feet to 3,400 feet, meaning there are lots of winding roads and stunning views.
Where to Stay:
The Ballard Inn
If you like an upscale bed and breakfast with romantic rooms, antique furnishings, attentive staff, and a porch where you can sit and sip wine while talking with other guests, then The Ballard Inn in Ballard is the perfect choice for you.
If you’re more into a luxurious boutique hotel with a clean, contemporary design that’s right in the heart of Solvang, then you’ll want to reserve a room at The Landsby.
Other things to take into consideration: The Ballard Inn offers a cooked-to-order breakfast in the morning, but The Landsby has a full bar and a stylish lobby in which to enjoy your drinks.
Frankly, you really can’t go wrong either way.
Where to Sip:
This family-owned estate was founded in 1972 and was Santa Barbara’s first estate winery. The moderate temperatures and long growing season allow them to grow a much bigger range of grape varieties than a lot of other vineyards in the region. Firestone’s tasting room, which overlooks the estate vineyards, is one of the most popular in the region, which is why we recommend doing the walking tour and tasting. You’ll get to learn more about the history of the winery and production, and you’ll enjoy wine along the way.
Tasting fee: $25 per person
This boutique winery lays in the rolling hills of Ballard Canyon and is one of the most beautiful and romantic wineries on the list. The tasting room includes a redwood deck constructed around four ancient oaks that overlooks the vineyard. It’s the kind of place where you’ll want to sit and stay awhile. Bring a picnic or buy the cheese and crackers to snack on while you sip handcrafted chardonnay and pinot noir.
Tasting fee: $15 per person
If you like pinot noir and chardonnay, Gainey is a must. You can do a tasting in the Spanish-style tasting room, but what we really recommend is the tasting at the historic barn on the property. You’ll ride through the vineyards in a Jeep, then taste six wines in the 100-year-old barn.
Tasting room fee: $15 for six wines
Historic barn fee: $25 for six wines
Pence Vineyards & Winery
Pence is a small vineyard on a gorgeous working ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. The 38 acres of pinot noir, syrah, gamay, and chardonnay are all organically farmed by salaried employees who work at the ranch and vineyard year-round. Pence doesn’t have a tasting room (though one is in the works), so the only way to experience this magical place is by appointment—but we promise, it’s well worth it. There are several options, but we recommend the private tasting at the dock. You’ll sit next to a charming pond and enjoy a seated tasting as well as cheese and charcuterie. Keep an eye out for the peacocks.
Private tasting at the dock: $50 per person
Personal tasting in the tasting room: $20 per person. There are other tasting options that range from $30 to $150.
Additional Tasting Rooms
Los Olivos has a ton of tasting rooms within walking distance of each other, so take a morning or afternoon to explore those as well.
Where to Eat:
This trendy spot serves fresh modern Italian food and is a good choice for lunch or dinner. If you go for dinner, enjoy a cocktail in the outdoor lounge before you sit, or grab one at the bustling bar after your meal.
The Gathering Table
Even if you don’t stay at The Ballard Inn, it’s worth heading there for dinner in the intimate restaurant. The menu changes based on the season, but you can expect fantastic dishes that meld French and Asian cuisine, like spicy chicken wings confit, lamb lollipops with garlic crème fraîche polenta, and cheese fondue. Be sure to make a reservation, as this popular restaurant fills up fast.
The Hitching Post II
If you’ve seen Sideways, then you’re already familiar with The Hitching Post II. If you haven’t seen Sideways, then you should definitely make that happen before heading out on this trip. The restaurant looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1950s, but you’re there for the meat grilled over an open fire, not the décor. This is an enormous meal (every entrée comes with garlic bread, a choice of baked potato or fries, as well as two other courses: salad, soup, or a shrimp cocktail), so go hungry. Be sure to also order a flight of the Hitching Post wines; it’s not on the menu, but if you make a request for it, they’ll oblige.
What to Do (Other Than Wine Tasting)
Go horseback riding through the Parker Family Ranch
You definitely want to taste the wine at Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, but before you do that, go on a 90-minute horseback ride through the 714-acre working ranch. You’ll get to meet Bubba, the gigantic bull who is the stud responsible for most of the free-range wagyu cattle, as well as herds of donkeys, lambs, chickens, and ducks. You can also learn about the sustainable farming and ranching practices that are so important to the family. This is a truly special experience and one you shouldn’t miss. (You can also add on a picnic catered by The Bear and Star if you’d like.)
To book, call 805-325-3658
Distance from SF: 200 miles
Distance from LA: 205 miles
Why: Paso Robles isn’t as unheard of as it once was, but it’s still an ideal place to visit if you’re looking to spend less money and avoid the crowds you’d find in Napa or Sonoma. Also, it’s beautiful: A decade ago there were less than 40 wineries in the region, and now there are over 250. And if you need a break from the vino, there are also a couple of quality breweries that are worth checking out.
Where to Stay:
JUST Inn at Justin Vineyards & Winery
If you can get a room at the elegant and luxurious JUST Inn at Justin Vineyards & Winery, it’s a must. The rooms and suites all have fireplaces, Frette linens, and vineyard views. Overnight stays include breakfast, as well as a tour of the winery and caves. Only problem? There are just three suites and one villa, and they fill up fast.
If JUST Inn doesn’t work out, the Hotel Cheval is an intimate boutique hotel right off of the town square. You’ll experience exceptional service and enjoy amenities like outdoor wood-burning fireplaces, a gourmet continental breakfast, and, if you’re inclined, a treatment at the spa.
Where to Sip:
Even if you can’t stay at Justin, you should still do a tasting. Justin is known for combining Old World methods, like hand-harvesting and small-barrel aging in French oak, with New World technology. It’s also famous for its flagship Isosceles wine—a hearty blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot—that put Justin on the map. A signature tasting at Justin is a great option, as you get to taste the current releases while enjoying views of the vineyards (you can also sit outside if you like). If you’re looking to learn a little more, then go on the winery and cave tour where you’ll explore the underground caves and production facility, as well as learn more about the winemaking and grape-growing practices.
Signature Tasting: $20 per person
Winery & Cave Tour: $25 per person
Tablas Creek was a pioneer of California’s Rhône movement. The story about the vines that arrived from France, the onsite nursery, and the grafted vines is worth asking about when you visit. Stop by and do an estate tasting that includes their flagship wines, and browse the adorable gift shop while you’re there. (If you’re looking for something a little more elevated, there is also a seated flight tasting and a collector’s tasting.)
Estate Tasting: $15 per person
Seated Flight Tasting: $25 per person
Collector’s Tasting: $40 per person
A visit to this family-owned winery, specializing in cabernet sauvignon, is a must if you’re in Paso. The story of how the winery came to be is riveting and involves the winemaker being struck by an errant rocket during the Lebanese civil war, the family’s forced emigration to Paris, and two brothers eventually finding a way to make a winemaking dream come true. The physical winery is also stunning. The Spanish Colonial-inspired tasting room sits on the top of Daou Mountain at an elevation of 2,200 feet, which means spectacular views.
If you walk in, you’ll do your tasting at the Onyx Bar, but it’s worth making a reservation so that you can enjoy a seated tasting outside on the terrace. Or, even better, try the Culinary Pairing Experience, during which you’ll eat a menu of five options inspired by the Lebanese culture of the Daou family while drinking a flight of three progressive pairings. The hummus is some of the best we’ve ever had, so be sure to order it. Daou is truly a special (and luxurious) winery and is not to be missed.
Cabernet Comprehensive (includes a guided tour and seated tasting): $65 per person
Cheese & Charcuterie (includes four pairings): $55 per person
Culinary Pairing Experience: $75 per person
Estate Picnic (includes a picnic basket filled with goodies and a bottle of rosé to enjoy uninterrupted): $195 per person
Where to Eat:
This restaurant serves delicious California cuisine made with ingredients from local purveyors. Whether it’s the meat, the fruits and vegetables, the bread, or the cheese, you can be sure that as much of it as possible is organic and produced in the region.
This elevated farm-to-fork spot that focuses on local ingredients is one of Paso’s most popular spots. Pop in for a casual brunch, or make a reservation for an indulgent meal after a day of wine tasting. Sick of wine? Artisan makes fantastic cocktails, also employing their farm-to-table philosophy.
If you’re in the mood for French food, then head to this restaurant where you have the choice to order à la carte items, or, if decisions aren’t your thing, a fabulous tasting menu with wine pairings.
The staff at this restaurant on the square are incredibly friendly and welcoming, which only makes the delicious food that much tastier. Pop in at lunchtime for one of the best ahi tuna salads you’ll ever eat, or go big at dinner and choose from a selection of steaks and chops. ON Bar also has an excellent cocktail menu and a huge selection of local wine.
What to Do (Other Than Wine Tasting):
Do a tour and a tasting at this brewery, then grab a beer to enjoy in the beautiful beer gardens where you’ll find lawn games, live music, and food trucks.
Franklin Hotsprings isn’t super swanky, but if you’re a chill person who appreciates the restorative powers of a positive charged, ionized mineral hot spring, then head to this spot (it’s a ways out) where there’s a 1100.1-degreetub and a swimming area that’s always at 97.3 degrees. It’s a steal for just $7.