Wine Country in the Winter
By Steve Heimoff
Visiting California in the off-season means wine without the lines.
Nearly 400 million people visit California each year, and sometimes it seems like they're all there at the same time—mainly July and August. Summer traffic can fray even wine-soothed nerves, as can mobbed tasting rooms, sold-out hotels, impossible-to-get-in restaurants and long lines at top attractions.
That's high season in the Golden State. Winter is a different story.
California is a two-season state. In the winter, which runs from roughly November through April, the dependable sunshine of summer can be on hiatus, replaced by rain and cooler temperatures. (In general, the further north you go, the rainier it gets.) Fewer people visit California in the rainy months for that, and other, reasons.
But that's good news for tourists. The things that attract people to California—the physical beauty of the mountains, deserts and coast, the urbane and sophisticated cities, superb lodging, unrivaled recreational activities and world-class dining—are still there, without the crowds.
For wine lovers, the state abounds with wine events and activities during the winter months. More and more cities and destinations are holding big wine festivals in the off-season to attract tourists and their dollars. Even better, many hotels and resorts lower their prices at this time of the year, making winter a comparative bargain for your next California vacation.
We've divided the state into quadrants for this quick and easy guide. Here are some wine-oriented winter destinations to consider when visiting California during the off-season.
Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara
Below San Francisco, the Monterey Peninsula is a beautiful place to visit any time of the year, but the cool season shows it off in a special way. With the air at its cleanest of the year, the waters of Monterey Bay are especially blue. Even the rain makes this jutting coast, with rocky cliffs dotted with Cypress trees and Monterey pines, soaring sand dunes and thundering breakers, all the more romantic. San Luis Obispo County is a bit more relaxed, reflecting aspects of both Northern and Southern California. By the time you reach Santa Barbara, the palm trees, wide white sand beaches and gentle winds tell you you're on the way to Southern California.
Wining & Dining
Have an amuse-bouche while listening to classical piano and enjoying the spectacular view over Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean at the upscale Pacific's Edge restaurant, in fashionable Carmel (www.pacificsedge.com). Keep an eye out for local vintners who have made Bistro Laurent (www.bistrolaurent.com), in downtown Paso Robles, their hangout; French-born chef Laurent Grangien's duck breast with a ragoût of mushrooms is perfect with a full-bodied Syrah. In tony Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara city, bring your platinum card and enjoy the ocean farm-raised abalone at Lucky's restaurant (805.565.7540).
In Monterey County, the annual Great Wine Escape Weekend (November 9-11, 2007) includes seminars, winemaker
dinners, bus tours, winery open houses, wine tastings and Wine Enthusiast's Signature Dinner, where chefs collaborate on a dinner paired with Monterey's top wines (www.montereywines.org). Or visit the family wineries of Paso Robles during the Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival (March 14-16, 2008), when 100 area wineries open their doors as spring nears, and temperatures hit the high 60s (www.pasowine.com/events). Earlier in the winter is the San Luis Obispo Vintners Harvest Celebration (November 2-4, 2007), held in the seaside town of Avila Beach (www.slowine.com). The World of Pinot Noir (March 7-8, 2008) is one of California's top Pinot Noir events, held annually in Shell Beach. There, you'll rub shoulders with top winemakers and attend high-level educational seminars (www.worldofpinotnoir.com).
|Toasting at the Great Wine Escape Weekend in Monterey.|
In Monterey, there's beach-combing, checking out the tidal basins, art galleries in Carmel and the world-renowned Monterey Aquarium in kitschy but fun Cannery Row. Golf courses are among the top in the world, and local restaurants and lodges are four star. If you're still thirsty for wine, you can travel the River Road Wine Trail, which winds along the base of the Santa Lucia Highlands. If you're into antiquing, don't miss the charming little town of Arroyo Grande, which is only minutes away from the wine trails of the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Or rent a kayak and check out the otters and rays at Morro Bay. In Santa Barbara city, shopping at the Spanish-themed El Paseo center is de rigueur. If the weather cooperates, you can even brush up on your tan on East Beach, or play in a pickup volleyball game.
The Bernardus Lodge (www.bernardus.com), in the lush Carmel Valley, just southeast of Monterey city, is a great
retreat from the urban pace. Even if it's cold, you can soak outdoors in the spa's heated therapy bath, then throw on a chenille blanket and head for the fireplace with a cup of herb tea. If it's beachside luxury you crave, Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort (www.fpdtr.com), on the Santa Barbara beach, offers it all; bring the kids and take some scuba diving lessons.
|Sunset over vineyards at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley.|
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Typically associated with teeming crowds and wait lists galore, Northern California's wine country is a different, more accessible world in the winter months, when visitors can get up-close and personal with winemakers, find great deals on upscale inns and B & Bs and sample some of the most iconic restaurants in California without having to grovel.
This being winter, the weather can be anything from sunny and warm to cold and stormy. Places like Sonoma's Russian River and the Napa River, which run the length of the Valley, may even be flooding, so check in advance (http://cdec.water.ca.gov). Best of all, the crowds aren't there. Winter tourism in Napa Valley averages only 27 percent of summer's.
Wining & Dining
This may be your best time to sample the riches of eateries like Thomas Keller's famous French Laundry in Yountville (www.frenchlaundry.com), where a Tuesday in February is much more auspicious than a summer Saturday, when getting a table is akin to arranging tea with the Queen. Call ahead and take a shot; Last-minute cancellations may make it possible to score a table. Another special winter dining indulgence: cozy up to a steaming bowl of red wine-infused risotto at Healdsburg's trendy (but in the summer, jam-packed) Cyrus Restaurant (www.cyrusrestaurant.com), or try the restaurant's decadent but unforgettable starter of Iranian Osetra caviar with a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée Champagne.
Winter Wineland (January 19-20, 2008) is an insider's treat to the wineries all along the Russian River. You might find a famous vintner 'cuing up sausages in the parking lot, offering themed tastings with Zin or Pinot Noir, or opening rare older vintages for tasting and purchase. A single weekend passport price—$40—gets you into more than 100 wineries (www.wineroad.com). The Napa Valley Mustard Festival (February 2-March 29, 2008) showcases wine tastings, culinary events, art exhibitions and masquerade balls, culminating in the signature Showcase of Food, Wine, Mustard and Art, held at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, in Napa (www.mustardfestival.org).
If food and wine don't fill all your waking hours, not to worry. In Napa, the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga, just 15 minutes away from each other, offer endless shopping and browsing opportunities. Calistoga's spas, with natural hot springs, have been famous for over a century. Pamper yourself with a mud bath and massage at Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort (www.drwilkinson.com). Or drive out to the far coast, to scenic Bodega Bay, and try your luck angling
|The Kenwood Inn and Spa in Sonoma.|
for rockfish or Lingcod.
If it's rainy, hey, just hole up at a romantic little B&B like the Kenwood Inn & Spa (www.kenwoodinn.com), which offers packages during winter that are considerably less expensive than their summer rates. Or treat yourself to the comforts of the posh, post-modern Hotel Healdsburg (www.hotelhealdsburg.com), which specializes in creative spa treatments. An upscale fireside breakfast is included in the room price.
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SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS AND YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Lake Tahoe, El Dorado, Placerville, Coloma, Yosemite National Park
One hundred and fifty miles from downtown San Francisco lies the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Here between the foothills and the snowy peaks are some of California's prime tourist attractions: Yosemite National Park, Gold Country and higher still Lake Tahoe, with its casinos and ski resorts. In Gold Country, the counties of Amador, El Dorado and Placer are also wine country, with their own federally designated appellation, Sierra Foothills. Wineries, most of them small family affairs, dot the byways, most often specializing in lusty, old-vine Zinfandel. At 6,200 feet in elevation, the Tahoe region isn't wine country, but good wine is plentiful. Yosemite's winter weather is temperate as the valley is in a natural bowl.
|A cross country skier in Lake Tahoe|
Wining & Dining
Apres-ski, start with a specialty cocktail by the fire (highly recommended: the Bloody Mary) then move on to the gourmet cuisine and great wines at PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn (www.plumpjack.com). Pianeta Restaurant, in historic Truckee (530.587.4694) is full of ambiance and very romantic. Snowflake Midmountain Lodge, at Diamond Peak Ski Resort, hosts a "Last Tracks wine tasting," held in the late afternoons (www.diamondpeak.com). Moody's Bistro, (www.moodysbistro.com) also in Truckee, has themed winetasting, often with visiting winemakers. There's also a rash of new wine bars, including Time for Wine, in Tahoe City (www.timeforwine.com); Uncorked, in the Village at Squaw Valley, (www.uncorkedsquaw.com) and two in Truckee: Trio (530.582.2323) and Pour House (www.thepourhousetruckee.com). The Resort at Squaw Creek offers chef's tastings, including a Beaujolais Nouveau event in mid-November (www.squawcreek.com). In Yosemite your fine dining options are limited. In Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel restaurant (www.webportal/ahwahnee), dinner can be pricey and so-so. The brunch is better. Snag a window seat for top views.
The El Dorado Passport Weekend (March 29-30 and April 5-6, 2008; www.eldoradowines.org) waits for late
March, when the snowpack starts to melt. For $65 per weekend, your passport entitles you to visit local wineries, where barrel samples, current releases and special blends are poured, often matched with gourmet foods. Now in its 26th season, the annual Vintners' Holidays at the Ahwahnee Hotel (www.yosemitepark.com), in Yosemite, offers wine lovers a spectacular retreat in one of the nation's top national parks. The event is divided into eight multi-day sessions, consisting of tastings and seminars, throughout November and December. Each session features four wineries, usually represented by an owner/winemaker. The final evening is flagged for the Gala Vintners' Dinner, in the Ahwanee's timbered dining room.
Barrel tasting in El Dorado
El Dorado is the heart of gold country, and there's lots to do aside from wine tasting. The historic old towns—Jackson, Sutter Creek—still have a 19th-century feel. You might even see the ghosts of gnarled forty-niners wandering along the wooden sidewalks of Placerville or Coloma, where you can pan for gold. The weather this time of the year is likely to be cool to mild, but just 45 minutes east is Tahoe, whose slopes are still open for spring skiing.
The lake region's snow-based activities are legendary, with ski resorts like Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Heavenly attracting thousands. On the Nevada side of the border, which bisects the lake, are the casinos of North and South Lake Tahoe.
Grab your hand-warmers and go snowshoeing or cross country skiing in Sugar Pine Point State Park near Rubicon Bay—beautiful, quiet, the best of Tahoe's nature in a lakeside, historic part of Tahoe. Or try ice skating and a glass of wine at Squaw Ice Pavilion. The new Village at Squaw Valley is packed with chi-chi stores, restaurants and bars. A horse-drawn sleigh ride may sound hokey, but it's a great way to experience the Tahoe outdoors and do something unique (but not cheap).
Fall in Yosemite has its own attractions. The summer crowds are long gone, and the valley is perfect for walking, biking or jogging. Average daytime temperatures are in the 40s and 50s. And then there are the park's famous natural attractions: El Capitan and Half Dome, Mirror Lake, the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail.
The Resort at Squaw Creek has the advantage of close access to ski resorts, and provides shuttle busses to the slopes. PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn has one of the best, most reasonably priced wine lists in the area; try the buffalo ribs with a savory Pinot Noir. In the Foothills, check out the historic Cary House Hotel, in Placerville, with its Victorian touches (www.caryhouse.com). In Yosemite, The Ahwahnee is expensive, but worth it as one of the country's top historic hotels.
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Palm Desert, San Diego
Excluding Los Angeles, which is a journey in itself, we've highlighted two SoCal winter destinations: Palm Desert and
San Diego. Both will have dependably nice weather with, of course, the desert being balmier.
|Palm Desert's Art of Food & Wine event|
Wining & Dining
Restaurants in the desert area haven't yet reached the quality of the coastal cities, but Azur, at the La Quinta Resort & Club, comes closest to San Francisco ambience. Try the tuna tartare, or nosh on uni and kani in the sushi bar (www.laquintaresort.com). In San Diego, you can still get a good glass of wine for under $10 at Bella Luna (619.239.3222), one of the city's oldest Italian restaurants, in the heart of downtown's night life. Or take the winding drive to Mille Fleurs, (www.millefleurs.com) in Rancho Santa Fe, where you'll be transported to a French country inn serving the area's top continental cuisine.
|The San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival|
Palm Desert holds The Art of Food & Wine on November 8-11, 2007 (www.artoffoodandwine.com). With daily high temperatures this time of year averaging a comfortable 83, and the high 40s at night, it's perfect weather for this 4-day affair of music concerts, wine seminars, art exhibits, golf tournaments and cooking exhibitions.
Then there's the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival on November 14-18, 2007 (www.worldofwineevents.com). It's a five-day extravaganza of wine tasting seminars, cooking classes, a charity auction, and chef shootouts. Of particular interest for wine lovers are the 600-plus wines that will be poured, mostly from California but including wineries from around the world.
In San Diego, don't miss the Giant Pandas at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Bring your sunblock; daytime highs can be in the low 70s, warm enough to enjoy the white sand beaches. Bring the kids, too: Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farms aren't too far. In the desert, Palm Desert is just southeast of Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs, with all
their shopping, golf and recreational allures. The Gardens on El Paseo is Palm Desert's upscale shopping mall. Outdoor recreation includes hiking, cycling, horseback riding, tennis, jeep tours and, of course, golf; the area is larded with courses.
|The Lodge at Torrey Pines|
In Palm Desert, have an outdoor spa treatment at the glamorous, 1940s-style Mojave Resort, which offers special packages in the winter months (www.resortmojave.com). One of the top places to stay in San Diego is the Lodge at Torrey Pines, in upscale La Jolla (www.lodgetorreypines.com). Adjacent to a 2,000-acre nature preserve, on a golf course, the Lodge has one of San Diego's top restaurants, A.R. Valentien. Get a window seat and watch the sun sink down into the ocean. You'll enjoy a glass of wine while the rest of the country battles blizzards and deep freezes.
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|The Wine Enthusiast Signature dinner in Monterey.|