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.
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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).
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 anglingfor rockfish or Lingcod.
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.
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.