Flat, fertile farmland runs 450 miles from San Joaquin Valley in the south to Sacramento Valley in the north. Collectively called the Inland Valleys, this is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. It features landscapes lush with fruit trees, almond and pistachio groves, rice paddies and alfalfa fields. Colorful produce stands dot the area, along with small towns that remain relaxed and slow-paced.
Interstate 5, which connects Southern and Northern California, runs through the region. Many travelers plow straight through the miles that link the mountainous Grapevine section north of Los Angeles to the Bay Area, to Sacramento and as far north as Redding, where the Inland Valleys region narrows as it approaches Mount Shasta. But those who stop along the way to smell the Merlot or slice into a juicy steak will find the countryside and communities more inviting than they look from the driver’s seat.
These vast valleys, including the Lodi region, grow more than 60 percent of the state’s wine grapes. The region is home to many of the state’s largest wine producers, like
E. & J. Gallo Winery, Constellation Brands and The Wine Group. A drive along I-5 reveals impressive views of vineyards and glimpses of wine-production facilities, with others located near the parallel Highway 99.
Many big wineries are not open to visitors, but two smallish wineries near the town of Madera are: Quady Winery and Ficklin Vineyards. Both merit a stop to taste their high-quality sweet and fortified wines. Quady has become a darling of mixologists for its excellent California vermouths, and Ficklin is a stalwart producer of Port-style sweet wines.
Despite all that traffic that whizzes by on I-5 and Highway 99, the Inland Valleys remain a little-known region that offers plenty of attractions to explore and appreciate. It just takes a little time and the motivation to head for an off-ramp.
Top Grapes of Inland Valleys
Planted throughout this warm region, the grapes tend to take on ripe tropical fruit characteristics. These Chardonnays offer shades of butter and toast from their time in oak.
The region is known for wines made from grape varieties combined together, including Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah and others. These red blends often are generous, concentrated and exhibit soft textures.
The warm climate here produces full-bodied Zinfandels, some from older vines. Not too deep in color, they’re fat and juicy in blackberry flavor and soft on the finish.
Medium-bodied, with soft tannins and flavors of plum and berry, this continues to be a widely planted red grape. Merlot’s moderate acidity is used to tame Cabernet in blends.
Refreshing and fairly crisp, Pinot Grigio offers an unfussy lightness of being, with an array of melon and apple flavors and low acidity.