Whether you can’t find the time to get to Napa or just aren’t enthused about fighting the crowds for expensive wine tastings, you’re in luck: California is loaded with award-winning wineries. Napa and Sonoma get most of the love, but Californians know that you don't need to visit wine country to find fantastic wine. The state has more than 130 AVAs, ranging from the warm vineyards of Temecula to the cooler and wetter climate of Mendocino. Here's a list of the nine best wineries in California's "non-wine" towns, all of which have won awards for their locally grown varietals.
Mendocino: Barra of Mendocino (Mendocino AVA)
The winemakers from Barra of Mendocino can boast a long list of awards for their varietals, which span from pinot blancs to deep cabernets. While less than 4 percent of wines in the U.S. are considered organic, all of Barra’s are, which means they grow without the use of pesticides or chemical agents.
Visit: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; free tastings
Stay: At the historic Vichy Springs Resort, home to a naturally carbonated hot spring
Try: The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. It won the June 2019 Editor's Choice award from Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Redding: Alger Vineyards (Manton Valley AVA)
They may be farther north than most of California's winemaking regions, but Alger Vineyards has won plenty of awards over its 40 years of winemaking. The vines grow in the volcanic soil around Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, creating vintages high in tannins with fairly balanced minerality. Tastings are casual and friendly and include an etched glass.
Visit: Weekends 12 to 5 p.m; $5 tastings
Stay: At Tall Timbers B&B; it’s close to Lassen National Park and Burney Falls, too.
Try: The 2014 Petit Sirah. It won a silver award in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Mariposa: Casto Oaks Winery (Sierra Foothills AVA)
Hiking in Yosemite all day can make you thirsty, so swing by Casto Oaks Winery on your way out of the park’s western entrance. Guests can try eight different wines in the Mariposa tasting room, which also serves as a gallery for local artists. And if you find a bottle you like, buy it: they only produce about 1,000 cases a year, so when the bottles are gone, they’re gone.
Visit: Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m to 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Sunday)
Stay: Indulge your glamping dreams at AutoCamp Yosemite, about five minutes from Mariposa.
Try: The 2013 Gardner Reserve Cabernet. It won Best in Class at the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Soledad: Chalone Winery (Chalone AVA)
There's no hard and fast rule about how long grape vines usually last, but it's safe to say Chalone's 100-year-old vines are some of the oldest producing vines in the country. First planted back in 1919, the vineyard covers a massive 1,000 acres. Because of its high elevation above the Salinas Valley and coastal fog, the grapes have a shorter growing season but are exposed to more sun, resulting in a fruity minerality in most wines, especially their famous chardonnays.
Visit: Friday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $20 tasting
Stay: At the luxurious Bernardus Lodge & Spa (be sure to try their wines, too.)
Try: The 2014 Estate Grown Gavilan Chardonnay. It won gold in the 2015 Los Angeles International Wine Competition
Monterey: Folktale Winery (Carmel Valley AVA)
While in Monterey, It’s worth it to find time between whale watching and beachcombing to try a few of the region's many, many wines. Monterey County has more than 150 wineries, but Folktale is one of the most inviting, thanks to its whimsical garden area and frequent concerts and events. Standard tastings are available, but if you’ve got extra time, it’s worth springing for the $40 tour and tasting combo.
Visit: Monday to Thursday, 12 to 6 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (closes 6 p.m. Sunday); $20+ tastings
Stay: At the Pine Inn, about 15 minutes away in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea
Try: The 2018 Pinot Noir. It won gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Escondido: Orfila Vineyards & Winery (San Pasqual Valley AVA)
Orfila Vineyard is a micro-estate, covering just 70 acres in the San Pasqual Valley. They make cabernets, syrahs, and merlots, of course, but they have some less common varietals planted, too. They’ve won awards for their Montepulciano (a medium-bodied red) and several awards for the Gewurztraminer (a flowery, creamy white.) That said, their wines have won more than 1,300 awards since 1994, so it’s hard to make a wrong choice.
Visit: Daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Free tours, $15 tastings
Stay: Splurge for the Rancho Bernardo Inn, or find more budget chains in Escondido proper.
Try: The Estate Full Fathom Five Red has won gold, silver, and bronze in multiple competitions.
San Luis Obispo: Biddle Ranch Vineyard (Edna Valley AVA)
Situated in inland San Luis Obispo’s gently rolling hills, Biddle Ranch Winery is a popular stop on bike and wine tours. That’s probably because it has picnic-style cheese plates, a huge outdoor space, nearly year-round perfect weather, and, of course, fantastic wines. They make sparkling wines, whites, rosés, and a half-dozen reds, including several earth pinot noirs.
Visit: Daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $20+ tastings
Stay: The beachfront Inn at the Pier is just 10 minutes away in Pismo Beach
Try: The 2012 Akubra Red Blend. It won gold at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Crestline (Big Bear): Sycamore Ranch Vineyards (various AVAs)
A popular stop on the way to Big Bear, Sycamore Ranch Vineyards makes both wines and hard cider. It’s a tiny estate at just 3.5 acres. Despite its establishment just 12 years ago, Sycamore Ranch wines have already won several awards at California wine competitions. It’s a very tiny vineyard at 3.5 acres, so they source some grapes from other AVAs around the state, including the Ballard Canyon and Santa Ynez AVAs.
Visit: Thu–Sun, by appointment / $20 tastings
Stay: There are plenty of options in the area, but the Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa is great for a lux weekend escape
Try: The 2017 Grenache. It won Best of the Best, Double Gold, Best of Class, and Best of Show (Red Wine) in the 2019 Sunset International Wine Competition.
Kingsburg: Ramos Torres Winery (Madera AVA)
Growing intentionally small yields and using minimal water may not sound like a recipe for a successful vineyard, but it’s working for Ramos Torres Winery, near Sequoia National Park. Swing by if you like reds. While they grow grapes for viognier and picpoul, it’s mourvedre, grenache, and syrah that cover the most space across the vineyards 21 acres.
Visit: Saturday and Sunday, 12–5 p.m.; $5 tastings
Stay: At Montecito Sequoia Lodge, or pack your tent and camp in Sequoia National Park.
Try: The Vinto Tinto Red Blend won gold at the 2010 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.