10 California Wineries You Need to Visit

10 must-see California wineries spilling over with taste.

Getting your wine fix at the neighborhood market is convenient but never as uplifting as going directly to the source – in this case – scenic and sun drenched California wine estates from the Silverado Trail to Santa Maria with cultivated grape easily rivaling the best producers of Europe. Plus, most are converting to France’s age-old organic farming methods initiated long before green was synonymous with a global movement.

While many of the premium winemakers like Opus One, Araujo, Screaming Eagle and Rudd, apologize for not allowing visits to their coveted cellars and caves (some even have waiting lists for their wines), plenty of other impressive properties welcome tastings, tours and food pairings by appointment (a growing trend). It is well worth it to book a tasting and tour and explore what the hottest vintners are farming and bottling and building – most replacing old energy sucking digs for modern and sustainable architectural structures on their natural landscapes.

Here are ten wineries getting accolades for remarkable vines and vignettes alike.

Quixote Winery, Silverado Trail, Napa

It’s the one everyone is talking about – the colorfully quirky Quixote Winery designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). The Viennese artist, architect and environmentalist transformed the historic, organically-farmed Stag’s Leap estate with crooked lines and turrets using namesake Don Quixote as his muse. The destination boutique requiring tasting reservations devotes itself to wowing connoisseurs with small quantities of Petite Syrah and Cabernet sauvignon from its 28-acre ranch under the Quixote and Panza labels. As Sonoma real estate maven and Quixote enthusiast Inge Hutzel puts it, “It’s a very cool place with great, great reds.” Owners have heeded Hundertwasser’s waxing philosophical about the land: “You are a guest of nature; behave,” he said.

Tuesday-Sunday: Tour and Tastings by appointment ($25 per person) at 10:00-12:00-2:00-4:00: 707.944.2659

Ridge Vineyards, Lytton Springs, Healdsberg

The straw bale and solar eco-sustainable tasting room is just one of the inventive lures drawing red wine lovers to the Lytton Springs Tasting Room and Winery at Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma County – where you can ponder the 115-year-old vines and restorative surroundings while sampling some of the best grape around. From time-honored varietals to the aromatic and mouthwatering 2011 Estate Rose to the heritage Zinfandels gifting rich bramble fruit and velvet tannins, Ridge is perhaps the starting point and the end all for titillating the eye and palette without sensory overload.

Open seven days a week, 11am-4pm. Call ahead for estate tours, tastings for more than eight, or private tastings. 408.867.3233

Darioush Winery, Silverado Trail, Napa

You’ve arrived! And while this 22,000 square-foot Persepolis-land is the the antithesis to earthy Ridge, there’s a time for chilling and a time for intensity, in this case, a Turkish bath of 18′ freestanding columns with capital bulls lining the entrance, varied gardens and richly-covered travertine-stone surrounding the entire building. Darioush will blow you away with both the Persian inspired grounds and highly rated Bordeaux style estate wines rated 90+ including the 2011 Signature Cab on the top 100 list by Wine Spectator. The tasting room is open daily, 10:30 am-5 pm with tours by appointment. For a rare treat, you can also book a By Invitation Only 120-minute tasting offered daily at 11am for $150 per person in the private cellar for a sampling of signature and vintage and tantalizing small bites prepared by the private chef.

To book, call the concierge: 707.257.2345 ext.13

Swanson Winery, Oakville

The setting is whimsical nouveau chateau in the red Salon at Swanson, where up to eight guests at a time can gather round the table for $65 per person to sample the the “Cab lover’s Merlot” from Oakville; two distinct full and balanced Cabernet Sauvignon blends from the region, a classic French-inspired Chardonnay from Oakville and an heirloom California Angelica. The fun tastings at the delightfully decadent family winery are said to be curated for both the oenophile and those who want to be, offered three times daily they last one hour and may include scrumptious food pairings as well as bonbons made by Vosges Haut Chocolat of Chicago. Another less formal option is their Sip Shoppe, a so-called candy shop for grown ups with more gourmet Vosges chocolates, wines, gifts and sips for $20 a flight.

Salon hours; Wed-Monday, 11am,1:30 or 4pm; Sip Shoppe open Thursday-Monday, 11am-4pm. 707.754.4018

Quintessa, Silverado Trail, St. Helena

Look no further for a truly comprehensive wine country experience including ducking into underground caves, capturing sweeping views of the Rutherford Appellation and meandering through natural vineyard terrain, a visit to Quintessa culminates in a soothing sit-down tasting at a private table where three vintages are poured. A fee of $65 a person is well worth the investment at the winery being written up and talked about by global enthusiasts and locals in search for quality time with quality wine. “I believe we are stewards of the land,” shares Valeria Huneeus. Huneeus is a Ph.D., Chilean microbiologist, viticulturist and architect of the vineyard who has built the world-class wine estate success story with Agustin Huneeus, (who entered the wine biz in 1960 and founded Noble Vineyard, acquired Concannon, and was a partner of Franciscan Estates).

Visits are between 10am-4pm daily. 707.967.1601

Foxen Winery and Vineyard, Santa Maria

It has matured since appearing in celebrated wine flick Sideways, erecting a solar masterpiece next to its original “shack.” Remaining decidedly understated, Foxen Winery boasts two digs for sipping its remarkable drink: The new sun- powered winery and tasting room which opened in 2009 for Burgundian and Rhone-Style varietals and the historic shack for those Cal-Ital and Bordeaux-style selections. The 90+ point earning Syrah, pinot and chards make for a tasty stop at the winery located in the gorgeous countryside east of Santa Maria – a 25,000 square foot property which also houses a production building with outdoor covered crush pad, separate barrel rooms, and a lab.

Both Foxen tasting rooms are open from 11am-4pm daily. 808.937.4251

Consilience Wines, Los Olivos

Never stuffy but always cooking up new release parties, food and wine pairings and any other excuse to roll out the barrel, Consilience nurtures with the quintessential Santa Ynez Valley tasting room – where you can let your hair down and try its impressive array of intense and deep Rhone varietals -and lauded favorites such as Petite Sirah, Cabs, Zins and Zinfandel Port. It also puts out Tre Anelli wines inspired by traditions of Italy and Spain, classic Sangiovese and Barbera as well as varietals and a Tuscan blend called Centellinare. Before you leave, pick up a colorful wine tile portrait of Mambo, made by an artist to commemorate the birthday of the most beloved member of the wine team (and only one with four legs). That’s idiosyncratic Los Olivos for you.

Tasting room is open 11am-5pm daily. 805.691.1020

Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa Valley

The maker of highly rated organic grape offers several tasting experiences in a stunning setting, prompting Sunset magazine to name RSV the tasting room of the year and Wine Spectator to feature it as a must visit winery in Napa Valley. Strollers can pop in and taste at the bar for $25; and the more adventurous can book the Farm to Table tasting for $75 at 11am daily. It starts with a glass and a tidbit from the vineyard kitchen, then a stroll through the kitchen garden for a talk on the interplay of food and wine. The tour continues with a peek into the cellar and caves and a gathering at the farm table with pairings. If that doesn’t grab you, book the $75 Cave Raider Tour held daily at 1pm to learn the subtleties of winemaking, diving deep into the caves and ending at the Wine Library with a fight of wines and a board of creations from the kitchen alongside favorite local artisan cheeses and charcuterie.

For more information call 707.944.9090

Justin, Paso Robles

Top- notch dark fruity reds, a welcoming tasting room adorned with wrought iron, wood and limestone appointments, and an adjacent inn for the non-designated driver make Justin Winery a go-to destination in the beautiful hills of western Paso Robles. Tastings are offered daily here with reservations needed only for groups of eight or more. Scheduled tours revealing the passion infused in the facility, subterranean barrel caves and Isosceles Library 120 feet underground. If you visit on the weekends, peak into the Justin Wine Society Lounge at the entrance to the cave where Wine Society members and guests sample special releases and older vintages in an old world living room atmosphere with a fireplace. It also features one of Paso Robles top restaurants where Executive Chef Will Torres keeps pairings intriguing with savory turkey hash, lobster risotto, grass-fed burgers and kobe beef to name a few tantalizing choices.

Tastings 10am-4:40pm. Reservations. 805.238.6932 ext.3224

Anaba Wines Tasting Room, Sonoma

Classically Sonoma and named as one of the best 2011 boutique tasting rooms, Anaba pours its award-winning, limited production grape for a nominal fee (waived with purchase of wine) in a recently-renovated 100-year-old farmhouse. Locals coveting a farmhouse of their own love gathering here for the intimate and unpretentious ambiance which includes a blissful patio for savoring your own picnic overlooking the grounds in the Sonoma Carneros region. The exclusive selections are handcrafted from the West Rhone and Burgundian varieties grown at the vineyard and properties throughout Sonoma County. The Pinot Noirs and Chards are known for both artistic blends and rugged earthiness.

Tastings are daily 10:30am-5:15pm. 877.990.4188

Image: QuixoteWinery

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.