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4 California Wine Country Alternatives to Napa Valley

Napa Valley is a wine lover’s Nirvana. In this lovely and productive area, you can experience some of the world’s best libations, food, and scenery. Nearly 4-million visitors visit California’s most renowned wine-producing region each year, it’s a popular place.

4 Wine Country Alternatives

Napa Valley isn’t the only wine country in California. Within 90-minutes of San Francisco, four wine-producing regions are making award-winning wines in laidback environs that invite you to take a sip of California and watch the sunset.

For a Napa Valley alternative, explore these four regions. A short 2—3-hour drive from San Francisco, each region has a different vibe, from buzzy urban, to laid back agrarian.*

Vikki Vinther of Flying Suitcase Wines in San Mateo County.
Vikki Vinther of Flying Suitcase Wines in San Mateo County.

Anderson Valley/Mendocino County

Ninety minutes north of the Golden Gate turn northwest into Mendocino County’s, Anderson Valley (AV). Two-lane Hwy 128 turns and curls through a long coastal valley. AV is a collage of vineyards, farms, ranches, and micro-towns. Best of all, it’s wine country. Some of the oldest in California.

Make your wine country tour through Anderson Valley a bit random. Learn the art of the U-turn. You’ll pass a tasting room, farm stand, café, or creamery that speaks to you. Turn around and go back.

Can’t decide where to stop? Try – Maple Creek Winery for wine and a gallery (the winemaker is a celebrated artist), Hush, AV’s oldest winery, Penny Royal Farm for the lovely wine and fabulous cheese, or Disco Ranch Wine Bar and Specialty Market for wine tasting, tapas, and picnic supplies.

Tom Rodrigues, Maple Creek Winery. California wine country alternatives to Napa Valley.
Tom Rodrigues, Maple Creek Winery.
Penny Royal Farm. California wine country alternatives to Napa Valley.
Penny Royal Farm.

Where to eat sleep and taste

Eat sleep and taste at The Madrones in Philo where you can run away to wine country and never leave the grounds. Lodging, restaurant, tasting rooms, and a hidden garden are bordered by vineyards.

The Madrones in Philo, California Wine Country Alternatives to Napa Valley
The Madrones is just one out of many California wine country alternatives to Napa Valley.

AV is casual, perfect for slowing down and unplugging. Learn more at Visit Anderson Valley.

Santa Rosa/Sonoma County

Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, is where the big boys play side-by-side with small-batch, handmade wines. The small city is one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some of the world’s most famous labels call Santa Rosa home – Korbel, Kendall Jackson, and Francis Ford Coppola all have spectacular tasting rooms, restaurants, and experiences beyond drinking wine.

For a laidback day in the countryside, you’ll find regional wineries like St Francis and Martin Ray. Bring along a picnic, buy a bottle, and spend some time watching the clouds change shape.

Martin Ray Winery
Martin Ray Winery. Photo by Mary Charlebois.

Luxury

Luxury Glamp at Safari West and take The Rhinos and Winos Tour for an al fresco Sonoma County wine and cheese tasting. It’s an unforgettable tour through an African wildlife preserve with a tasting overlooking the valley.

Luxury Glamp at Safari West.
Safari West Rhinos and Winos Tour.
Rhinos and Winos Tour.
Safari West Rhinos and Winos Tour.

Food and wine

Food and wine pairings are superior at Francis Ford Coppola and St Francis. Coppola’s Tuesday Night Family Dinner is part Italian food and wine extravaganza, and part theater. Don’t miss it.

There are countless wineries and tasting rooms to try in Santa Rosa. Learn more about this wine region at Visit Santa Rosa-Drink. You’ll find breweries on the same page.

Tri-Valley

Thirty-five miles east of San Francisco, an area known as Tri-Valley is comprised of Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin. These valleys are known as the birthplace of California Chardonnay.

After prohibition ended, this region had mature vineyards of chardonnay grapes from France. Most vineyards were pulled up and wineries destroyed. Some Tri-Valley vineyards were exempted and allowed to make sacramental wine.

When prohibition ended, those wineries had a head start on others. Cuttings were shared, and chardonnay became one of the first California wines available after prohibition.

Try chardonnay at Wente, Charles R, Concannon, Omega Road, and Embodied.

Wente Vineyards.
Wente Vineyards.
Charles R Vineyards.

Eat-in Livermore at Range Life, a farm-to-table, California Casual restaurant that is modern and rustic at the same time. In Pleasanton, Sabio On Main are masters of food and wine pairing.

The Pleasanton Farmers Market is the place to sample the diverse array of fruit, veg, and meat produced in the region.

Pleasanton Farmers Market. Photo by Mary Charlebois.
Pleasanton Farmers Market.

Where to sleep

Sleep at Pleasanton’s The Rose Hotel. This luxurious, elegant, timeless, and casual hotel was built by Coach John Madden for his visiting friends and family. It’s a Tri-Valley treasure.

Find out more about Tri-Valley here.

San Mateo County

Best known as Silicon Valley, this region was growing grapes and making wine long before technology ruled the day.

In San Carlos, just steps from the Caltrain Station, wineries have made a community known as the Mid-Peninsula Wine Trail. All wineries are within walking distance.

The collection of family-run, artisanal wineries are winning awards and making fans for their traditional and innovative wines. In the heart of a city, there aren’t any vineyards outback, but grapes are sourced from around the county, brought to these boutique wineries, and made into small-batch delights.

Some of my favorites in the group – Flying Suitcase Wines, Russian Ridge Winery, Old Country Cellars, and Cuvee Wine Cellars. There are several others. All are inviting and passionate about their creations.

Some wineries on the trail serve food. Eateries and food trucks also occupy the district. This is the place to get an immersive taste of San Mateo County libations and eats.

Where to eat

Eat at Donato Enoteca in Redwood City, an Italian eatery using local ingredients to make 4-star traditional Italian. Seafood is exquisite here. The wine list includes local, California, and Italian wines.

Farm House in Belmont is a neighborhood secret, showcasing locally made wines, produce, seafood, and meat. House-made everything.

Farm House slider wraps
Farm House slider wraps.

Residence Inn Redwood City/San Carlos is the place to stay when visiting this region of California Wine Country. It’s brand new, jam-packed with every amenity, and designed with guest comfort and experience in mind. I want to live there.

Getting there

All four wine regions are easy drives from San Francisco. SFO is a good choice and serviced by all major airlines. Alternative airports are Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.

If you bivouac in San Francisco, you’ll need a car to get to these locations. Rent one for the day, you don’t need an auto in the city. Public transit is efficient, frequent, and budget-friendly.

If you stay in one of the alternative wine regions, a car and GPS will be helpful.

Explore

These four wine-producing regions of California are among some of the oldest. Each has its own story and a different personality. Explore, get lost, find your way back. Follow your inner compass. When you need a suggestion, the recommendations I’ve made are places I’ve experienced. I’ve lingered over the wine, celebrated the food, and hugged the pillows. This is my home turf.

*To learn about all of California’s wine-producing regions visit – California Wines.

All photos by Mary Charlebois. Featured photo: HC Vineyards farmhouse tower.

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