Tired of taking the same vacations? Even if you adore New Orleans, Atlanta or Florida, you might be itching to find yourself in new surroundings, doing activities unavailable at home. Why not try a visit to wine country?
Prime traveling time is straight ahead. From mid-August to late October, the harvest (or "crush") is the best time to visit wineries—it's when the most action happens. If grapes are grown on the estate, this is when the prime picking occurs.
California offers many wine regions to choose from, and several are within easy driving distance from one another, increasing your vacation potential. Oregon and Washington are also options, as well as New York and Virginia, but with approximately 100 American viticultural areas spanning the state, California offers the greatest variety. Whether you like over-the-top Zinfandel, delicate Pinot Noir or rich Chardonnay, you can find a vineyard to suit your taste.
I know you're thinking Napa, and yes, the many amazing wineries will give you whiplash from taking them all in. However, it will be swarming with cars lining Highway 29 and the slightly less-traveled Silverado Trail. Some wineries have a get-'em-in/get-'em-out attitude, and it's hard to find answers or personal service. The best way around that is to seek out lesser-known producers or to call ahead to wineries only open by appointment. My personal favorites include Robert Biale and Venge.
But there's much more to California wine than Napa. Crossing the Carneros region takes you to the Sonoma Valley. It can get crowded, too, but usually not as bad. With several towns along Highway 12 and Arnold Drive, including Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma, some of the tasting rooms are off the beaten path (for example, Benziger and Ravenswood).
Moving northwest, you come to one of my choice places to explore: the Russian River Valley, where you'll find Alexander and Dry Creek. In addition to boutique wineries such as J Vineyards and Mauritson, Healdsburg is quite the charming little town. Late summer is full of farmer's markets, music and celebrations. Even further north lies Mendocino and the Anderson Valley, which are next on my list of places to visit and drive among the redwoods.
San Francisco makes a grand rest stop between the northern regions and those south of the city, and is perfect for culinary experimentation, shopping and theater. Traveling down I-280 leads to the Santa Cruz Mountains with its glorious views and tasty wine, or go east to Livermore—each with a lighter load of traffic.
Even further south, the I-101 will take you to Monterey and its tasting rooms near the aquarium; down to Paso Robles and the likes of Tablas Creek and Garretson, or to the Santa Ynez Valley, made famous by the film "Sideways", which may have calmed down by now.
Have a loose plan of wineries to visit each day. Most regions have their own map, which can be accessed online. This will ensure you don't miss some of your favorites as well as cue you to which need appointments.
Stay hydrated and don't go on an empty stomach. Remember, tasting really means tasting. In terms of food, a place like French Laundry requires reservations well ahead of time, but you can save money by having lunch instead of dinner at restaurants like Mustards Grill. Don't forget to limit yourself to one suitcase, so you can bring back a case of souvenirs.