Exploring the Wine Regions of Northern California

Let me just tell you, Californians love their wine. During the month of March I was on a tour of California with Expedia and spent an extensive part of the trip in Northern California wine country. I had been to wine country several times, but this was a much more extensive trip, visiting several wine regions over the course of a week, including Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino. Did you know that there are over 400 wineries in Napa alone?

And what I found to be so fascinating was that while there are so many wineries, they each have their own characteristics and strengths that set them apart from each other. Today I take you on a little wine tour of Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa. Napa. It's no surprise that Napa is often what people think of when it comes to California wine country. It has one of the longest histories of wine in the U.S., dating back long before prohibition. However, it really wasn't until the mid-1900s when Napa started putting itself on the map for their wine production. This charge was led by Robert Mondavi, who many wine lovers are familiar with, since Robert Mondavi wines are some of the most recognizable wines in the U.S. Another large scale winery is Sutter Home Winery, whose wines you've probably seen in grocery stores. However, I recommend getting off Highway 29 to find some of the smaller and more unique wineries of the Napa Valley.

While you should certainly include a stop in the city of Napa while touring the valley, I suggest spending most of your time outside of the city. At the minimum, spend an afternoon eating your way through Oxbow Public Market, but then start making your way north, as I find that the wine tasting experience gets better the further north you go. With hundreds of wineries, the experience can really vary. One moment you're listening to rock music while tasting wine at Clif Lede Vineyards in Yountville and the next you're sipping on wine atop a castle at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. To get to parts of Napa that your car can't access, take a hot air balloon ride or ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

Sonoma. I'll let you in on a little something: I've been to Sonoma County several times and haven't even been to the city of Sonoma even once! Similar to Napa, the wine experience in Sonoma goes much further than the city itself. While Sonoma County has less wineries than Napa, Sonoma has exceeded Napa in production in past years. It's often considered in San Francisco that many of the tourists go to Napa, while many locals prefer Sonoma. Sonoma is unique in that winemaking varies so much with 13 viticulture areas.

What I love about Sonoma is that it fits my personality. The region as a whole is a bit more offbeat and low-key than other wines regions. If you want something more formal and intimate, then head to Napa, but if you want something more relaxing, then spend the day or weekend in Sonoma. My most recent trip to Sonoma County included spending the weekend in Healdsburg, which took me back to my countryside roots. An afternoon at Dry Creek Vineyard was followed by a walk down the street to The Bar at the Dry Creek General Store (A true general store dating back to the late 1800s) before ending with the sun setting over the valley with a drink in hand at the patio of Medlock Ames' speakeasy bar.

But wait, there's more! Something else that Sonoma County has that Napa doesn't is coastline. Getting to the Sonoma County coastline can be a little more challenging since it's so far off the beaten path, but you're rewarded with beautiful views and great outdoor experiences. The area around the Sonoma Coast State Park offers activities that include kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, and tidepooling.

Mendocino. With Sonoma and Napa as the staples of Northern California wine country, Mendocino County often gets overlooked. It's even more offbeat than Sonoma County and typically requires a weekend trip since it's a three-hour drive from San Francisco. However, that's part of the charm that makes Mendocino County different from Sonoma and Napa. What I like about Mendocino County is that the vineyards are so much closer to the coastline. Just minutes after driving through an alley of redwoods in Navarro River Redwoods State Park you're riding alongside the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline.

I recommend doing at least a two day trip to Mendocino. On your way up the 128 to the town of Mendocino, at least stop at a couple wineries. Boonville is worth an afternoon visit alone. The town has an official dialect, Boontling, that you may hear some of the old timers speaking to one another. Just north of Boonville is a small winery called Breggo ("Sheep" in the Boontling dialect), which though small, had several wines that I enjoyed drinking, which is rare for my visits to wineries. Breggo is owned by Napa's Clif Lede Vineyards. Spend the night in one of the many bed and breakfasts in Mendocino and have a drink and a Guinness cupcake at the only bar in town, Patterson's Pub, before heading back down the 128 the next morning to stop at a few more wineries.

What's your wine or wine region of choice?