Get Started

Learn more about Credit Cards, Travel Programs, Deals, and more.

The Must Read Guide For California’s Wine Country

This post may contain affiliate links - Advertiser Disclosure. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

California Wine Country Guide

California Wine Country Guide

Whenever I hear “Wine Country” used to describe a destination, I want to ask, “Which one?” Northern California’s “Wine Country” is often top-of-mind. However, the “Wine Country” put on the map by the 2004 cult classic, “Sideways,” is just 2 hours north of Los Angeles and Paso Robles, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That area contributed 5 of the top 26 wines in Wine Spectator’s list of the top 100 wines in the world in 2017! Even so, the area most often referred to as “Wine Country” is made up of 3 counties just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I will cover each of them in detail in this California wine country guide:

  • Napa Valley – (which put California’s wine industry on the map in the county by the same name).
  • Sonoma County – its larger but (for the most part) less pretentious sibling.
  • Anderson Valley in Mendocino County is the final location and the list and it is still very laid back.
Each county has unique attributes:
Napa Sonoma Mendocino
Land area (square miles) 748.28 1,575.63 3,506.82
Population density (per square mile) 184.4 310.3 26.1
# AVAs (wine growing regions) 16 19 11
Best known for the following varietals Cabernet Sauvignon




Pinot Noir


Pinot Noir

Alsatian varietals

Sparkling wine

Average cost of basic tasting $54 $37 $20
# Michelin-starred restaurants 4 2 1
Average daily lodging expense (2018) $251 $182 $169
Tasting rooms centered around city/town of… St. Helena Windsor Philo


Take it from someone who has visited this wonderful area for 35 years, owned a condo in Sonoma County for 7 years, and lived there for 2½ years; geography matters – especially if wine tasting is on the agenda (and you wouldn’t be reading this if it were not)! With the price of airfare up 42% from 2021, it makes good sense to spend at least 3-5 days and experience the charms of each area above on a single visit. If one wants to avoid the hassle of changing lodging during one’s trip, the best location to use as a home base is near the juncture of Highways 101 and 128. Sadly, lodging options in this area are limited; Cloverdale has a very nice 7-room Bed &Breakfast (mid-summer weekend rates run $229-$319/night) but its hotel options are…well, let’s just say, “uninspired.”

California Wine Country Guide

Islands in the Sky

On our most recent visit, we discovered “Islands in the Sky,” a suite next to the tasting room at Le Vin Winery, the oldest existing estate winery in the Yorkville Highlands appellation. It is roughly 45 minutes from Philo, 42 minutes from Windsor, and 73 minutes from St. Helena which approximate geographic centers for the distribution of tasting rooms in each county.

“Islands in the Sky” (4.83 stars on Airbnb) gets its name from the way the marine cloud layer can cover the highlands like a blanket, exposing only the hilltops like little islands in a sea of foggy mist. The superhost describes the property as “rustic;” my impression was more along the lines of a cross between a mountain chalet and your grandmother’s parlor. 

For $25/person, you can schedule a tasting during your stay with the fascinating hosts: Holly Harman and Eric Levin (aka Eric London). Holly’s stepfather was the creator of Gumby, Pokey, and pals. She wrote “Inside a Hippie Commune,” an account of the 2 years she spent as a teenager at the Holidays Resort in the Santa Cruz mountains and is the owner/graphic artist at Wine Label Design.

Eric is an accomplished musician/singer/songwriter who sang Italian opera in Boys’ Choir at the San Francisco Opera House, played cello for the President of Finland when he was just 12, and recorded with Jerry Garcia in 1970! Eric followed his father into the winemaking business and now his son has his own label which you can also sample at your tasting.

“Islands in the Sky” has some unique amenities: a spa area for guests’ private use and a venue for musical performances which can be booked as an Airbnb Experience. The views from this 164-acred ranch are breathtaking and, at an elevation of 1,800 feet with little ambient light, stargazing here can be phenomenal – especially on nights around a new moon. 

A Perfect Day in Each Wine Tasting Region

Since there are approximately 475 wineries in Napa County, 425 in Sonoma County and 108 in Mendocino County, what follows are my recommendations for what I have found consistently to be some of the best value experiences for a full day in each region. 

Mendocino County/Anderson Valley Wine Tastings

Lula Cellars

I usually drive to the storied “Deep End” (Boontling for “the north end”) of Anderson Valley to start my day in Mendocino County. Pulling into the humble parking lot at Lula Cellars is always like coming home and they consistently offer excellent wines at very reasonable price points. The focus here is Pinot Noir; Wine Enthusiast scored all 4 of the vintages available for purchase online 92 points or higher. I’m a huge fan of their Gewürztraminer ($24) and their extremely versatile Guntly Red ($32). Dan Reed, the Tasting Room Manager who lives on the estate with his rescue dog Kepler, is full of stories, puns, humorous buttons, and deep knowledge about the wines and the industry; having him as your host is like reconnecting with a dear friend. There’s no pretense; just rich conversation to match the juice in your glass. Open Thursday through Monday, 11am-5pm; tasting fee is $10.

Navarro Vineyards and Winery

This family-run winery specializes in Pinot Noir and harder-to-find Alsatian varietals like Edelzwicker ($20), Gewürztraminer ($20-$27), and Riesling ($25). Tasting here is free and if you can, book their vineyard and winery tour (daily @ 10:30am).

California Wine Country Guide

Toulouse Vineyards

One of the best views of Anderson Valley (see photo) is from Toulouse’s rear deck, where you will probably be doing your tasting. They have 5 different Pinot Noir labels ($38-$60) as well as bone-dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer at a very reasonable price point ($30). Toulouse also makes Valdiguié ($36) – an uncommon varietal which is terrific for picnics or grilling. Toulouse’s wine club gives a generous 25% discount with as little as a 12 bottle/year commitment which can make their wines a genuine bargain. Open daily; appointments recommended (especially if you follow the suggested itinerary below. Tasting fee: $20 (waived with bottle purchase).

Artevino Wines from Maple Creek Winery

The name, “Artevino,” conveys the twin passions (“art,” the Italian conjunction for “and” – “e”, and the Italian word for “wine” – “vino”) of Tom Rodrigues, who bought this former goat farm and hobby winery in 2001. He remodeled the old goat barn into the current tasting room which also serves as a gallery for his art – showcasing a stained glass piece that once graced George Lucas’ bathroom at Skywalker Ranch, a copy of his painting of Cool Papa Bell (the original of which hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame), and cowboy-themed paintings that are on the labels of his Buckin’ Blanco white blend and Cowboy Red blend ($30 each). Tom describes his Chardonnay as “the bomb” (the 2020 vintage won double gold at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition) but I’m personally partial to his Flora ($30), made from a hybrid varietal of Gewürztraminer and Semillon with the same name. The Merlot ($40) Tom was pouring the day we visited was his 2012 (!) vintage which spent 5 years in barrel. Artevino wines are all natural and vegan; Tom uses no pesticides, no herbicides, no coloring, no stabilizers. Much as Michelangelo believed the sculptor’s job to be setting free the statue inside a block of marble, Tom believes the winemaker’s job is to help good fruit express itself with minimal intervention. Open Friday-Monday by appointment only; tasting fee is $20.

Mendocino County / Anderson Valley Food

Anderson Valley lends itself to picnicking and there’s no better place for doing so than Navarro Vineyards (see above). Tables are available on the tasting room deck as well as under a grape trellis in the adjacent vineyard. Pick up lunch items like grilled organic chicken salad ($5.50), honey mustard coleslaw ($3.75), or picnic-style potato salad ($3.75) on your way up-valley at Boonville General Store (open 8am-3pm every day). And on your way back down-valley, stop in at Disco Ranch, a 2022 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner, for tapas like rocking shrimp (5 for $3.75), pulled chicken pesto sliders (2 for $5.95) or smoked duck breast sliders with sour cherry jam (2 for 8.50). Wendy Lamer, the affable and knowledgeable owner makes the tapas herself and curates Disco Ranch’s 9-page wine list. Open Thursday-Sunday, 11am-6pm, Monday, 11am-3pm, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Mendocino Coutnty / Anderson Valley Suggested itinerary:

California Wine Country Guide

California Wine Country Guide: Sonoma County Wine Tasting

Williamson Wines

Unless you’ve been to one of their tasting rooms, you’re probably not familiar with Williamson Wines. You won’t find them on any restaurant wine list or in any grocery store. 100% of the wines they produce are either shipped to their club members or sold in their tasting rooms which are 2 blocks apart on the same street in the postcard-perfect town of Healdsburg. The owner and winemaker, Bill Williamson, and his lovely wife Dawn rely on a “pull” versus a “push” approach — Bill makes wines the members of his wine club (we’ve been members for 8+ years) love rather than trying to convince consumers to buy the wines he likes or likes to make. The genius of this approach is reflected in Williamson Wines’ reviews: 95% “excellent” or “very good” TripAdvisor ratings, 4.7 stars on Google reviews and 92% 4 or 5-star ratings on Yelp! One of the Williamsons’ bedrock principles is that wine should be paired with food; that each enhances the other. As a result, every tasting is a wine and food pairing experience. The “entry-level” Wine & Cheese Pairing Experience ($25/pp) takes place at 134 Matheson Street. I personally think the better value is the Classic/Icon Tasting which pairs small production, collectible wines with chef-prepared tapas/small bites ($50/pp…but click on the “Classic/Icon Tasting” link for special pricing for M2M readers…you’re welcome).

Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV)

AVV is another of the family-run wineries I like to support and recommend; corporate acquisitions are resulting in what I describe as “the homogenization of the wine industry.” Open every day from 10am to 5pm, their “Estate Tasting” of 4 wines is complimentary; you can upgrade to taste a flight of their reserve wines for $20/pp (reservations and tasting fees apply to groups of 7 or more). I suggest timing your visit to include their complimentary tour @ noon and 2:30pm daily and get your picture taken among the barrels in their 25,000 square foot underground cave.

Locals Tasting Room

Locals is an independently-owned collective where the tasting list includes more than 70 bottlings from 10 different boutique wineries. Here you can compare the same varietal made by different winemakers. This allows you to really hone your wine palate. So, for example, if you like Cabernet Sauvignon, seven different iterations from 6 different winemakers (2 of which are Double Gold winners) are available for side-by-side tasting and purchase right now. Locals is open from 11am-6pm, Wednesday-Saturday (tell Patrick you learned about Locals from this article if he is pouring the day you visit). Tasting is always complimentary.

Wilson Artisan Wines (WAW)

If you’re a fan of “big” reds, you’re likely to find something you love at WAW’s flagship winery, Wilson Winery of Dry Creek, just west of downtown Healdsburg. Dry Creek Valley is renowned for its Zinfandel and the view of it from Wilson Winery’s tasting deck is unparalleled. A bonus here is that, should you decide to join their wine club, you’ll enjoy reciprocal tasting privileges at any of WAW’s 11 wineries which are spread out from Greenwood Ridge Vineyards in Mendocino County to St. Anne’s Crossing on Highway 12 in Kenwood. Each offers a unique experience, yet all reflect the same commitment to quality and consistency. Open daily, 11am-4pm; their “Signature Deck Tasting” is $25/pp.

Sonoma County Food

Unlike Anderson Valley, you’re sure to find a restaurant, café, or coffee shop minutes away from wherever you happen to be. I’m listing just 2 which fit nicely into my suggested itinerary (see below). Dry Creek General Store has been a fixture at the juncture of Dry Creek Road and Lambert Bridge Road since 1881. They offer a “build your own” sandwich (cold or grilled) which includes your choice of 9 proteins, 7 breads, and 5 dressings for just $8 (add any of 6 cheeses for $1 more). Located in a strip mall one block west of Healdsburg, Agave is a good option for authentic Mexican food at an attractive price point. The owner sources chocolate, spices, and chili peppers directly from Mexico and his mother makes a killer mole negro in the kitchen daily. Tip: Agave participates in the Dining Rewards Network, so you can earn airline miles, hotel points, or credit toward a discount on gas (depending on the program you favor) as well as 5% cash back from Dosh by dining here.

Sonoma County Suggested itinerary:


California Wine Country Guide: Napa Valley Wine Tasting

Vincent Arroyo Winery

The eponymous founder purchased a 23-acre prune orchard in 1974 and released his first vintage10 years later. Vincent’s daughter Adrian and son-in-law took over in 2012. Vincent Arroyo Winery has received numerous accolades over the years, the latest being included on the 2022 list of “The 10 Best Wineries in California” published by The signature wine is their Petite Sirah ($45 or $58), which often sells out before it is even bottled. My favorite is the smaller production Sangiovese ($35), an Italian varietal whose name is derived from the Latin for “blood of Jupiter.” Open daily 10am-4pm, appointments on the hour; tasting fee: $30.

Rombauer Vineyards (10am-5:00pm)

The outside tasting area here is set amidst spectacular gardens. If you’d like to bring a picnic lunch here, you can do so by making an appointment at the going glass or bottle price for the wine(s) you choose to go with it. Their entry-level tasting flight of 4 wines is just $20/pp – a steal in Napa Valley! Open daily 10am-5pm.

Castella di Amorosa (which means “Castle of Love” in Italian) is an authentically-styled 14th century Tuscan castle between St. Helena and Calistoga. The guided tour (adults only) through the castle visits the Torture Chamber, Armory, and Grand Barrel Room and is capped off by a seated tasting of 5 wines (including the winery’s limited-production reserve wines) in one of the property’s private tasting bars. At $70/pp, only $20/pp more than the standing tasting without the guided tour, is the best value here. The last tour is at 4:00pm; book as far ahead as possible if you want to follow the itinerary below. Open daily, 10am-5:30pm.

Sutter Home Winery

The reader is probably familiar with the name because their wines are widely available in grocery stores that sell wine. Sutter Home offers the only complimentary wine tasting I know of in Napa Valley in their historic Victorian mansion with rose gardens in front and vineyard views in back. One can upgrade to their “Founder’s Tasting” for just $10/person, appointment necessary. Open Thursday through Monday from 10am-5pm.

red and white wine

Napa Valley Food

Both suggested dining options are right on Highway 29. For the itinerary below, the larger meal of the day would probably be at Rutherford Grill. My wife and I make a point of coming here every time we are in Napa Valley – it’s that good! This is comfort food prepared to perfection: from barbecue baby back ribs served with their beloved coleslaw ($40) to their French dip sandwich of thinly sliced prime rib on a house-made French roll ($26). Tips: Avoid the line (which can be lengthy!) by making a reservation 30 days ahead of time and, whatever you do, order their cornbread bites ($5) for an appetizer. On the way back to your lodging, stop at Buster’s Southern Barbecue at the intersection of Highway 29 and Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga for authentic Louisiana-style cooking (open daily until 7pm). Seasonal free jazz and blues performances complement your meal. Dinners (which include garlic toast and 2 sides) are all $16.95, whether you order tri-tip, pulled pork, or ½ chicken. Sweet potato pie is available for dessert ($7.75).

Napa Valley Suggested itinerary:

California Wine Country Guide: Final Thoughts

So, there you have it; what WINEtineraries considers to be 3 pretty perfect days, one in each iconic wine tasting region of Northern California. Caveat: As with wine tasting, everyone’s palate is different, and I encourage readers not to limit themselves to my recommendations but to make their own discoveries. It’s almost impossible to find “bad” wine or disappointing food. Oh, and imbibe responsibly – a designated driver is always a wise idea. Cheers!

Editor’s Notes: I just wanted to thank Jim from WINEtineraries once again for putting together an awesome California wine country guide for the MtM readers. Here are his other guest posts:

Disclosure: Miles to Memories has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Miles to Memories and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Lower Spend - Chase Ink Business Preferred® 100K!

Chase Ink Business Preferred® is a powerful card that earns 3X Ultimate Rewards points in a broad range of business categories on the first $150K in spend per year. Right now earn 100K Chase Ultimate Rewards points after $15K $8K spend in the first 3 months with a $95 annual fee.

Learn more about this card and its features!

Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. Jim,
    Thanks for the suggestions and the itineraries. Time is precious and it would be so easy to lose track with so many choices.


  2. I lived in wine country for many years and had visited dozens of wineries in the areas referred to in this write up. If I return to wine country, I absolutely will use this guide to experience the varied and amazing opportunities that are recommended.

  3. An authoritative tour covering some of our very favorites in wine and food. Having lived over thirty years in Sonoma County and visited as many wineries in all three “valleys” as possible this is an awesome tour as written. As suggested, if you take this tour, keep your eyes open for the little discoveries and places yo9u’ll uncover to make memories.

  4. I was just in Wine Country a few weeks ago and based myself in St. Helena since I primarily visited places there and in Calistoga. For those that enjoy sparkling wine, you can have a fabulous tour and tasting at Schramsberg for just $10 more than Castella di Amarosa. I also found Long Meadow Ranch to be a fantastic spot to visit, even if you don’t drink. They offer olive oil tastings, which are a lot of fun. Plus, their restaurants looks interesting (haven’t tried yet) and sources primarily from their biodynamic ranch. Press Restaurant in St. Helena is probably my favorite restaurant in the area, and I’ve been to several Thomas Keller establishments across my visits.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here