Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Large swaths of beautiful California countryside are dedicated to the production of wine, with boutique and big-name wineries alike producing some of the most famous varietals in the world. After all, Napa Valley wines are up there with Burgundy and Bordeaux in terms of clout.
Idyllic vineyard visits are a lovely part of the California experience, but they're not without their behind-the-scenes stressors: There's the Google mapping, the hours-checking, and of course, the driving or arranging of transportation. Plus, there are literally thousands of California wineries and vineyards to choose from — 3,600 by one count. Even after narrowing it down to a certain region, you're looking at dozens (if not hundreds) of prospective properties.
There is an easier way. Guided wine tours take the legwork and logistics out of the trip. All you have to do is admire the rolling scenery and sip delicious wines at each stop. Maybe take a note or two, if you're so inspired, and doze off as your driver safely gets you home.
The best California wine tours can be geared toward anyone, from total newbies and nightly sippers, to pinot lovers hoping to discover more great reds and couples looking to relive a trip to Provence. They're intimate affairs that favor luxury vehicles and small vans to 50-person buses. The following California wine tours have earned high praise for their tailor-made itineraries and unfailingly kind, informative — and sober — guides and chauffeurs.
Hours of operation and tour offerings may change due to the coronavirus pandemic, so be sure to check ahead before you plan your trip.
Painted Ladies Wine Country Tour
Painted Ladies Tour Company is beloved for their San Francisco city tours tootling around in a (very on-theme) vintage VW bus. The family-run operation also spins their retro wheels through legendary Sonoma Valley on small-group tours to up-and-coming wine producers. Past guests rave about the friendly guides, great road-trip vibe, and the thoughtfully selected lineup that includes an Italian winery for lunch. And don't worry — you'll get a Golden Gate Bridge photo op.
If your group has some beer and whiskey fans in the mix, this Paso Robles company is an excellent choice. Groups aboard Toast's 12-person shuttle buses can visit distilleries, micro-breweries, and even a cidery, as well as local wineries. (Tablas Creek Vineyard is a favorite for its organic Rhone-inspired wines and herd of cute alpacas.) Other tours can combine wine country with two classic California sites: Hearst Castle and Pismo Beach.
Bin 415 Private Tours
Something that sets Bin 415 apart is the fact that its guides are certified sommeliers, so they really, really know their stuff. The SF-based tour group organizes private, totally custom wine trips (via Mercedes SUVs, no less) exploring Sonoma and Napa's celebrated varietals. Guides and the vintners themselves illustrate everything from harvesting grapes to bottling. Lunch is a highlight, with past stops including French country cooking (at The Girl & the Fig in Sonoma) and farm-to-table New American (at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena). For those looking to splurge, Bin 415 will try to snag coveted French Laundry reservations.
Squire Livery Tours
While some winery tours embrace the flash factor — Segways! limo vans! party buses! — the three-person team at Squire Livery Tours keeps things sweet and simple with a two-car fleet and a hosting style that's nothing short of a delight. Run by the knowledgeable Kent Higginbotham, a true Napa/Sonoma connoisseur who's lived in the valley most of his life, Squire lets you be as hands-on or -off as you'd like — let them know what you'd like to try (you could, for example, mention that you're a sucker for riesling or want to learn more about cabernet sauvignon) or simply leave everything to the guides. When possible, they'll arrange for private tastings at times when the estate is closed to the public, something vintners often do for VIPs and industry insiders. Past guests regularly gush about Squire guides' expertise and genuine warmth, and report never feeling rushed or overwhelmed.
Baja California Wine Tours
If you're visiting San Diego, consider swapping the craft breweries of North Park and Ocean Beach for the highland vineyards of northwest Mexico. With San Diego as its starting point, Baja California Wine Tours leads day trips or even overnights to the famous Valle de Guadalupe, where the altitude, soil, and Mediterranean-like climate grow everything from chardonnay to malbec. Spectacular mountain scenery is a given, and tours can include stops at a 19th-century horse ranch, the studio whose water tanks were used to film Titanic and Deep Blue Sea, and laid-back Mexican beach towns like Ensenada and Rosarito for fresh ceviche and horseback-riding on the sand.
Food & Farm Tours
A day dedicated to wine, cheese, and baby goats? Irresistible. Food & Farm Tours celebrates Northern California's glorious food scene with tours to artisanal food producers and organic farms in Marin and Sonoma counties. The most popular circuit goes to Hog Island Oyster Farm, Cowgirl Creamery, and Brickmaiden Breads, but tailored tours can include sampling crave-worthy sparkling honey wine at Heidrun Meadery or certified organic whites and reds at McEvoy Ranch.
Sustainable Wine Tours
Sustainable Wine Tours specializes in day trips exploring Santa Ynez Valley, one of the five viticultural areas in Santa Barbara wine country. At the helm of Tesla SUVs or Mercedes Sprinters, tour guides bring small parties to a handful of the region's friendly, family-owned wine operations for private tastings. While sampling bottles and charcuterie boards, guests learn about the winemaking process — from picking fruits to fermenting — from estate owners and winemakers.
Noble Wine Tours
Even if you consider yourself somewhat of a wine expert, trying to nail down which of Napa and Sonoma's hundreds (and hundreds) of wineries to visit is daunting. Noble Wine's Austin Smith takes research out of the equation with his bespoke itineraries based on guest likes, preferences, and interests. Have a thing for pét-nat? Want to visit the winery that put Napa on the map after famously dethroning noble French wines in a blind-tasting competition? (Wine rookies without a clue where to begin are in great hands, too.) Nearly everyone who's vineyard-hopped with Noble praises Smith for his courteousness, professionalism, and insane knowledge on all things California wine. He also doubles as a photographer, keeping a pro camera on hand to help capture the day.
West Wine Tours
West Wine Tours are designed to provide both a fun intro to Sonoma wines and easy transport — in this case, courtesy of bright VW vans refurbished with chic seating nooks ready for their moment on social media. The company's "Women in Wine Country" tour focuses on woman-led wineries, with stops at Fantesca Estate & Winery, St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery (owner Elaine St. Clair is the only female commercial winemaker and brewer in the United States), and the ultra-friendly Crocker & Starr in St. Helena, where co-owner Pam Starr and winemaker Evyn Cameron produce superlative, sustainable wines, including well-loved cabernet francs and sauvignon blancs.
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