If you’re looking to take a weekend to go wine tasting, why not make it an adventure by staying local?
Southern California isn’t known for its vintners the way that the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are up farther north, but you can get an experience drinking wines here at vineyards and tasting rooms that don’t try to be so European.
They don’t even try to be Californian. They just try to be interesting and delicious and to keep people coming back.
I don’t expect that anyone would travel very far from anywhere else in the state – or beyond – to “do” the wine country here. But if you’re up for exploring, or you want to introduce some out-of-town visitors to Southern California wine, here are five great nearby and under-appreciated wine regions. These off-the-beaten-path stops are a great way to meet locals, be they the winemakers themselves or the “regulars” who come to drink their favorites.
It may not occur to you to go south – much less, inland – to go wine tasting, but Temecula doesn’t get its due credit. First and foremost, it is really fun. And there are so many wineries in Temecula – along two different major trails – that you can try something new with each visit, and never really have to repeat yourself. Situated halfway between L.A. and San Diego, it’s easy to get to, even for just a day trip. But the “pros” know that the way to do Temecula is to drink all day, crash early and spend the night, and then get up before dawn to take a sunrise balloon ride. If you’re still thirsty, your pilot will pour you some celebratory champagne upon landing.
Don’t be ashamed if you didn’t know that we have our own wine country here in L.A. County. It’s one of our many secrets, guarded so closely so we can keep it all to ourselves. But you’d never know that if you visited the Malibu Wines outdoor tasting room on a Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, because every place you can drink wine in Malibu is so good, and there aren’t that many places, they can get a little crowded. For a more intimate experience, drink Malibu wine at one of their other tasting rooms – like in Westlake Village, on The Queen Mary, or at Angeles National Golf Club. For a truly unique experience while you’re drinking great wine from locally-grown grapes, book a Malibu Wine Safari (or a hike!) at Saddlerock Ranch, across the way. And while there are other tasting rooms to try (venturing also into Agoura Hills and down to the PCH), the truly authentic experience is to actually visit where the wine is created. Rosenthal conducts occasional guided tours of their Malibu estate – with wine and cheese, of course – by advance ticket purchase, if you’re not a member of the wine club. But with such great wine so close, just join the wine club.
San Diego County
You could start your wine tasting trip at the theme park-like Bernardo Winery within San Diego city limits, but then just spend the rest of it in the greater Ramona Valley. It’s been exploding over the last five or so years, particularly along Highway 78 between Ramona and the quaint hamlet of Julian. San Diego’s wine offerings are actually more far-reaching than that, so head north of Julian along Highway 79 to hit a couple of spots in Warner Springs, a charming town along an old stagecoach route that the Pacific Crest Trail cuts right through. Or, head south for The Wineries on Highway 94, an incredibly scenic route that dips down towards and then follows the Mexican border eastwards. Stop at the railroad museum in Campo, and maybe even take a historic train ride.
Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico
Mexico has a wine region? Yes it does – in Baja, California! While it’s a relatively easy drive from San Diego or even L.A., you might feel a little more at ease with your adventure south of the border with a guided tour that also provides transportation. Turista Libre tends to cater to a younger American crowd, and Club Tengo Hambre can bring you to all the authentic Baja “foodie” spots to keep your stomach full while you’re wetting your whistle (with wine, beer, tequila, or whatever you like). Aside from upstart vineyards intent on making varietals and blends that taste distinctly Mexican, you can also get great wine with your dinner at any of the restaurants that have been exploding onto the scene that have been taking full advantage of all of Baja’s local flavors. If you’re spending the night, just go “glamping” at Cuatro Cuatros. They’ve got their own tasting room with an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean. There’s really nothing else like it.
Highway 14, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys
Wherever you’re going while you’re headed north up the 14 freeway, you may never get there if you discover how many wineries there are along the way. They’re all pretty unique – even if just for their location, tucked in the valley with Angeles National Forest to the south and the San Andreas Fault crossing their paths. Hike Vasquez Rocks and then drink wine. Pick cherries in Leona Valley and then drink wine. Go look at the poppies and then drink wine. And don’t dismiss Antelope Valley Winery, just because it’s within Lancaster city limits. Both the reds and the whites are good enough to bring a bottle (or two) home with you – and they sell a variety of other gifts and goods to carry out, like exotic meats.