Take strikingly golden hills sculpted by green live oak, fragrant bay, laurel and madrone, drenched in sun during the day and kissed by cooling ocean fog at night. Add picturesque winding roads that follow river bottoms past acre upon acre of vines heralding the tasting rooms of wineries that produce a few hundred to thousands of cases each year. Throw in fantastic restaurants and some of the best campgrounds you’ve ever plugged into, and you’ve got only a taste of what’s available when you set a course to explore California’s wine country and linger over a bottle of pinot, zin, cab or whatever suits your palate.
Touring this state’s wine-producing districts—and for this article, we’ll concentrate on just four of at least 46 counties making great wines here—is a treat to the palate and the eye, from the moment you pull into a winery parking lot, to the anticipation of that first sample pour, and the smug satisfaction of knowing that the wine you walk out with to serve your friends back home may not be available anywhere else.
The problem many run into, however, is choice. With more than 400 wineries in Sonoma County alone, and more than 400 in Napa too, where to start? How do you narrow this mind-boggling search that otherwise would leave anyone frustrated, possibly confused, and certainly parched? We’ll tell you how we did it, and share some of the favorite places we visited during a seven-week trip.
Picking a good central campground or campgrounds is the first step, and we’ve got several that we can highly recommend, depending on your rig. I say that because at least two may not be suitable for bigger RVs, especially with “toads.” Then choose which wine regions to visit, so your ducks, campgrounds and counties are all in a row. Our choices: Mendocino County, then moving just to the south, Sonoma, inland to Napa, of course, and to our eastern-most location, the relatively undiscovered (read: inexpensive) but very special wineries of Amador County.
Now fortunately for us, we left the region only days before the September 2014 earthquake that caused hundreds of injuries and damage to some Sonoma wineries. Fortunately the campgrounds we picked didn’t suffer any major damage. They’re all ready and waiting for you, as are all of the wineries.
First, a few tips. Pick a winery by deciding what wine you like. Even within wine types, taste varies by winery and each winemaker’s individual taste. I’ve had some petite syrahs from one winery that tasted good, but weren’t remarkable, while a few miles away, I gushed over one far superior that tasted like liquid caramel, at least on my palate. If you have a friend or relative who can recommend a specific winery, and your tastes are similar, trust them and go. Above all, while all this can be pretty intimidating, don’t let it be. If you find a wine you enjoy, then do it, and let the bottles—and recommenders, be it a best friend, or those now-ubiquitous points ratings—fall where they may.
California’s Highway 1 sweeps, dives and rises while the white waves of the Pacific— not being so pacifico when we passed—roll onto the beaches near Fort Bragg. The Mendocino County region may be more known for reports that half the population is engaged in the clandestine marijuana industry, but just inland is the first wine-growing district we encountered coming south from redwood country near the Oregon border.
Here where California’s golden hills swell up from the Pacific is the leading edge of its great wine-growing regions. But, like letting a good wine breathe before that first swish and swirl, we checked into our campground first. Russian Gulch State Park is nestled, in, well, a gulch, along the Pacific, out of the sometimes-windy conditions lashing other campers who choose instead the treeless bluffs at nearby state facilities overlooking the Pacific’s breakers. Russian Gulch, which is reached by a narrow road that serpentines along a steep cliff, became a state park in 1933, after a life as a sometimes dangerous—depending on the waves—port for redwood lumbering. Redwoods taken out of the gulch provided many of the ties for the transcontinental railroad. Besides being close to our first winery stops, the park sports more than a mile of oceanfront, a swimming beach, and areas for snorkeling, diving, fishing, plus a three-mile bike trail into the heavily forested canyon you’ll be staying in. Sites are quiet, roomy and made private by plenty of shrubs. Check out the hiking trails into the hills, and to the “blowhole,” a wave-made tunnel about 200 feet inland where you can watch ocean swells at high tide.
One proviso: the twisty approach road limits RV and trailer lengths to 24 feet. So, if yours is larger, head instead to the sites along Highway 1 looking over the Pacific headlands, or others like Van Damme State Park to the south, or the redwood groves of Hendy Woods or Navarro River Redwoods state parks a bit farther inland. And, speaking of Navarro, wherever you land, get ready to sip and spit the next day at a couple of nearby wineries that won’t disappoint, including one with that name.
Southeast of Russian Gulch on California 128, Navarro Vineyards occupies part of the eastern Anderson Valley’s picturesque hillsides, just north of the community of Philo, population about 450. Growing grapes since 1974, it first gained international acclaim for its Riesling, but all its varietals, from its juicy zinfandel to subtle pinot, deserve a definite linger in its rustic-looking tasting room. Last year, Navarro earned more recognition when it was named Winery of the Year at the California State Fair.
Just down Highway 128 is a dirt road leading to Tolouse Vineyards, where you will learn why it’s sometimes good to test your boundaries and try a winery that you’ve not heard of, especially in California. Noted as a “boutique” winery because of its limited production, Toulouse bottles two reds, both pinots, and two whites, a pinot gris, and a gewurztraumeiner, with samples served in a cozy tasting room amidst one of the most photogenic settings you’ll encounter.
About two-dozen other wineries dot Highway 128 between Navarro and Yorkville. More are along U.S. 101 inland. (You can download a Mendocino County Wine Map at visitmendocino.com.)
Sonoma and Napa are arguably California’s most famous wine-producing counties, sporting multiple regions, with some definite favorites. Because of the area’s reputation, expect to pay more per bottle.
The campground where we headquartered to tour both counties was perfect from every standpoint. I usually prefer state and national forest campgrounds instead of modern RV parks, but the San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA is outstanding. The best KOA I’ve ever pulled into, period. It has a nice pool, outdoor kitchen, daily tours to San Francisco in the summer, kids programs, bike rentals, wine country information and more. While the campground is near Highway 101, highway noise is non-existent. It has everything from widely spaced, full hookup sites big enough for a diesel pusher to spaces for self-contained units and tents.
You can find information on wineries and tourist destinations in Sonoma County at the county’s tourism website, sonomacounty.com, and at sonomatouristguide.com. Some wineries here offer free tasting, or knock off the cost if you buy something, but most will charge per visit, so do your homework beforehand, pick a dozen or so populating the three important growing regions—Sonoma, Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys—and have at it. Most of all, trust your instincts and your palate. Here are some suggestions we’re personally fond of:
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery:
An aerie perched atop the Sonoma hills southwest of Healdsburg, this is one of the county’s most picturesque wineries. Reached by a steep, winding road that will be a challenge to larger RVs (so come in your toad), the winery is perfectly positioned for an afternoon visit. You can sit on the patio sipping boutique golden chardonnay or fruity prize-winning pinot noir as you watch the raptors ride the upswells above the Russian River. Stunning. The winery is not owned anymore by Farrell, who has moved on to found the boutique Alysian winery in the Russian River Valley, but its new owners have brought the label back. It is definitely worth a visit, as is Alysian.
You’ll get more bang for your sipping buck at Dashe Cellars, near Healdsburg, because its tasting room is part of the Family Wineries of Dry Creek, a cooperative of six. Among Dashe’s offerings are several great deep zinfandels including a zin dessert wine.
The Wine Road:
The northern Sonoma County region has so many wineries along its two-lane highways, like California 12 and 128, that it boggles the mind. For a wine nut, as the slogan says, this is truly Heaven Condensed. Larger rigs should have no trouble negotiating the more traveled roads like Highway 12, but if you’ve got one save yourself the aggravation and drive your toad here, as the farther one gets onto roads like West Dry Creek, the narrower they get. Among the wineries to visit: Paradise Ridge, reliable big producers like St. Francis, Kendall-Jackson, Clos Do Bois, and Chateau St. Jean and smaller outlets like Jordan, Imagery, Dutton Estate, J Vineyards and Winery, and Gundlach Bundschu.
There are many dining choices, but for some truly memorable experiences, head to the coast and Bodega Bay, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. Other worthy eateries in the county include the Glen Ellen Star in Glen Ellen, and for great food and accompanying prices, John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa.
Another good camping option beside the KOA is the 49-site campground at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, 1,200 feet above the valley. But the maximum lengths are 24 feet for trailers and 27 feet for motorhomes.
If pinot, chard and zinfandel are king in Sonoma, cabernet holds that place in Napa, the county most people think of when they think of California wine. It’s the priciest county to visit due to its tasting room fees and bottle prices that sometimes are higher than at wine stores.
The same rules apply here as in Sonoma: two-behinds work best on its twisty roads. But along St. Helena Highway, wineries are easily accessible. Orin Swift Cellars is a must. Varieties like The Prisoner, Saldo and other blends are feasts to the taste buds. Also hit Heitz and Merryvale, among others here. In the shadow of famed Atlas Peak, make an appointment at William Hill, and also stop for tasting in the Stags Leap district at Shafer, Sinsky, and for zin, Biale, all along Silverado Trail, or pick from the scores of others along neighboring California 128.
Welcome to undiscovered country. Centered on the small town of Plymouth, the wineries in Amador are what those in Sonoma and Napa counties offered maybe 30 years ago. In other words, fantastic wines at reasonable cost, especially zinfandels.
There are several campgrounds in the area that are loaded with amenities. The Far Horizons 49er Village a Good Sam park, is along California Highway 49 just outside Plymouth. A little farther away are the Gold Country Campground Resort in Pine Grove and Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort in Jackson.
Must stops here include Jeff Runquist Wines, where that caramel-like petite syrah is casked. Just down the road is Renwood Winery, which seems to have regained its former prominence; Young’s, sporting especially beautiful labels foretelling what’s inside each great bottle, and Turley. Small Dobra Zemlja specializes in “big” reds, meaning high alcohol content, and may also deserve a sip. You’ve got almost 40 more to choose from occupying the rolling hills here. Most of the wineries are RV-accessible, but it always pays to check
That’s my primer to wine country camping. My favorites may or may not become yours. But it sure will be fun to see!
When Bill Semion is not in his truck camper or the Pleasure-Way Sprinter he and Denise just purchased—the camper is for sale by the way—, he spends as much time as he can chasing trout and walleye across the country.