FareCompare 4×4: Travel Tips for The Southern California Wine Country

Our latest guest on the 4×4 is Jessyca Frederick. Jessyca writes for Grape Smart, Wine Club Reviews, and Today’s Hot Wine Deal, so we knew she was the perfect person to talk to about planning a getaway to Southern California’s wine country.

We caught up with Jessyca (via email) to discover the best time to visit Southern California, some must-see wineries, and much more. Pour yourself a glass and enjoy:

1. When-to-Fly

Is there a particular wine tasting season is Southern California, or is the wine country worth a visit year-round?

Sping Santa Ynez Wine Country

Southern California is beautiful all year, but there are always best times to visit. As a resident, my favorite times of year are the off-peak travel seasons when there are relatively few tourists. These also happen to be times when we get the best weather and enjoy the abundance of nature.

Most of the year the rolling hills and softer mountains of Southern California are a light brown color, spotted with majestic Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia). They’re glorious at sunset when they light up to a brilliant golden color.

In February and March (and some years into May), these brown beauties turn vibrant green and are covered in wildflowers. Blankets of yellow, orange, purple, and white wildflowers top the green carpet of renewed grasses. The grapevines are bare and the tasting rooms are empty, but the sun shines and the air is clean and fresh.

Another great time of year to visit is September and October. In September we have the most beautiful and moderate weather that we’ll get all year. In October, the grapevines are preparing for winter, displaying the magnificent colors of deciduous foliage which we don’t see too much of south of Santa Barbara. Of course, as with most of the wine country in the northern hemisphere, October is the time of harvest when the valleys and hillsides are alive with the rush of harvest and festivals to celebrate the bounty.

If you happen to visit wine country in the summer, be prepared for hot weather… those hot summer days and cool summer nights are what make such fantastic wine grapes.

2. Where-to-Go

What are some wineries/locales a first-timer can’t afford to miss?
The main AVAs (American Viticultural Area) in Southern California are Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles (around 1.5 hours apart by car). Which areas you visit, and which of the smaller AVAs contained within the larger ones, depends entirely on what type of wine you love to drink. You’ll find a little bit of everything in both wine countries, but there are definitely specialties.

Sping Santa Ynez Wine Country

If you’re a Pinot Noir lover, you must visit Santa Barbara County, particularly Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Sideways revolutionized Pinot Noir based on this area and it’s home to some of the finest Pinot Noirs made in the United States. Hitching Post is a great location because they do $7 wine tastings at the bar and then serve up a great meal, but definitely make a reservation as they are always jammed. There are other outstanding Pinot Noir producers in this area like: Foley, Brewer-Clifton, Sanford, Foxen, and Summerland.

Other highlights in Santa Barbara County include Los Olivos, a charming village which is home to some of the most prestigious local wineries and the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail which is a beautiful drive punctuated by award-winning wineries. Wineries serving food are rare so I like to build in a visit to Roblar Winery in Santa Ynez (outside of town) when I go tasting in that area.

If you’re into Rhone varietals (the most common are Syrah and Viognier, but there are 20 others), then a trip to Paso Robles is an absolute must. These wines are big, fruit-forward reds and full-bodied whites thanks to the Paso Robles climate. Some of the finest Rhone wines in the United States are coming out of Paso Robles. Highlights include: Lone Madrone, Tablas Creek Vineyards, Anglim Winery, Alta Colina, and Vines on the Marycrest.

Zinfandel lovers also need to make a visit to Paso Robles as this is something the area produces with finesse. Must-visit wineries include Turley Cellars, Peachy Canyon Winery, Four Vines Winery, Ancient Peaks Winery, and Eberle.

3. What-to-Do

Are there any special events worth planning a trip around?
Each of these areas hold festivals all year long. The best sources of information for local festivals are the AVA tourism sites: PasoWine.com and SBCountyWines.com. These sites promote the area’s largest festivals which usually include live music, art, food stands from local restaurants, and of course wine! A word to the wise, book these trips early. The hotel/motel selection in these areas leave a lot to be desired and the best ones fill up fast.

If you’re not a fan of big crowds though, my suggestion is to do a little of your own digging around to find the right events for you. Are any of your favorite wineries in these areas? If they are, I’d suggest giving them a call to see what events they have planned. These events are typically modestly sized and showcase the best or most seasonal wines they offer. Another excellent source of wine event information is LocalWineEvents.com.

4. How-to-Shop

Any tips for saving some money once you’ve made it out to the wine country?
Saving money in wine country? If you figure that one out, tell me about it! The best advice I can give about how to save money in wine country is to avoid the busiest weekends and times of year when hotels are charging premium rates. Also, once you’re there, ask the winery tasting room staff what their favorite restaurants are. You’re more likely to find good value and unique offerings if you don’t choose based on the restaurants that advertise the most.

Photos: Santa Barbara County in Fall, Santa Ynez in Spring, and Paso Robles in Summer all by Jessyca Frederick.

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Follow Jessyca on Twitter @grapesmart and @HotWineDeals


Published: July 7, 2010