Tasting wine is as much about the wine as it is the place you taste it in. Got great wine in your glass but a self-indulgent server, and who cares? Sampling Sauvignon Blanc in a run down hut might seem cool, but the ambience wears thin. But great wines in a great setting equals a memorable time. These new tasting rooms in each of the main California wine country destinations combine killer juice with a unique vibe; memorable wines with a visceral appeal. (NOTE: this is an expanded version of an article originally published in The Hollywood Reporter)
Santa Barbara: Riverbench Winery
Just a block from the Pacific Ocean, Riverbench’s tasting room, located in Santa Barbara’s downtown trendy Funk Zone, is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But they are also one of the few who make sparkling wine in the area and they offer flights of bubbly, and occasionally Riesling. The brown-shaded tasting room has an entire wall made from the wood of the historic San Ramon Chapel in the Santa Maria Valley built in 1908 (and near to their original tasting room). The wood wall seamlessly blends into the leather benches, giving the feel of rustic chic, with pops of color from accent pillows –it’s a rural setting with sophisticated juice.
Nearby: Head to the Mediterranean influenced restaurant Cadiz for immensely flavorful tapas while you wile the hours away on State St.
Though it’s not actually located underground, this hip and funky converted garage co-op is about being under the radar. The four boutique wineries here craft small lots, less than 500 cases each, made by dudes working at Four Vines, Halter Ranch and L’Aventure, located near the Norman Rockwell-ish downtown park. Considered “the next Napa” by uber critic Robert Parker, Paso is best defined by the lush, ripe wines shown here from tiny wineries like Aaron, Edmund August, Clos Solene, and Turtle Rock Vineyards. The space itself feels more college dorm décor, hastily placed curtains and wood planks atop wine barrels, nothing we haven’t seen before. But the minuscule production of these four terrific wineries is why you’re here. You’ll find a predominance of Rhone whites and reds along with Petite Sirah and a Sauvignon/Riesling blend.
Nearby: The steroid and architecture combination known as the Hearst Castle is a mere 30 minutes away at the coast
Located in Calistoga Amici is not a new player but for years they had no tasting room. Winemaker Joel Aiken was with BV for 27 years making Georges de LaTour private reserve, so it’s a safe bet he knows exactly what he’s doing with Cabernet. The yellow hued tasting room on the second floor of the winery seats just 6 to 8 people, keeping it intimate and comfortable, with French doors leading to a balcony for views of the rugged Mayacamas Mountain range. All wine tasting comes with a cheese platter, all the better to go with their heady, intense and sought after Cabernet Sauvignons. To further insure intimacy, Amici is not easy to find - there isn’t a winery sign on the road, you have to know where it is (wink, wink). Nearby: The coolest art gallery in the area is at The Hess Collection.
Most wineries seem to think crowded tasting rooms replete with forgettable local art is what people crave. But at Ram's Gate you feel like you're visiting a friend's weekend house in wine country, albeit designed by an interior designer who has worked with Mandarin Oriental group. You can choose from a variety of areas in which to taste the wines: the pavilion with a view of the pond, on either side of the double-sided outdoor fireplace, inside at the bar, in the library or even at the chef's table and there are various wine and food pairing options. The 30 foot ceilings, exposed beams, weathered wooden walls made of reclaimed snow-fencing from Wyoming, and massive floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open to sweeping vineyard views are in concert with their Pinot Noirs, Chardonnay and quite excellent Syrah – expansive and remarkable. This is not sport tasting, this is a multi-hour experience.
Nearby: You’ll love the Sonoma/Marin Cheese Trail sampling the area’s artisan cheeses.
Talbott Winery has long been one of the go-to Monterey producers for excessively good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When owner Robb Talbott opened up a new Carmel Valley tasting room in May he combined two other of his passions: motorcycles and vintage peddle cars. You read that right…peddle cars, as in those tinny things your grandfather peddled round in when he lived in the Old Country. With a stellar collection of motorcycles and peddle cars from France, the U.S. and Germany, the sleek, polished wood toned room is imbued with the wow factor the moment you enter. The wines too are made to wow and Talbott’s Pinots and Chards reign as some of the best; seamless and beautifully seductive in this region known for top quality Pinot and Chard. Therefore to have both is exceptional and an experience you will remember.
Nearby: 17 Mile Drive and the Monterey Bay Aquarium offer diverse experiences.
The Sierra Foothills, known as gold country due to the 1848 gold discovery, brought the world to California. These days the gold has dissipated but wine has exploded. Grapes have been grown here since the early 1850s and the oldest commercial winery still stands in Coloma. The Andis tasting room puts that old stone building to shame. Sleek, clean lines and a soft color palette like a pastel Italian spot overlooking Lake Como, this pulls you out of history and places you squarely in the 21st Century. Andis is at the forefront of a resurgence of the region, proving that a gold rush comes in many forms. The flagship Barbera and a racy Semillon are just part of a vast portfolio. Located in the small town of Plymouth just 10 miles from the perennially cute gold mining town of Sutter Creek, Andis is why you need to visit the Foothills.
Nearby: Head to the regions only dining destination, Taste in Plymouth. Visit historic Coloma where gold was discovered on the banks of the American River in 1948, setting off a worldwide stampeded to California.
Phillips Hill in the Anderson Valley integrates history and the cool factor with their all-wood open air tasting room, an antique apple dryer building. Come again? Apples and hops were the main draw in this Valley back in the day, not wine grapes. Being so remote the apple crop needed to be dried prior to interminable shipping to parts unknown. Now, no one dries out at Phillips Hill in their upstairs apple dryer tasting room. It’s mainly Pinot Noir here and a crisp little Gewürztraminer served in this tree-house wine pad. Surrounded by old, verdant green trees, you might lose a sense of time here, everyone else does. That’s the beauty of Phillips Hill - small, remote and still undiscovered.
Nearby: The nation’s first certified organic brew pub, The Ukiah Brewing Co. in Ukiah will give your wine palate a break with beer and grass fed beef.
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