For many, a day spent wine tasting is an escape. Many wineries are set in the midst of gorgeous natural surroundings, and while sipping wine, we often feel transported to some far-off place. For some, wine tasting is a hobby and an opportunity to learn about where wine grapes are grown, how wine is made, the differences from one wine to the next, and how wines transform or shine when paired with food. Still, for others, wine tasting provides the backdrop for adventure. Whether escape, hobby or adventure, wine tasting often brings more than just, well, wine. Here are some of the most memorable wine-tasting experiences found throughout the region. Pour yourself a glass and let the fun begin!
The Crystal Cellar
Just imagine your friends’ faces when you arrive at your next dinner party and announce, “I brought a bottle of wine that I blended myself!” There is no need to simply imagine—this experience is one of many offered by Raymond Vineyards.
“I want to transport people to another place. Make them dream,” says Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley. Located in Rutherford just off Highway 29, Raymond Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in the valley, dating back to 1971. It was purchased in 2009 by the Boisset family and has since been reinvented as a place for visitors to experience wine in a variety of environments.
Winemaker for a Day—For $125, you can live the dream. In the blending room, a winemaker will teach you to create your own bordeaux-style red. You’ll bottle it, cork it, even slap on your own custom-designed label before you take it home. Advance reservations are required.
The Red Room—Opulently decorated in red crushed velvet, dark woods and chandeliers, this space invites guests to enjoy wines by the bottle, by reservation.
The Red Room
Theater of Nature—Take a stroll through Raymond’s biodynamically and organically farmed garden while you breathe in the fresh air and take in the beauty of the valley.
The Crystal Cellar—In this stainless-walled space inspired by candlelit cellars of France and anchored by a Baccarat chandelier, guests can belly up to the mirrored bar and taste Raymond’s flagship cabs poured from historic handcrafted crystal decanters, also by Baccarat. $35 for decanter tasting, reservations required.
1584 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Imagine yourself at a sun-soaked villa, seated in the shade of a vine-wrapped pergola. The breeze is blowing, and you’re feeling relaxed. Before you awaits the first of four courses, locally sourced, beautifully prepared dishes that have been expertly paired with a specially selected glass of wine. You take a sip . . . delicious. Your first bite is scrumptious. Then you try wine and food together and the pairing is so delightful you close your eyes, completely present and happy in the moment.
Visitors can experience such gustatory zen with the Summer Pairings and Brunch & Bubbles prix-fixe menus at Miraflores Winery. Miraflores is off the beaten track, nestled among the pine trees at nearly 2,400 feet in elevation. Visitors who make the journey are greeted by a stunning Mediterranean-style building that rises amid 42 acres of rolling vineyards in Pleasant Valley, a tucked-away corner of El Dorado County. Established in 1998, Miraflores Winery was brought to life and purpose by its owner, Dr. Victor Alvarez, with the help of renowned winemaker Marco Capelli. The winemaking team focuses on reds, many of which have received high praise from the likes of Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and the San Francisco Chronicle.
On weekends through September, the winery welcomes guest chefs who prepare themed multicourse menus. Ashlee Cuneo, general manager and one of Miraflores’ on-site sommeliers, selects a different wine (or designer mimosa for brunches) for each course. For example, guests with reservations for the Summer Pairing featuring Carl Williams (Sept. 25 and 26) will be treated to chili lime-spiked watermelon and feta field green salad paired with Miraflores 2019 Estate Muscat Canelli and Nashville-style hot fried chicken on white bread with house-made pickles paired with Miraflores 2017 Estate Grenache.
“The pairings lunches or Brunch & Bubbles are unlike any other food-and-wine pairing experience in El Dorado County or even Napa or Sonoma, especially for the price,” says Cuneo, pointing out that the pairings have developed a cultlike following among fans. Each event runs $69 per person.
Miraflores aims to offer an experience that engages all of the senses. From visually stunning surroundings to the aroma of fresh mountain air to the sublime taste of meticulously curated food and wine, Miraflores offers an invitation to escape, slow down and mindfully appreciate the moment. The menus are diverse and include a wide range of ingredients (many sourced locally) and culinary styles.
2120 Four Springs Trail, Placerville;
Just outside of Galt, east of Highway 99, Valensin Waterski Ranch includes a 15-acre, turquoise-blue lake surrounded by tall trees and grapevines. During its history, it has served as a vacation center for water-skiing enthusiasts from Canada and the United States.
The property, which also has accommodations for visiting water-skiing students, was purchased a couple of years ago by wine-industry veterans Colleen and Kirk Ruffell. Upon their takeover, they incorporated an 11-acre on-site vineyard that was planted 18 to 20 years ago, and they’ve opened Valensin Vineyard & Winery.
Visitors can make reservations and enjoy a glass or bottle of their wine—named The Plunge, produced from locally grown fruit—while overlooking the water. Adirondack chairs skirt the sandy edge of the lake, and other seating is available on the floating deck behind the tasting room. If no water skiing is underway, visitors can rent pedal boats and sip wine as they cruise on the water. The Ruffells also have incorporated other goodies such as stand-up paddle boards, live music and food trucks.
10675 Valensin Road, Galt;
Beginning in June, Rombauer started offering craft classes once a month for visitors who want to sip wine and engage their inner artist. The first class, a paint party, was a huge success. Sacramento resident Jessica Maloh attended and declared, “It was my first time doing a night like that and it was so much fun! I always love the wine, and the food was good, but I’m surprisingly proud of my painting. It’s going in my home office.”
Upcoming classes include succulent terrariums (Aug. 27), a paint party (Sept. 24) and wreath making (Dec. 10). Each class is taught by a local artist. Kimberly Godinho, owner of The Painted Cork, will run the paint party, and Chloe Noggle, owner of Noggle Gardens, will teach the succulent and wreath classes. Tickets are $85 and include the craft materials and supplies, a selection of snacks and, of course, wine to sip throughout the evening. Reservations and prepayment are required in order to secure a seat.
“This is a night full of fun, laughter and good wine,” says Heather McCarthy, Rombauer’s director of marketing. “No matter what your artistic skill level is, you will be amazed at what you will be able to create at the end of the night!”
12225 Steiner Road, Plymouth;
Casino Mine Ranch
Casino Mine Ranch chief of staff Mackenzie Cecchi leads a tour of the vineyard.
Casino Mine Ranch was originally established as a gold mine in 1936 by Simone Vanophem Shaw, who named the place Casino Mine Ranch because, at the time, it was considered “a gamble” that there would be any gold found on the property. No gold was ever found at the ranch, and the mining operations were shut down and attention turned to raising sheep and growing walnuts.
According to family lore, Shaw entertained lavishly, and wine was always on the table. Paying homage to her legacy, in 2011 two of Shaw’s great-nephews planted 12 acres of wine grapes and established the winery on this original piece of mining property in Amador County.
Rustic and wild, the winery is sure to transport visitors back to another time, decades ago, when merely surviving was a daily concern. “When we were kids at the ranch, Aunt Simone was afraid we’d be bitten by a rattlesnake, fall into a gold mine or get eaten by a mountain lion,” says Casino Mine Ranch’s vintner, Rich Merryman.
To celebrate the rich history of the property, visitors can reserve a tasting and tour for $20; it includes a stroll around the 60-acre estate and a visit to the original 85-year-old gold mine. Along the way, they can take in the incredible views of the vineyard while tasting Casino Mine Ranch’s 100% estate-grown wines made by Jessica Tarpy Shaheen and Andy Erickson. As an added perk, visitors can shoot a basket on the on-site NBA regulation-sized indoor basketball court.
Casino Mine Ranch
13608 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth;
At the north end of Napa Valley, the small and bustling community of Calistoga teems with shops, spas, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants and art galleries. Picayune Cellars fills two categories: it’s part wine tasting room, part boutique. Visitors can shop a thoughtfully curated collection of handcrafted products while sipping beautifully made wines from owner and winemaker Claire Weinkauf.
Weinkauf was born in France, and her French sensibilities have permeated her business. After making wine for Paul Hobbs and growing an impressive list of clients as a winemaking consultant, she created the Picayune brand in 2011. It was established as a negociant label—meaning she purchases fruit and juice from other growers and producers, rather than owning vineyards, and crafts them into the style of wine she likes to drink. Picayune wines celebrate the generosity of California fruit while retaining a juiciness and brightness that make the next glass just as enjoyable as the first. This makes her wines a wonderful complement to food.
The winery eventually outgrew its original tasting space, so Weinkauf expanded to a larger space in Calistoga. With the move, she had to rethink her business plan because the city limited tasting rooms and required a larger retail presence. This turned out to be a blessing.
In the Picayune mercantile, visitors can taste wine and discover a curated selection of products, including Native American and Western art, Pendleton blankets, French knives, purses made from French and Italian leather, and a variety of gift items. Weinkauf sources items from family-run and women-operated businesses in France and the United States, and much of her inventory holds personal significance or provides a nostalgic touch. Of her tea towel collection, for example, Weinkauf says, “Present to me a French woman that does not have at least 10 jacquard woven tea towels in her kitchen . . . Yes, they are beautiful and addictive. What is so special about them? They are still handmade on huge looms by family-run businesses older than 100 years old. They are practical, 100% cotton, dry extra well. They are decorative on your wall, or on your countertop to present your appetizers or cheese plate. They bring joy with their intense colors that won’t fade—the design is not printed but woven.”
Similarly, she waxes nostalgic when speaking of her decision to carry a selection of knives. “I grew up 15 minutes away from Thiers, the capital of knives for France. My grandpa used to take me there to visit the Musée de la Coutellerie, the museum, and his favorite knifemaker families. When I turned 18, he took us to pick our first pocket knife . . .”
As you might expect, the mercantile is visually stunning, with treasures in every nook and cranny.
1329 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga;
Acquiesce Vineyard & Winery
Photo by Carrie Boyle.
For many years, Lodi’s wine reputation has been intertwined almost exclusively with robust and jammy zinfandels. As it produces approximately 40% of the nation’s zins and is home to some of the oldest zinfandel vines in the country (dating as far back as the 1880s), Lodi has proudly touted its designation as “Zinfandel Capital of the World.”
However, visitors are discovering that Lodi has a few secrets, and it’s a far more diverse wine region than its “Zinfandel Capital” title might suggest. Take, for example, Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, Lodi’s only all-white-wine winery. With 10.5 acres planted almost exclusively with Rhone white wine grapes (there’s a small plot of grenache noir for rosé production), Acquiesce produces wines that are bright, clean, juicy and aromatic. Owned by winemaker Susan Tipton, it has racked up accolades, including numerous double gold, gold and best of class awards and the “best viognier in California” designation from the California State Fair in 2016.
Reservations are required (although walk-in guests are accommodated if there’s space) for the Elevated Tasting Experience. For $20, visitors will sample a flight of four estate white wines; each wine is paired with a carefully created small bite. For example, you might get to try the Acquiesce 2019 Belle Blanc (a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne and viognier) paired with honeyed goat cheese on a lentil twist. The tasting room, in a 100-year-old barn, is artfully decorated and provides a calming ambience.
Acquiesce Vineyard & Winery
22353 N. Tretheway Road, Acampo;
Blending wine, a process where two or more grape varieties are combined, is an old tradition. In fact, some of the greatest and most beloved wines in the world are blends. Winemakers often choose to make a blend to create a wine that is more complete, complex and delicious than any single varietal. A winemaker hopes that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.
Blending wine is an art, and it takes lots of trial and error. Luckily, thanks to Willamette Wineworks in Folsom, anyone can try their hand at blending. Wine enthusiasts have the opportunity to taste and experiment with a selection of samples of single-varietal wines and combine them to make their own one-of-a-kind wine.
For $20 per person, guests are given a glass, six ounces of wine to experiment with, bread sticks and water. The wines available for blending include a Russian River syrah, Napa Valley cabernet, Napa Valley merlot and Lodi zinfandel. Small samples of each wine are dispensed through a large steampunk-style machine, complete with buttons and dials. Each wine is first tasted on its own. Then, based on each wine’s traits, visitors choose what percentage of each they’d like in their final blend. Once portions have been chosen, those decisions are input into the wine-blending contraption, and the final concoction is dispensed into the glass. Once a perfect blend has been achieved, guests have the option to purchase a growler of their creation to take home.
824 Sutter St., Folsom;
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and BLM protests in summer 2020, Jill Osur considered ways to create positive change, to align her values with her actions. She decided to form a company with a specific goal: to elevate and support women and the causes important to them. The result was a new kind of winery. Teneral Cellars produces “incredible wine for a like-minded, mission-driven community that sips, creates and acts with purpose,” as the tagline goes.
Based in Fair Play in El Dorado County, Teneral Cellars designed its customers’ experiences to be virtual from the start. There is no tasting room to visit. Its wines, made from grapes grown using sustainable practices, are available online and best accessed through the digital wine club, The Swarm. Wine is just a part of the effort, serving as an instrument to bring like-minded individuals to a community that seeks to make the world a more welcoming and just place. Swarm members have access to a calendar of online events that include cooking classes, wine tastings, live music and panel discussions on a wide range of women’s topics. A portion of each wine club shipment is donated to a charity that supports the designated theme. For example, the first Swarm release, which debuted in March for Women’s History Month, included wines that paid tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a portion of the proceeds went to the National Law Center. The second release was themed Love Is Love and celebrated inclusivity and love in all its forms. Proceeds from these wine club sales benefited The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, for the LGBTQ community. The third wine club release will be called the Grit and Grace Collection and will pay homage to the grit and grace of all women.
“Women are underestimated every day,” says Osur. “They are passed up for power positions, kept out of important conversations about their own well-being, held back by misconceptions and yet are the gateway to existence. Women defy odds, raise up generations and bear the emotional stability of communities, and that needs to be celebrated.”
Within each shipment, members will find their wine selections and a QR code that links them to recipes, a letter explaining the significance of the current collection and information about the collection’s benefiting organization. Each label’s original artwork is designed by a woman or someone supportive of the community.
No tasting room, online only.
Falconry, according to Oxford, is “the sport of hunting with falcons or other birds of prey; the keeping and training of such birds.” The practice is believed to have originated as many as 10,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest recorded sports. In medieval times, falconry denoted an elevated status and was practiced by royalty. Much of the equipment used today, like hoods and jesses (short leather straps secured around a raptor’s legs), remains relatively unchanged from ancient times.
Some wineries have employed falconry as a method of pest control and eradication. Falcons, hawks and other birds of prey patrol vineyards to flush out and scare off invasive birds or other critters that might threaten the integrity of a vineyard as grapes ripen.
“Falconry helps us maintain our commitment to sustainable farming, but it’s also just an amazing thing to witness,” says Chris Kajani, winemaker and general manager at Bouchaine Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Carneros.
Bouchaine now offers guests an exhilarating experience that allows them to sip wine and interact face-to-face with one of these majestic birds of prey—all while learning to appreciate the sport and the historical and cultural significance of falconry. Master falconer Kate Marden, the owner of West Coast Falconry, holds demonstrations for small groups at Bouchaine Wednesday through Friday at 9:30 a.m. Participants are taught basic signals and commands, and are welcomed to don a leather glove and engage in up-close interactions with a featured falcon. Reservations cost $75 per person.
Once the demonstration has concluded, guests can enjoy the wine, ask questions and take selfies with the feathered guest of honor. Guests may continue their visit at Bouchaine in one of two tasting spaces: the Gardens at the Tasting Room or the new Hospitality Center’s terrace. Reservations are required for both areas.
1075 Buchli Station Road, Napa;
Photo by Carrie Boyle.
The Placer Wine Trail is like your introverted best friend at a party. You want everyone to meet them, but they are content to sit in the corner, sipping their drink while observing the room. They will happily chat with you if you approach, but otherwise they keep to themselves even though they have lots of interesting history and comments to contribute.
Just like your bestie, the wineries in Placer County keep a low profile but offer some out-of-the-box experiences for visitors on a mission to discover something new. For example, Viña Castellano. The winery sits on a fairy-tale-like property in Auburn that has been the family residence more than 50 years.
The winery produces Mediterranean varieties of wine—paying special attention to Spanish varietals such as tempranillo and monastrell (also known as mourvèdre)—to pay homage to the family’s Spanish heritage and winemaking traditions.
“We have tried to create an atmosphere that is family-centric and that mimics the very Spanish lifestyle in which we were raised, one that revolves around eating as a family and wine as the entity that is part of the meal which aids in digestion and that keeps you sane, as my abuelita would describe it,” says Augustina Wilkins, managing partner of the estate. “We hope guests at Viña Castellano will feel like they have gone back to a time . . . where we were all a bit less uptight and free to laugh, converse, eat, drink and debate with only the purpose of feeling like family.”
On the property, guests have a number of options for their visit. They can have a relaxing visit out of the reach of the sun—in the cool, dark stone cave—while sipping on a flight of wines. They are also welcome to head out to the Cabana Bar for a seat in the grass, overlooking the water, vineyards and trees, while music plays in the background. At the bar, wine by the glass or by the bottle, wine cocktails, wine spritzers and sangria are available for purchase. Guests can also bring their own picnics or pre-order a “Tapa Tier”—a small jar filled with meats, cheeses, almonds, fruit and the like. Larger tapas boxes containing Spanish meats and cheeses, Marcona almonds, olives, tapenades and chocolate for two to three people can also be pre-ordered.
Through September, the winery stays open until 8 p.m. on Saturdays with rotating entertainment, including live music and lawn games such as Jenga, cornhole and croquet.
4590 Bell Road, Auburn;
Photo by Carrie Boyle.
Established in 1973, Story Winery has a long history of producing small lots of wine from locally grown vines that are head trained and dry farmed. Mission and zinfandel grapevines that were planted more than 100 years ago can still be found producing fruit on the breathtaking property at the edge of the Cosumnes River canyon.
In 2019, a businessman from Georgia (the country, not the state), David Dediashvili, purchased Story Winery and committed to protecting Story’s traditions and history as one of the oldest wineries in Amador County. He retained winemaker Rob Campbell, who has continued to make the wines for which the winery is known. However, Dediashvili has introduced something new by offering something old. He’s incorporating Georgian winemaking traditions that have been handed down in his family and community for generations.
Georgian winemaker George Bakuradze has joined the winery’s team. Wines made in Georgia have been labeled with the Story Winery brand and imported for sale at the property in Plymouth. Visitors can sample the ripe, heady wines on which Amador County has built its reputation alongside Georgian favorites like Rkatsiteli (white) and Saperavi (red).
Photo by Carrie Boyle.
Additionally, to further showcase their wine heritage and hospitality, themed parties featuring Georgian wine, food and music are held for wine club members on a monthly basis. Story will also be bottling its first California wine made in qvevri—large, egg-shaped clay vessels lined with beeswax that house the grape juice until it has fermented. These containers have been used in Georgian winemaking for centuries. In fact, archaeological evidence found just south of the nation’s capital, Tbilisi, has shown qvevri going back some 8,000 years, making Georgia the birthplace of wine, a designation Georgians honor and celebrate. Dediashvili brought numerous qvevri from his homeland; six are buried in the ground on the Story property and will give rise to the first chardonnay, zinfandel and syrah made the ancient way at the winery.
10525 Bell Road, Plymouth;