Northern California's wine country produces 90 percent of the wine we drink here in the United States, and it boasts thousands of wineries, big and small. Not only are these wineries the country's top producers for vino, but winery tours are a popular tourist destination and a great way for wine lovers to explore California's countryside.
Choosing the right wine country tour can give you a unique experience that you wouldn't have exploring the area on your own. Tours can be anywhere from a few hours to many days, and each wine country excursion offers a unique way to see the area. Whether you're into fast-paced adventures or more of a luxury vacation, read on for some tips on the best ways to enjoy wine country.
Go to Camp
If you're looking for a hands-on wine country experience, Sonoma Grape Camp might be the adventure for you. Rather than just touring wineries, campers get to experience wine from vine to table on this three-day adventure.
At Grape Camp, you get to tour some of Sonoma County's vineyards and take part in the fall grape harvest. The tour includes elaborate meals, wine tastings and lectures, and grape picking at Duff Bevill vineyards. Campers also get to sort the grapes that they pick and learn about wine blending.
Looking for a more active way to explore wine country? Hop on two wheels and check out some cycling adventures on the next page.
Exploring wine country on a bike is a great way to get an up-close look at the beauty of the countryside while still visiting vineyards for tastings. You can rent a bike and do a self-guided tour, or join a bike tour with a guide to show you around.
Don't worry if you're not in tip-top shape. There are wine country bike tours for every skill level. Just make sure you find one that you're comfortable with.
You can opt for a single- or a multi-day bike tour, depending on how much time and energy you have. Most tours include a service to take your baggage from your starting point to your destination, if you don't want to haul too much gear on your bike. Guided tours will also sometimes include your meals, but make sure you check in advance.
If you like things a bit slower-paced, you can ditch the wheels and check out some wine country hiking tours instead.
Novice or experienced hikers can get in touch with nature and take in the wine country on foot. There are hikes available for every skill level, starting as short as a mile (1.6 kilometers) and ranging up to 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more. You can hike ambling trails or tackle some of the mountains around the area that offer stunning vistas after a more strenuous climb.
Some wine country hikes include llamas! Sorry, you can't ride the animals, but the llamas come along to carry your pack, leaving you unburdened by a heavy load as you explore. Llama hikes usually include a picnic lunch, and a llama hike is a great way to get your kids excited about walking the countryside.
Do you prefer rapids to roads? A kayak trip through wine country might be the adventure for you.
Nature lovers can opt to just paddle their way through wine country, or choose a tour that combines a kayak trip with a bike ride or a hike through the area. There are a number of companies that offer kayak tours down the Russian River, some through calm areas and some that include rapids.
Kayak tours tend to start in the late morning and run through the early afternoon, with stops for a picnic lunch and visits to area wineries along the way. Kayaking also allows you to check out wildlife along the river, from snowy egrets and salmon to scenic osprey nesting areas.
Do you prefer an adventure with a bit less in the physical exertion department? Try a decadent limo tour of wine country instead.
A wine country limo tour lets you take in the area's scenic beauty and visit wineries in style. You can enjoy a glass of wine in the limo and gaze out at the rolling countryside as you travel between some of northern California's vineyards.
If you prefer traveling in more retro style, companies like Classic Convertible Wine Tours offer rides in restored, vintage limousines from the 1940s.
The limo tour you choose will most likely depend on your price range. The Classic Convertible Wine Tours are quite pricey, at $120 or more per hour, while you can hop onto a daily wine tour for around $100 per person for the whole day.
If a limo seems a bit too posh, but you'd still like a relaxed wine country adventure, maybe the wine train is more your speed.
Napa Valley's Wine Train travels from Napa to St. Helena in about three and a half hours. You can taste regional wines and dine while checking out the views of wine country from the train's large windows with a tour that starts out with a little bit of wine education.
The wine train is a classic Pullman train with cars from the early 1900s up to the mid 1950s. For an upgrade, you can opt to ride in the 1952 domed rail car, which offers an even more spectacular -- almost 180-degree -- view of the area.
Most of the wine train packages include a complimentary taste of local wine, and there's also a wine tasting car where riders can try an array of regional favorites.
Do you prefer the wind in your hair and a more fast-paced adventure? Travel through wine country on a motorcycle instead.
Whether you're cruising on your own rented Harley or riding in a guided pack, a motorcycle tour offers a unique spin on your wine country adventure. If motorcycling is your thing, there's nothing quite like the ride through California wine country's mountains and valleys. Like with a bike trip, you can opt to rent a motorcycle and explore on your own, or take a guided tour through wine country.
Guided tours can be just a day ride, or anywhere from a few days to even a week long. Riders can travel between wineries and take side trips to do some golfing, shopping or even a take a hot air balloon ride.
For a more leisurely tour that still lets you experience open-air travel, you might like exploring wine country on horseback instead.
Wine country horseback rides offer many different ways for travelers to take in the area. There are horseback tours for every fitness level, so don't worry if you're a novice rider. You can opt to ride through the vineyards of a single winery for just an hour or two, ride wine country trails for a whole day, or even enjoy a horse-and-buggy ride through the area.
Whether you opt for a strenuous trail ride or a relaxed carriage trip, you can explore the stunning vineyards and view wineries from a unique perspective.
If you're looking for more of a rush to go with your adventure, try skydiving into wine country.
Skydiving is the quintessential adventure travel activity, and it's an extreme way to launch your trip into wine country. Just like with any other skydiving adventure, novice jumpers will need to take a certification class, and many companies will include the class in the jumping package for beginners.
A typical jump will take around two to three hours, weather permitting, leaving you plenty of time to tour some area wineries after your jump. Some skydiving companies even partner with wine country tours that depart near the drop zone.
If the elevation appeals to you, but the jumping part isn't your thing, you can experience wine country's panoramic views from a hot air balloon.
The basket of a hot air balloon offers a perfect vantage point to experience California wine country's breathtaking views. Balloon tours take around four to five hours, including time to inflate and deflate the balloon. Don't worry, though: You won't just be sitting around during those parts of the adventure. Balloon companies encourage travelers to help with the inflating and deflating process, and after your ride, you can relax with a picnic lunch and a wine or champagne toast while they wrap things up.
Many balloon companies also offer vacation packages, so after your balloon ride, you can stay at a local inn or winery and keep exploring the area on the ground.
For more articles on wine and travel, check out the links on the next page.
Are you looking for tips for biking through wine country? Check out this article and learn 10 tips for biking through wine country.
- California Wine Industry Statistical Highlights. "California Wine Profile 2010." Wine Institute. April 29, 2011. (June 28, 2011) http://www.wineinstitute.org/files/CA_EIR_Flyer_2011_Apr15.pdf
- California Wine Tours. "Napa and Sonoma Wine Tours and Transportation." (July 1, 2011) http://www.californiawinetours.com/
- Carson, L. Pierce. "'All aboard!' -- wine-wise Miami rides the rails." Napa Valley Register. June 30, 2011. (July 1, 2011) http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/columnists/pierce-carson/all-aboard-wine-wise-miami-rides-the-rails/article_a17857ea-a37d-11e0-95e9-001cc4c002e0.html
- Classic Convertible Wine Tours. "Classic Convertible Wine Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://www.ccwinetours.com/
- Getaway Adventures. "Biking Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://getawayadventures.com/tours/biking/
- Getaway Adventures. "Hiking Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://getawayadventures.com/tours/hiking/
- Getaway Adventures. "Kayaking Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://getawayadventures.com/tours/kayaking/
- Just Wine Country. "Wine Country Hot Air Ballooning." (July 1, 2011) http://www.justwinecountry.com/hot-air-balloons.html
- Kaplan, Jennifer. Founder, VineCrowd.com. Personal correspondence. June 29, 2011.
- Kijubi. "Tandem Skydiving in Wine Country." (July 1, 2011) http://www.kijubi.com/Detail-862/Tandem-Skydiving-in-Wine-Country-Cloverdale,California
- Napa Valley Wine Country Tours. "Daily Wine Tours from Napa." (July 1, 2011) http://www.winecountrylimos.com/daily_tours.php
- Napa Wine Tours. "Wine Tasting Tour by Horse & Carriage with Gourmet Lunch in Sonoma County." (July 1, 2011) http://www.napawinetours.net/?event=offer.detail&offerId=10274
- NorCal Skydiving. "Skydive in Wine Country." (July 1, 2011) http://www.norcalskydiving.com/
- Sonoma Grape Camp. "2011 Camp Details." (July 1, 2011) http://www.sonomagrapecamp.com/files/Sonoma-Grape-Camp-Details-2011.pdf
- Sonoma Wine Tours. "Motorcycle Rental in San Francisco." (July 1, 2011) http://www.sonomawinetours.net/?event=offer.detail&offerId=7113&startDate=07/01/2011&endDate=07/31/2011
- Sonoma Wine Tours. "Sonoma County Kayak Tour from Healdsburg." (July 1, 2011) http://www.sonomawinetours.net/?event=offer.detail&offerId=10273&startDate=06/01/2011&endDate=06/30/2011
- Triple Creek Horse Outfit. "Guided Horseback Rides in the Heart of Northern California Wine Country." (July 1, 2011) http://www.triplecreekhorseoutfit.com/
- Up & Away. "Hot Air Ballooning." (July 1, 2011) http://www.up-away.com/
- Vineyard Riders. "Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://www.vineyardriders.com/tours.html
- Wine Country Adventures. "Wine Country Llamas." (July 1, 2011) http://www.wine-country-adventures.com/program_llamas.html
- Wine Country Balloons. "Northern California Wine Country Balloon Ride." (July 1, 2011) http://www.balloontours.com/
- Wine Country Bikes. "Multi-Day Bike Tours." (July 1, 2011) http://www.winecountrybikes.com/multi-day-bike-tours/index.asp
- Wine Country Trails by Horseback. "Introduction." (July 1, 2011) http://www.winecountrytrailsbyhorseback.com/intro.html