When to Visit Wine Country
CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wine country is a beautiful place to visit any time of year, and each or the seasons offers a distinct experience as the grape vines cycle from their quiet winter sleep into budbreak and flowering in the spring, through the sunny summer months and the climax of the fall harvest.
By mid-March most parts of CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wine country are beginning to warm and rains are becoming more intermittent. Wine country is brimming with life. Native wildflowers and the bright yellow mustard often planted as a cover crop between vine rows burst into color, even as the vines continue to sleep. In late March, April and early May the vines awaken, break new buds and briefly flower. This is one of the most beautiful times of year to visit wine country, and visitor traffic tends to be moderate.
Temperatures continue to rise in June and July. The sun climbs higher, and in most of California wine country rain is quite rare between June and late September. For those seeking sunshine as well as fine wine, summer is an ideal time to visit. Green vineyards dotted with gnarled oak trees come to dominate the scenery as the growing grapes take center stage. In warmer regions, expect high temperatures in the upper 80s and 90s followed by refreshingly cool nights. Closer to the coast, temperatures tend to be milder, with cool morning fog giving way to warm sun in the afternoon. As with other vacation destinations, summer traffic can be heavy in the most popular wine regions, but less famous areas are still easily accessible and slower-paced.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no wonder that fall is the most popular season to visit California wine country. The fall harvest is the culmination of the yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work and thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s plenty of energy in the air. The summer heat wanes in September, and sunny, dry conditions sustain through most of November. Picking of the first grapes generally begins in September and often continues into November. Even with winemakers and their teams working marathon days, many wineries make time for special events and celebrations during harvest, making for heavy visitor traffic coupled with trucks carrying grapes and equipment make fall the busiest and most exciting time to visit wine country. Most hotels fill up quickly, so early reservations are recommended.
After harvest, the vine leaves change from green to deep red and then drop off as the vines go dormant for the winter. From December to February temperatures cool significantly, and wine country receives most of its annual rainfall. Still, winter can be a great time to visit. Temperatures in most wine regions are relatively mild through the winter months, often in the 40s and 50s and only occasionally dipping below freezing. With the wine safely in tanks and barrels and fewer visitors to entertain, wineries can offer more personalized tours or barrel tastings, and the gnarled old vines without summer foliage have a beauty all their own. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll also pay less for a hotel suite complete with a cozy fireplace.
Napa Valley is wine country royalty: a princely oasis of whispering madrone trees, lush meadows, and tumbling creeks, and home to palatial wineries that make Monaco look like Homer SimpsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suburb. And, of course, epicenter of Cabernets of esteemed elegance, for no grape loves NapaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s heat like Cabernet Sauvignon (though in Napa, one mustnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ignore the heated ardor of Merlot or Sangiovese either). If deep red is your favorite wine color, this is your place.
The 30-mile-long valley is home to ridiculous bounty. At the valleyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s northern end, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Calistoga, home to the Old Faithful Geyser of California, hot-air ballooning, mud baths, and of course sparkling spring water. In St. Helena, shop along boutique-lined Main Street. At NapaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Copia, you can take a cooking class, enjoy an outdoor concert, or (weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll keep it between us) sit in on a lecture that demystifies wine. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lot going on, and yet the valley itself remains a showcase of CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s natural beauty, thanks to laws on the local books prohibiting anyone from buying plots of land smaller than 40 acres.
Nor does Napa rest on its laurels. The valley remains cutting edge. It has to, with CaliforniaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s other wine regions nipping at its heels. And we, the visitors, reap the benefits. Take Yountville, for example. Recently, four Yountville (pronounced yawnt-ville) restaurants collectively earned six coveted stars in the 2008 Michelin Guide. When Hollywood wanted to observe a first-class kitchen for the movie Ratatouille, YountvilleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s French Laundry (three stars) is where they came. Looking for something a little less pricey? Try single-star winners Bouchon or Ad Hoc. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just in Yountville.
Regarding wine, NapaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s depth is equally ambitious. There are dozens of wineries to visit, but to understand NapaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s history you must drop in to Beringer Vineyards and Rubicon Estate. Award winners are everywhere, but StagÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Leap Wine Cellars knows what it takes to get to the top and you should sample what they know. But really, singling out wineries to visit in Napa Valley is a bit like singling out California beaches. Wine tasting fees may be higher than in other wine regions, usually starting at $10 or $15 for the basic lineup, butÃ¢â‚¬â€œinsider tipÃ¢â‚¬â€œlook for free-tasting coupons at local hotels, visitors centers, and on some winery websites.
Napa is Napa and, like most nobility, can be a little difficult at times. Summer weekends can get busy; hotel rooms and restaurants book far in advance. Traffic barely crawls some Sunday afternoons. Yet most visitors return again and again. The truth is, a visit with royalty is priceless.