There are 260 officially recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) across the US. And you’ll find over half of those wine regions within sunny California’s borders. Golden State growers and vintners supply around 81 percent of the total U.S. wine production annually. Suffice to say, wine aficionados aren’t likely to go thirsty in these parts. And the best bit is, many of CA’s wineries offer unique tastings and activities like helicopter rides, safaris, and forest bathing. Here are 12 of the coolest, most immersive winery experiences worth heading to the West Coast for.
Zipline And Zinfandel
Ancient Peaks Winery, Santa Margarita
Grapes have been grown on this sprawling Central California ranch next door to Paso Robles since 1780 when El Camino Real (the 600-mile road that connected the 21 missions) cut through it and missionaries moved in. Present-day visitors to the historic 14,000-acre plot of land can have a religious experience of a different kind as they soar over vineyards, valleys, oak-dotted hillsides, and pine groves on six zip lines that span 7,500 feet with Margarita Adventures. A 300-foot suspension bridge ratchets up the fear factor. After disembarking at a replica of an old mining camp, head back into town to enjoy flights of Oyster Ridge, Renegade and the Pearl Collection with charcuterie boards piled high with artisan snacks and cheese at the Ancient Peaks tasting room.
Insider Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for nesting bald eagles from January to August.
Birds And Bubbles
Flock to Napa Valley’s Carneros district to get up close and personal with Rebecca Rosen’s raptors. Her winged team of hawks, owls, and falcons is hired to help during harvest at this winery overlooking San Francisco Bay. The Falconry In The Garden demonstration, which can also be set up as a private session, illuminates participants about the basics of how birds of prey hunt, fly, see, eat and work for the winery. They’ll also pose for photos with you. After making new feathered friends, taste the hand-picked fruits of the all-female vineyard crew’s labor with an included mini tasting.
Insider tip: Bouchaine’s shallow clay loam soil is well-suited to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but you might be treated to tastes of rarer bottles of Pinot Meunier, Brut Rosé, or Gewurztraminer.
Helicopter Rides And Rosé
Eden Rift, Hollister
Live out your Bachelor and Bachelorette fantasies at this 500-acre estate south of San Jose as there is no grander entrance than one made via chopper. Specialized Helicopters will take you from airports in Monterey or Watsonville and drop you at Eden Rift’s private pad where a guide will retrieve you in a Polaris ATV and show you around. Stop among the vines to admire the Cienega Valley views and sip Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinots while standing in the spot where they were born.
Insider Tip: For an added fee, the pilot can take passengers on a 20-minute coastal tour of breathtaking Big Little Lies territory.
Forest Bathing & Fermentation
Red Car Wine, Sebastopol
Despite being renowned for its Instagram-savvy tasting room design, on-trend branding, and buzzy social atmosphere, this Sonoma County company also recognizes the importance of slowing down, savoring the moment, and stopping to smell the Rosés. Well, the vines that grow the future ones anyway. That’s why Red Car partnered with former employee turned certified forest therapy guide Jenny Harrow-Keeler of EcoWisdom to offer a two-hour full-sensory experience that combines wellness and wine. She takes intimate groups or individuals on a meditative stroll around the seven-acre Zephyr Farms site in Freestone and leads them on an intentional discovery of sight, sound, smell, and touch.
Insider Tip: Becoming one with nature reduces stress to be sure but it also connects people more deeply with the very terroir that produces the Pinot Noir, local cheeses, and seasonal fruit they’re about to consume on a hilltop under the signature Sonoma Coast redwoods.
Wildlife And Wine
Saddlerock Ranch, Malibu
Make good use of Southern California’s mostly mild Mediterranean climate by hopping aboard the Malibu Wine Safari. Custom open-air off-road vehicles transport the group around a 1,000-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, stopping to take in the bucolic splendor, sample wines from the three house labels, and photograph and feed the water buffalo, bison, zebras, alpacas, and the giraffe, Stanley, that also call Saddlerock home. (Most are retired from movie and TV careers.) Double the pleasure by signing up for both red and white flights while roaming the ranch. Another way to opt outside to imbibe is to hit the Malibu Wines & Beer Garden down the road to try more local liquor and delicious wood-fired pizza from Topanga Grain Co.
Insider Tip: If you want to detox after all that wine tasting sign up for a Malibu Wine Hike. The 2.5-mile loop treks past the vines, the organic garden, and ancient Chumash cave paintings.
Beekeeping And Bottles
Cass Winery, Paso Robles
This Central California grape guru offers so many fun side activities that you’ll be hard-pressed to pick only one. One of the most buzzed-about is the brand-new beekeeping experience. Suit up for some quality hang time at the hives with an expert before a honey tasting. There’s also a demo of another of the region’s top exports, olive oil. Learn about harvesting and pressing techniques as well as how to discern the good stuff from the swill while sampling the local wares. Or find your inner Katniss through archery instruction. They also offer horseback riding, color wars, scavenger hunts, paint and sip sessions, and classes to make you a great cook, a better photographer, and an advanced wine taster. It’s like summer camp but better because day drinking is encouraged.
Where To Stay: CASS has that covered too. Perched above its cash crop, the Geneseo Inn is a stylish modern boutique built out of industrial shipping containers. Stays come with a gourmet breakfast prepared by the estate’s executive chef and can be enhanced with a massage or private yoga class in the living room.
Floaties And Fiano
Bottaia Winery, Temecula
Serious summer sipping in this hilly wine country between San Diego and Palm Springs can work up a sweat. BOTTAIA Winery built a solution for that a few years ago—a large sparkling pool and splash pad for the littles—smack dab in the middle of their fields and mere steps from their tasting room. Set aside an entire day to live la dolce vita. (You can thank us later.) Taste their wide variety of fruity and crisp whites, many of which you don’t find in the states that often, including Verdicchio, Arneis, and Spumante before noshing at the poolside café and cocktail bar. Switch to your suit in your cabine, an Italian-style changing room featuring a shower, hairdryer, and other amenities to make your transition to and from swimming more convenient and comfortable.
Insider Tip: Afterward settle into your reserved chaise to soak up the sun with a glass of sangria and the latest beach read.
Sculptures And Sparkling Shiraz
Paradise Ridge Winery, Santa Rosa
Art lovers should spend a day at this Russian River Valley stalwart operated by the Byck family who didn’t even let the winery being destroyed by the 2017 Tubbs fire put an end to its mission of making wine, hosting like-minded individuals, and collecting and exhibiting large pieces of art at their incredibly scenic swath of earth. A four-acre meadow, a tribute to the founder’s late wife Marijke whom he proposed to in a similar garden in the ‘60s, is free to wander around and displays a wide variety of rotating works including several Burning Man installations. All make for stunning social posts and peaceful picnic spots, especially the towering steel letters that spell out L-O-V-E. Other noteworthy commissions are sprinkled throughout the grounds.
Insider Tip: The grove closes around 4:30 daily but stay until sunset as Paradise Ridge is a stellar vantage point to watch Mother Nature show off. Most Wednesdays from summer to fall they throw a party with food trucks, live music, and of course, PR’s elixirs.
Shortbread And Chardonnay
Loring Wine Company, Lompoc
If you’re lucky enough to be sipping around Santa Barbara wine country, life is already pretty sweet. But we firmly believe there’s always room for more which is why we recommend the cookie pairing at Loring. (The tasting room is in Buellton while the winery, which can be visited with advance reservations only, is in Lompoc.) Loring provides the small-batch Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and sparkling wine while The Cookie Vixen April Pharoah whips up artisan shortbread expressly made to compliment wine. The best part is you don’t even have to feel that bad about indulging as her treats are low in sugar and made without preservatives or caking agents. She even has a line of gluten-free and keto cookies.
Insider Tip: This is Sideways country and as such, you can hop around shooting locations visited by Miles and Jack in the Oscar-nominated film while working your way through copious amounts of wine…as long as it’s not merlot of course. Try to find a “flutter of nutty Edam” in the pours at Sanford Winery and Foxen, try Santa Maria-style barbeque at the Hitching Post 2, and deep dive into the world of kringles, Hans Christian Andersen, and Christmas shops in the Danish village of Solvang. You can also stay in the same hotel where they holed up although the Sideways Inn’s rooms, grounds, and windmill got a trendy boutique refresh.
Crafts And Cabernet
Folktale Winery, Carmel
Folktale has earned its reputation as an all-day diversion for drinkers and their designated drivers. Feast on flatbreads and roasted cauliflower salad from the kitchen, take a tour of the wine-making facilities and vineyards, catch a concert in the garden, attend a tasting, or grab a gift guaranteed to impress the receiver from Folktale Provisions. The shop also regularly hosts a two-hour wreath workshop with flower-powered Lezlie Johnson who teaches attendees how to bend blooms and branches to their will in order to make the natural decorations fit for any occasion or holiday. It comes with snacks and sips. That isn’t the only lesson they teach. They also recently did a seminar on rituals with the Tea Huntress. Private shopping appointments are also available to peruse the well-curated collection of custom Hermes leather pieces, ceramic sake sets, Pinot salt made in-house, beeswax candles, blown glassware, and site-specific apothecary items. Beware: consuming complementary pink bubbly while browsing tends to loosen the purse strings.
Where To Stay: Drive a little deeper into Carmel Valley to find the serene and sophisticated Bernardus Lodge & Spa. The resort and its restaurant, Lucia, are a wonderland for foodies and oenophiles as they make extensive use of the on-property organic herb and vegetable gardens, vineyards (which are harvested by the same-named winery up the road), and fruit trees. The complimentary minibar bottles are best enjoyed in the two-person soaking tub or by the fireplace. Even the spa utilizes wine in a few of its treatments such as the Chardonnay body polish.
Vinyasa And Vines
Spenker Winery, Lodi
Since 1994, the Sacramento-adjacent Spenker Family Farm has been churning out high-quality chevre, a handful of Zinfandels and Syrahs, and a wine-infused goat cheese using fresh milk from its own herd and sustainably grown grapes from its estate. More recently, Spenker has diversified its programming and now its cloven-hoofed crew are also on downward-dog duty. Goat yoga season is March through June as that’s when babies who like to kid around with posing people are plentiful. When the goats age out, playful puppies from the local animal rescue PALS Haven sub in. Those classes raise funds for the organization and like the goat edition are also followed up with a glass of wine and cheese samples.
Insider Tip: If you want time with the billies without all that bending, the winery will also let you pay to hang in their playpen or help get them ready for bed. Adults can add a wine tasting if they prefer that to the included milk and cookies.
Barrels And Blending
Dakota Shy, St. Helena
This powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon producer has created the ultimate souvenir to remind you of your time on Napa’s Silverado Trail—your own blend housed in an adorable mini barrel. You’ll meet with Dakota Shy’s winemaker to discuss what you love (and don’t) about your wine and those preferences are then used to cultivate your dream cuvee. You can mix and match fruit from their Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot blocks which are found from the eastern ridges of Calistoga to the west side of Oak Knoll. The proprietary product (equivalent to 72 bottles ) is poured into an authentic, but quarter-sized Taransaud French oak barrel to age. Etching and personalized labels are available for your tank of tannins.
Where To Stay: This fall, Calistoga cheered the opening of the first Four Seasons Resort set within a working winery, which means the grape-to-glass footprint is reduced to mere steps. It also means guests of the rustic-chic accommodations have many opportunities to try Elusa Winery’s concoctions—the on-property tasting room, in the flagship restaurant TRUSS, at the adults-only pool, or in the privacy of their own suite as bottles can be delivered to their doorstep.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Carrie Bell is an LA-based writer whose work has appeared in People, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Bridal Guide, TripSavvy, and Rolling Stone. The California native has visited 42 countries and 40 states. When she isn’t traveling, the snowglobe collector can usually be found riding a bike, binging Succession, playing board games, and consuming massive amounts of dairy products. Seriously, it’s a problem. Check out her Instagram for more of her adventures in wanderlust.