Compass American Guides: California Wine Country, 6th Edition (Full-color Travel Guide)
The best way to learn more about the wines of a particular region is to travel there and visit the wineries. Not only is wine country, wherever it is, usually beautiful scenery, it often has culinary destinations as well. Most important for the wine lover, because of the archaic alcoholic beverage distribution system in the United States, many wines of interest are not available in one’s home state. Traveling to a winery provides the opportunity to taste most, if not all, of a winery’s products at once, and to pick up special bottles that often cannot be bought anywhere else. Traveling to wine country is also a great trip for someone just starting out on wine, or for someone who is not that serious about wine but likes it.
The new Sixth Edition of California Wine Country is geared toward these latter types of wine drinkers, and it will work for them quite adequately.
Neither Matt Villano nor Sharron Wood is a wine writer per se. Sharron Wood and John Doerper (who is an author for a number of Fodor wine country guides) also appear as authors of the Fifth Edition of this book, and it is not clear who wrote what, or how much was changed from the Fifth Edition. Regardless, the level of wine information provided is enough of a good start to get most people interested in learning more.
California Wine Country begins with a brief history of wine in California, then provides some basics in visiting wineries, how to taste wine, how grapes are grown and wine is made, and a brief description of common California grape varieties. In these descriptions, there are a few errors, such as indicating that Gamay and Gamay Beaujolais are the same, when the former is the grape that is used in Beaujolais in France, while the latter is actually a less than successful clone of Pinot Noir. But for the most part the information will be helpful for having a better understanding of what one is tasting, and in understanding what the pouring staff is talking about (for example, when a pourer says, “this wine underwent full malolactic fermentation”).
Most of the book covers the major wine regions of California, providing good maps with wineries pinpointed, and a discussion of wineries in each region. There are over 2,000 wineries in California, and this guide lists fewer than 200. Clearly, some selectivity was involved. While the casual visitors will probably do fine visiting just the wineries listed in their chosen destination, they will notice a number of wineries along the way that are not listed, and it would probably not hurt to pull into one of those on the chance that serendipity finds a gem that has not yet been discovered by the crowds.
The guide concentrates quite heavily (more than half) on Napa and Sonoma wineries, and it seems that the writers, from San Francisco, know these wineries better, as the entries on each winery in these counties tend to be much more detailed than the entries on, for instance, Santa Barbara County. Those wineries deemed particularly good for visitors (as opposed to having particularly good wines) are denoted by a star. The guide generally indicates whether one needs to make an appointment or reservations for a tasting, and it provides the web sites for the wineries, so one can check for days and hours of operation before heading off.
Following the section on wineries, the guide provides suggestions on restaurants. Here the Napa/Sonoma bias is even more pronounced, with 49 restaurants for those two counties and only 7 restaurants in all the rest of California. The suggestions on hotels are limited, with 9 listings for Napa/Sonoma and 8 listings for the rest of California.
For a concentrated, wine-centric trip to a particular region in California, it may be better to consult one of the more region-specific guides that concentrates on the wines and discusses most wineries in the region. For a more relaxed trip, to dip one’s toes in what a particular region has to offer, California Wine Country may be all the traveler needs.