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A U.S. Road Trip through California’s Wine Country

From just 25 wineries in 1975 to over 40 today, the Napa Valley wine country has been booming over the past few decades. On top of the vineyards and wineries, the beautiful landscapes are perfect for picnics, hiking, kayaking and much more besides.

Bunch of grapesSetting Out

The easiest way of accessing California’s Wine Country is from San Francisco International Airport. It’s only an hour’s drive to the south of Napa Valley from there, which is where your road trip will begin. A rental car from the airport is the easiest way to explore this region of Northern California, as group tours can be very expensive and don’t give you the luxury of customizing the trip to your liking.

Accommodation can also be a significant expense, especially during the summer and fall months, so renting a camper van is a good option. This allows you to camp out in any of the numerous camping grounds scattered across the region. Whatever vehicle you choose, plan ahead to insure yourself against car hire insurance charges to avoid being sold an expensive policy by the carhire company: savings are substantial.

Once you’ve chosen your perfect mode of transport, it’s time to head northeast through San Francisco before crossing the Bay Bridge into Oakland along Route 80. Then it’s just under an hour’s drive to Napa Valley.

Napa Valley

Home to some of the best vineyards in the world, Napa Valley is the most famous region in all of Wine Country.

Napa Valley vinyards

Begin your Napa Valley tour at the di Rosa Art + Nature Reserve, where Rene di Rosa has curated over 1,700 works of art. It features multiple galleries, an historic residence, the Sculpture Meadow and over 200 acres of gorgeous landscaped grounds for you to take in. For a truly unique experience, meander down the 1/3-mile trail in the Sculpture Meadow to discover large-scale sculptures juxtaposed against the natural beauty of the landscape.

Next up on your itinerary is Napa Valley’s main attraction – the wineries. Just a six-minute drive north from di Rosa’s is Artesa Vineyards and Winery, famous for its gorgeous vistas of the valley. If you’re there on a clear day, you can see 50 miles across the San Pueblo bay to make out the San Francisco skyline! Artesa offers various wine tasting events, and tapas tasting and pairing.

After taking in the breath-taking scenery of Artesa, head north along State Route 29 to reach some of Napa Valley’s biggest wineries. Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg Vineyards, Castello di Amorosa, Sterling Vineyards and many more are all accessible from Route 29.

Napa Valley signAll of these vineyards have a unique experience to offer. Domaine Chandon specializes in sparkling wines and was the first French-owned California sparkling wine cellar. Schramsberg is a part of American history, as in 1972 President Nixon served their Blanc de Blancs at the Toast to Peace in Beijing. Castello di Amorosa is an impressive fortress, modelled after a traditional Tuscan castle – complete with a torture chamber no less! Lastly, is Sterling Vineyards, an award-winning vineyard located 300 feet above the valley floor on a volcanic hill. Take an automated tram up the hill to enjoy aerial views.

The downside to the popularity of the wine industry is that Route 29 can get very congested during peak season. If sitting in traffic isn’t your idea of a good time, try driving north along the Silverado Trail. It runs parallel to Route 29 and offers visitors access to a number of boutique wineries and vineyards.

After you’ve had your fill of Napa’s vineyards, stretch your legs with a hike through the Petrified Forest, located just a 12-minute drive from Sterling Vineyards. Home to a variety of flora and fauna, the Petrified Forest is most famous for its giant petrified redwood trees, dating back 3 million years.

Once your day of walking and wining has come to an end, head just five miles east to Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. Here you can pamper yourself with a mud bath and soak in volcanic ash and peat moss.

Feeling rejuvenated, head west to the Russian River Valley to continue your discovery of Wine Country.

Russian River ValleyRussian River Valley

Although it has its fair share of wineries, there are more exciting attractions on offer at the Russian River valley. If you’re the outdoor and active type, then it has everything you need with many sports and water activities available. Just head west along Route 12 to find your way to the Russian River.

If you’ve chosen a camper van, this region has plenty of campsites such as Bodega Dunes, Wrights Beach or the Sonoma Coast State Park. Once you’re parked, you have the choice of kayaking, canoeing or rafting along the river. It’s a great way to relax and feel at ease with the world, as you float down the calm waters of the Russian River.

For those who prefer to stay dry, take yourself on a hike through the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve just north of Route 116. For more of a challenge, saddle up and hit the cycling trails throughout the park. You’ll be amazed by the 300-foot tall redwoods towering over you.

Once you’ve had your fill of rafting and cycling, head south along Route 101 to make your way back to Sonoma Valley.

Sonoma Valley

Known as the birthplace of the California wine industry, some of the oldest wineries in America reside in Sonoma Valley. Nestled between the Mayacamas and Sonoma Mountains, the beautiful scenery and laidback atmosphere create the ideal environment for a relaxing road excursion.

Sonoma MountainsBe sure to check out the Gundlach Bundschu Winery, located east of Route 12. It dates back to 1858, and has been a staple in the Sonoma Valley community ever since. On top of the usual offering of vineyard tours and tastings, you can take advantage of the tour of the caves which are located on their estate.

Ram’s Gate Winery offer their ‘Behind the Gate’ experience where patrons are treated to a cooking class and demo, alongside traditional wine tastings. Other major vineyards worth checking out are Bartholomew Park and Buena Vista wineries.

More than just a home to fabulous wineries, Sonoma Valley can also boast the Jack London State Historic Park as a must-see attraction. Named after famed Call of the Wild author Jack London, the park is where he had his home and ranch, and where both he and his wife are laid to rest.

Sonoma also plays host to the Sonoma International Film Festival. Over 90 hand-selected films, documentaries, world cinema and shorts are welcomed to the valley in early spring each year, each screened in the historic town plaza. The five-day event also includes local wines and high-end cuisine from local chefs. If you’re there at this time of year, this is an event not to be missed.

Andrew Segal works for, a leading provider of car hire excess insurance. He writes regular blogs covering a wide range of topics related to insurance, holidays and travel in general.

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