California is America’s preeminent wine destination. In fact, according to The Wine Institute, 90% of America’s wine is produced in California. If the state were its own country, it would be the fourth-largest producer in the world behind France, Italy and Spain. California is as synonymous with wine, as wine is with California.
For those of us Winetravelers that want to experience all of this state has to offer firsthand, a road trip driving from Los Angeles to Napa offers a unique opportunity.
To understand the breadth of California’s viticulture, you must visit a wide array of appellations. It is enlightening to witness on a sensory level the interactions between ancient remnants of dormant volcanoes, basalt and marine sediments, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, and other diverse geological formations that have been uniquely crafted from an epoch of subduction, eruptions, earthquakes and erosion. This remarkable history has distinguished California as the most unique geological state in the US, according to the California Department of Conservation.
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Logistics: Traveling From LA to Napa
Driving from LA to Napa can be done over the course of one day, however, we highly recommend segmenting this trip into several days. This will allow you to further immerse yourself in each stop, taste a variety of wines, cuisine, scenery and outdoor activities.
For the sake of this itinerary, you’re obviously flying into Los Angeles. You can get updates on flight deals as they arise using free services like Airfare Watchdog. While there are tour companies that span the coast, we recommend renting a car so for flexibility’s sake. Depending on where you’re looking to rest, check out some of our favorite hotels in LA, Napa and San Francisco. We’ll provide more specific hotel recommendations later on in this guide. If you’re familiar with our itineraries, we tend to opt for more upscale hotels and vineyard resorts.
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First Stop: Los Angeles
Full disclosure: for the sake of this trip, you won’t be spending much in Los Angeles. You’re simply flying into the city, renting a car and starting your drive up the coast. However, if you’re looking to travel at a more leisurely pace and would like to spend a day here, we have a hotel/restaurant recommendation for you.
For a luxurious, yet down-to-earth vibe in a great location downtown, spend a night or two at the Ace Hotel. The service is top-notch, they have a cafe on the first floor which is convenient for breakfast and lunch, and a wonderful rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. It’s a great all-inclusive stop so you don’t need to spend a ton of time bouncing around LA.
If you do feel like venturing out, the location is perfect for dining and sightseeing. You’re not far from where from the Staples Center (where the Lakers play), the Grammy Museum, great craft beer joints and sushi restaurants.
If you’re looking for more recommendations on where to wine and dine throughout LA, we’ve got a list of 15 of our favorite restaurants and wine bars in LA right here.
Second Stop: Santa Barbara
Our wine journey begins. At this point, you should be on the road and heading northwest. All told, it takes roughly 2 hours to drive from LA to Santa Barbara. Why are we visiting Santa Barbara you ask? For starters, it’s a remarkably beautiful coastal town known for its seafood, wine, and beachy vibe. Well-positioned between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific, you’ll have the opportunity to get a dose of vitamin sea or go for a mountain hike.
It’s up to you how long you’d like to stay in the area, but if you’re looking to relax, spend a few days by the beach and dedicate at least one day to exploring wine country. We’ll list some of our favorite accommodations and things to do below.
Where To Stay and What To Do in Santa Barbara
It’s hard to beat a 5-star hotel located right in the middle of the Funk Zone itself (more on that below). Hotel Californian is an upscale hotel that offers ocean views and is in great proximity to a number of dining and shopping options. If you’re looking for a much more relaxed wine country retreat outside of the city, stay at Fess Parker, a 4-star luxury inn located in Los Olivos, not far from a number of wineries and tasting rooms.
For a beachy brunch of lunch scene, no visit to Santa Barbara is complete without a stop at Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach. Seafood lovers looking for beachfront views will love it here. For an exceptional wine list, great service and high-quality cuisine, stop at Barbareño for dinner in Santa Barbara. If you’d like to eat like a local, consider a food tour of downtown Santa Barbara.
One of our favorite ways to explore this remarkable town is by e-Bike. Rent one for the day and cruise around with a local guide so you can be sure to hit all the hot spots.
One unique neighborhood and method to taste some of the best wines Santa Barbara has to offer is to explore the Funk Zone. Instead of venturing out into wine country, many wineries have created satellite tasting rooms in this neighborhood, so you can wine bar hop your way through town. Check out this guide for some of our favorite tasting rooms and restaurants in the Funk Zone.
Now if you’re looking to get out and explore wine country itself, we’ve got you covered on that front as well. We recommend taking a drive to the quaint and Danish-inspired town of Solvang. Located literally in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, it’s the perfect home base for a day of wine tasting. While there are over a dozen tasting rooms within walking distance of downtown Solvang itself, head over to Petros Winery for a Mediterranean-inspired lunch and wine tasting in this relaxed country setting (it’s also open for dinner). Drive a little further northwest and stop by Zaca Mesa Winery for some of our favorite reds in Santa Ynez. You can also bring your own picnic and dine between the vines!
Our favorite way to explore the Santa Ynez Valley’s wine country is by cycling. This remarkably beautiful region is best scene while traveling with the wind in your hair, and this is the best way to do a wine tour. You can book a day trip with Bike Santa Barbara, the reviews are stellar.
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Third Stop: Santa Maria
Once you muster the courage to leave behind Santa Barbara, it’s time to embark on the next leg to your California viticulture pilgrimage. You’ll need to travel up either the 101 or 154 through the Santa Ynez Valley. This region, which is broken down into four sub-AVAs, boasts the highest concentration of wineries in Santa Barbara County.
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Where To Stay and What To Do in The Central Coast
At the most northern end of Santa Barbara County is the Santa Maria AVA. It’s roughly an hour and a half from the city of Santa Barbara, depending on which route you take. Right off of exit 170 on the 101, you’ll find Costa de Oro Winery. This is a comfortable and cozy welcome to the Central Coast region. The tasting room includes windows offering panoramic views looking out into the Valley. After stopping for a taste at Costa de Oro, head on over to Presqu’ile Winery for beautiful grounds, lunch and a hip ambiance.
Now it’s time to check into your next hotel, the Wine Stone Inn in Santa Maria. This is an opulent yet bespoke hotel with some of the most beautiful interior decorating we’ve ever seen. You’ll also be greeted with complimentary sparkling wine.
Once you’re settled, head over for a delicious Mediterranean-style dinner at The Garden Mediterranean Restaurant & Cafe.
Fourth Stop: Monterey
It’s time to continue north towards our final destination. But first, we think Monterey warrants a quick stop and day trip. From Santa Maria, it takes roughly 3 hours to get here. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is nothing short of stunning. Expect to stop along various viewpoints for photos, or even a hike or two if you’re so inclined.
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Monterey is perhaps best known as being an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Along the coast, you can frequently catch glimpses of sea otters and harbor seals. If you want a more personal experience, rent a kayak and paddle alongside them. Depending on the season, whale watching is also an incredibly popular activity. With some of California’s most iconic outdoor experiences, Monterey has something for everyone.
For hiking enthusiasts, you’ll need to stop at Point Lobos State Reserve. The park offers a plethora of hiking trails, and the ones along the coast are particularly beautiful. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the trails are fairly easy to hike, making it a great stop for families with young kids in tow.
Golf enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the famous Pebble Beach Links course is not far away. Whether you choose to play a round or not, stop for a drink at The Terrace Lounge.
If you’ve still got wine on your mind, it’s not far away. Monterey happens to be positioned very close to California’s Carmel Valley. Stop by Folktale Winery & Vineyards for a beautiful tasting and vineyard setting, and then go for a hike Garland Ranch Regional Park. Guided wine country tours through the Carmel Valley are also available.
Lastly, Monterey is perhaps best known for its aquarium, which makes for a perfect family daytime activity. Following a visit, consider at stop at Pierce Ranch Vineyards tasting room in Monterey for some of the best local examples of wine produced in the region.
If everything we just mentioned sounds like Monterey warrants an overnight stay, check in to the InterContinental the Clement Monterey for an opulent bayfront hotel experience that also includes a nice restaurant.
Fifth Stop: Napa Valley
We’ve almost made it friends. From Monterey, it will take you just another 2 and a half hours to arrive in Napa Valley. You’ll be passing through San Francisco along the way, in which case we recommend stopping at any number of these amazing wine bars and restaurants.
Napa in and of itself makes for its own vacation, and there are a variety of ways to navigate the valley. It’s home to 16 different sub-AVAs, each offering a unique terroir and wine range of wine styles and production practices. We could go on and on with recommendations in the region, but it’s really a matter of personal preference.
For a beautiful vineyard resort perfect for couples, consider staying at Auberge Du Soleil in St. Helena. For an equally opulent experience in Yountville, stay at Bardessono Hotel and Spa.
Now, onto the wineries. We list out all of our favorites if you’re looking for a self-guided experience in this guide to exploring Napa Valley. Napa is also home to a number of tour operators that offer guided and unique visitation experiences. Some of our reader’s favorites include this private guided tour of Napa operated by Bliss Wine Tours. However, our favorite is this wine, bike and picnic tour. Day trips are also offered that leave from San Francisco.
Editorial Disclosure: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer or bank.
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