Robert Louis Stevenson once described wine as "poetry in a bottle." But the real music is made during crush, when the grape skins are broken to prepare them for wine production. Early autumn sees a steady flow of visitors to the vineyard-laced valleys of Napa and Sonoma. The tasting rooms are abuzz with the talk of tannins as wine lovers rush to find pairings for dishes such as braised short ribs and pumpkin soup.
Yet, not everyone loves a parade. If you're looking for a more intimate experience, here are three off-the-grid wine regions that will help you avoid the rush to the crush.
Santa Cruz: Fourteen wineries make up a consortium called Surf City Vintners near Swift Street and Ingalls in Santa Cruz. The area has a funky warehouse feel, which just lends to the fun of going door-to-door to taste wine. The most recognized label is Bonny Doon Vineyard, a soulful operation that was nearly lost when disease decimated its vineyards in the mid-1990s. Today, Bonny Doon wines are a Santa Cruz favorite, coupled with a popular on-site café called Le Cigare Volant. Each table has its own private nook, where locally-grown foods are paired with the winery's organic offerings.
Nearby, Marin Artukovich is having more fun than a vintner should have. The coffee-grower-turned-winemaker owns MJA Vineyards, where soft Hawaiian music plays as he pours tastings of several of his "girls" -- wines given whimsical names like "Nosy" and "Moody." His pairings are just as eclectic and include chocolate-covered coffee beans and macadamia nuts. Visitors can enjoy wines and live music on the lanai and sign up for his monthly Wine Cellar Cinema events. Visit www.surfcityvintners.com for more information.
Western Yolo County: Known since the 19th century for its apricots, the land along Interstate 505 is a romantic expanse of rolling hills and fertile valleys hugging the Vaca Mountains. Vineyards dot the landscape, and the warm days and temperate nights are tailor-made for Rhone varietals and Spanish Tempranillo. The culinary hotspot of Western Yolo County is Winters, a historic town of 7,000 that's home to the original Buckhorn Steakhouse and its celebrated sister restaurant Putah Creek Café. Next door, the Turkovich Family Wines tasting room features son Daniel's artisan cheeses -- made on site under the name Winters Cheese Co. Two other tasting rooms in town are RootStock and Berryessa Gap Vineyards. The wine region hosts its annual Roots to Wine Passport weekend with vineyard tours, barrel tastings, live music and more Oct. 13-14. See http://rootstowine.com for further details.
Calaveras County: Not since the days of the Gold Rush has something so precious come out of the ground. Wine is the hot commodity in Calaveras County, where farmers work together to promote the pioneering spirit of this emerging wine region. The epicenter is Murphys, a town that looks more like the Wild West than a wine destination. Murphys hosts its annual Calaveras Grape Stomp on Oct. 6 -- a good time to taste at some two dozen wineries along Main Street. Nearby, scenic State Route 4 takes you to several family-owned wineries where the vintners are often on property. From Twisted Oak Winery's rubber chicken collection to Chatom Vineyards' creative pairings with peanut butter cups -- there's no wine snobbery here. View www.calaveraswines.org for more details.