By Carrie Boyle, Sacramento, CA
When you are planning your next wine destination vacation, do you think of Sacramento, CA? Yeah, most of us who live here don’t either, which is odd. Sacramento is ground zero for access to wine country. There are over 1000 wineries within a 2-hour drive of Sacramento. There is no other location in Northern California that offers this proximity to wine regions, with dining and travel amenities.
Yet, Sacramento is often thought of as a place in between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco; or maybe you know it as the state capital; if you’ve really been paying attention, you might know it as the “Farm-to-Fork” Capital of America.
The truth is we, as a community, have done a terrible job of promoting ourselves as a hub for wine lovers. Our nickname, “Sacratomato” or designation as a “cowtown” are descriptions that have been hard to abandon and we wear them heavily around our neck.
Well, it’s a new year and by golly, it’s our year to drop the old image and shine as the oenological mecca that we are. So, grab a glass of vino, and find a comfy spot to sit back, relax and read on. Let me show you why, if you are serious or enthusiastic about wine, you need to add Sacramento to your bucket list and pay us a visit.
Reason #1 – Proximity to the Best Wine Regions in CA
From Sacramento, you have quick access to some of the most interesting, exciting and historically important wine regions in California, including Amador County, El Dorado County, Lodi, Calaveras County, the Northern Sierra, Livermore, and of course, Napa and Sonoma. With a hotel room home base in Sacramento, it’s easy to get out and explore, one glass of wine at a time!
AMADOR COUNTY: If you travel 42 miles east of Sacramento, you’ll find Amador County tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, at elevations ranging from 250 to 9000 feet. You may know this region as the heart of the gold rush, but it also houses the Shenandoah Valley which was once the main viticultural area in California. In the mid-1800s, at the time of the gold rush, the population exploded in the region. Subsequently, wineries popped up all over the valley. Prohibition hit in the early 1930s and devastated the industry. However, some vineyards survived and today, Amador County boasts some of the oldest planted vines in the country, including the Original Grandpere Vineyard, which is over 150 years old and is used by a select few wineries, including Andis, Scott Harvey, and Vino Noceto, all of which are located in Amador County. For a more complete overview, please visit https://amadorwine.com/.
Bonus Tips: If you’re hungry after a day of sampling from some of the area’s 40+ wineries, make sure you have a reservation at the area’s best restaurant: Taste, in downtown Plymouth. (http://restauranttaste.com/newtaste/pages/index.cgi)
Wine festivals abound in Amador! If you love wine & food pairings, and celebrating with other wine lovers, check out these community special events in Amador County:
- Behind the Cellar Door – early March
- Amador Four Fires – early May
- Barbera Festival – middle of September
- Big Crush – early October
EL DORADO COUNTY – This dynamic wine hot spot is just 45 miles from downtown Sacramento, and prides itself on a multitude of microclimates, allowing for the successful management of over 50 different grape varietals, including Zinfandel, Cabernet, Syrah, along with a number of Italian and Spanish grape types. With vineyard altitudes ranging from 1200 – 3500 feet, the region is cooled by elevation, rather than fog, which allows for the much desired longer hang times that result in more complex flavor development. https://eldoradowines.org/index.php
One of the most historically significant towns in the region is Placerville, which was formerly known as Hangtown, and you can guess why. Placerville is the seat of El Dorado County and was a focal point during the Gold Rush and for the Pony Express, and was important in the context of railroad history. It was once the 3rd largest town in California. It retains a bit of an old west feel, and continues as a bustling shopping and dining oasis surrounded by family-owned and run wineries.
Bonus Tips: Treat yourself to apple wine, apple cider donuts or apple pie in the fall and winter with a visit to Apple Hill. https://applehill.com/
If you love wine festivals and are in the Sacramento region during early spring, check out the Passport to the Great Out There, or in late summer, grab tickets to WINEderlust. Find out more details about both events at https://eldoradowines.org/events.php.
LODI – In 2015, Lodi was named the Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Just over 30 minutes from Sacramento, this vibrant wine region is the home to over 85 wineries, and specializes in big, rich reds (Zinfandel, Cabernet, Spanish & Rhone varietals) and lively, bright whites like Albarino. Lodi is situated at the edge of the San Joaquin & Sacramento River Delta. The result is a climate that mimicks the Mediterranean. Warm days and nights cooled by the “delta breezes” allow for grapes to develop rich and layered flavors and complexities.
Lodi produces a wide array of styles of wine and over 100 different varietals, however, they are undoubtedly known best as the Zinfandel capital of the world as the region produces over 40% of all California premium zinfandel, and is recognized as having some of the oldest zinfandel vines, with some plantings dating back to 1888. https://www.lodiwine.com/
Unlike other wine regions that perished with the onset of Prohibition, Lodi survived and thrived by providing fruit to home winemakers as allowed under the Volstead Act.
Bonus Tips: If you are visiting Lodi, be sure to check out their downtown wine and food scene which has seen a bit of a renaissance in recent years (https://www.visitlodi.com/wineries/downtown-lodi-wine/).
CALAVERAS COUNTY – You may know this region for reasons other than wine, courtesy of Mark Twain’s story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County”. Or, perhaps you are aware that Calaveras County was a hotbed of activity during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, and some of its towns, like Angels Camp and San Andreas, remain largely intact, transporting you back in time 150 years. (For more information, check out: https://www.gocalaveras.com/calaveras-profile/)
What you may not know is that Calaveras County is home to over 35 wineries, with the town of Murphys alone hosting over two dozen tasting rooms. You’ll find offerings of Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, along with a number of Italian and Spanish varietals. Situated only 80 miles from Sacramento, you can load up the car and make a day of it – tasting wine, panning for gold, exploring caverns and checking out the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Ranked 14th out of 3,311 counties in mainland USA, for scenic beauty and climate by the USDA, Calaveras County will steal your heart!
Bonus Tip: If you’re visiting during the summer, check out the impressive concert lineup at Ironstone Vineyards https://ironstoneamphitheatre.net/wired/.
YOLO COUNTY – Lay your eyes on evidence supporting Sacramento’s title as the Farm-to-Fork-Capital of America with a visit to Yolo County. In addition to wine grapes, Yolo County produces astonishing quantities of almonds, tomatoes, rice, hay, walnuts, sunflower seeds, cattle, wheat, poultry, corn, plums, olives, sheep & lamb. Take a drive and witness the bounty of the region!
For a quick Yolo County wine excursion that is just 15 miles south of downtown Sacramento, visit the Old Sugarmill (www.oldsugarmill.com) in Clarksburg along the Sacramento River. In this one location, you’ll be able to sample wines from 15 different producers that source fruit from Clarksburg and the surrounding wine regions. Then pop on over to check out Bogle Winery (www.boglewinery.com), and sample wines from the Wine Enthusiast’s “American Winery of the Year” for 2019!
NORTHERN SIERRA – From Sacramento, head east on Insterstate 80 and you’ll stumble upon trails leading to the wineries of Placer & Nevada Counties. You’ll find 30+ wineries nestled in amongst the pines in the towns of Lincoln, Auburn, Grass Valley and Nevada City. Along the way there is no shortage of spots to stop for sightseeing, shopping or grabbing a delicious bite.
LIVERMORE – Did you know that Livermore is one of California’s oldest wine regions? It’s true! Spanish missionaries who settled in the area planted the first wine grapes in the 1760s.
In 1889, a wine from a Livermore winery, Cresta Blanca, won the Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition, making it the first competition won by an American winery. This certainly gave the CA wine industry an early boost and worldwide recognition.
“Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietal labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah. Nearly 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines trace their genetic roots to a Livermore Valley clone. Livermore Valley also boasted more than 50 wineries until Prohibition and contributed significantly to the state’s enology and viticulture that lives on today.” – https://www.lvwine.org/history.php
Today, there are more than 45 wineries established in the region, which is just a 90 minute drive from downtown Sacramento. Amongst the wineries, there are two that were founded prior to Prohibition: Concannon Vineyards (https://www.concannonvineyard.com/) and Wente Vineyards which was established in 1883, and is the longest, continuously operated family-owned winery in California (https://wentevineyards.com/).
Of course, if your heart is set on visiting Napa and Sonoma Valleys, we still have you covered. From Sacramento, you are only 61 and 68 miles away, respectively. A quick trip west on Interstate 80, and then a short jaunt up Highway 12 will land you right in the middle of these world-famous wine regions.
NAPA VALLEY – Just 61 miles from downtown Sacramento, with 400+ wineries.
SONOMA VALLEY – Just 68 miles from downtown Sacramento, and 400+ wineries.
Reason #2 -No Reservations Needed In the smaller wine regions surrounding Sacramento, like Amador and El Dorado counties, wine tasting appointments are generally not required. As Napa continues to grow in popularity, the stress put on wineries and on the area amenities to accommodate the number of visitors has increased tremendously. As such, the vast majority of wineries in Napa Valley now require an appointment. According to www.napavalley.com, of 484 wineries in Napa, only 71 welcome walk-ins. All others require an advance reservation.
Reason #3 – Affordable Wine Tasting Experiences Wine tasting experiences in Napa and Sonoma routinely start at $20 or $25/per person, with plenty of options hitting the $75 or $100 per person mark. With a quick random survey, here are the approximate basic wine tasting fees for each of the previously mentioned regions:
- Amador County: $0 – $10
- El Dorado County: $5 – $15
- Yolo County: $5 – $10
- Calaveras County: $5 – $10
- Lodi: $5 – $10
- Livermore: $5 – $20
- Northern Sierra: $7 – $10
- Sonoma: $20+
- Napa: $20 – $150
Additionally, if you plan to purchase bottles of wine at the wineries you visit, you’ll also get more bang for your buck in these smaller wine regions. A report posted by Grape Connect, shows average grape prices more than 3X higher in Napa compared to Amador County and Lodi in 2018. This cost differential translates directly into the end bottle cost.
Reason #4 Diversity of Offerings – If you seek something new or uncommon, the wine regions in the areas surrounding Sacramento are less dependent on any single varietal than Napa or Sonoma. You’ll find a diverse array of offerings including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet, plus varietals of Bordelaise, Italian, Iberian and Rhone heritage.
Reason #5 Affordable Accommodations – Staying in Sacramento is significantly less expensive than the morea heavily traveled tourist destinations of San Francisco, Napa or Sonoma. See below for average nightly rates (sample used dates of 3/14-3/15/20):
- Airbnb Average Nightly Rate: $81
- Hotel Average Nightly Rate: $126
- Airbnb Average Nightly Rate: $129
- Hotel Average Nightly Rate: $166
- Airbnb Average Nightly Rate: $277
- Hotel Average Nightly Rate: $269
- Airbnb Average Nightly Rate: $211
- Hotel Average Nightly Rate: $201
For more information about hotels in Sacramento, visit: https://www.visitsacramento.com/hotels/
Reason #6- Fly into One of the Nation’s Top 5 Airports – Sacramento International Airport ranked #5 in the nation according to The Points Guy’s Special Report: “ The Best and Worst US Airports of 2019.” The airport, which sits on the northern outskirts of Sacramento, is easily accessible from Interstate 5. Compared to airport competitors in the Bay Area, navigating the roads that lead to parking, terminals, and rental cars is a breeze.
Additionally, with a $1 billion renovation in 2011, SMF received physical upgrades to Terminal B including updated décor, eye-catching artwork, the addition of new locally-based restaurants, etc. Service improvements were also incorporated and SMF boasts security wait time averages of less than 10 minutes. The buildings are bright, open, and clean and help foster feelings of calm during travel which despite travelers’ best efforts always seems a bit harried. www.wineflightsinsacramento.com
Reason #7 – You Can Experience Wine by Boat & by Train – Sacramento has two unique wine-related excursions:
SACRAMENTO RIVER CRUISES & WINE TOURS – Jump on board an old retired lobster boat for a leisurely cruise along the Sacramento River through the Clarksburg AVA in Yolo County. You’ll be treated to local wine, cheese & charcuterie, a little history and endless entertainment by Captain Emil Gagliardi. https://www.sacrivercruise.com/
SACRAMENTO RIVER TRAIN – The Sacramento River Train offers a 2.5 hour round trip that starts in West Sacramento and travels along the Sacramento River all the way to Woodland. Take in the beautiful scenery, listen to music, relax and sip from the selection of 15 local wines aboard the Old Vine Express. It’s an excursion that is great for couples and groups, and is truly unique. https://www.sacramentorivertrain.com/old-vine-express/
Reason #8 – Sacramento Knows and Loves to Share Good Food & Wine
FARM-TO-FORK CAPITAL OF AMERICA – Surrounded by 1.5 million acres of farm land and ranches, and home to over 160 different crops, Sacramento is the nation’s agricultural epicenter. Our chef’s celebrate the bounty of the region throughout the area’s diverse, exciting and ever-growing restaurant scene.
MICHELIN RECOGNITION – In recognition of the progressive and stellar food scene, Sacramento (as of 2019) is now reviewed in the Michelin guides. One star, and numerous Bib Gourmand and Plates (for a total of 14 awards) were bestowed upon restaurants in the region. (If you plan to visit Sacramento’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, The Kitchen, make sure you plan well in advance.) https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/california/us-sacramento/sacramento/restaurants
Reason #9 You Can Explore Wine in a New Way within the City Limits by Creating Your Own Urban Wine Walk.
If you just have a day to explore, set out on foot, starting at DOCO (Downtown Commons) near The Sawyer Hotel on K Street in downtown Sacramento and check out some of these wine purveyors along this half-mile stretch:
Echo & Rig (500 J Street, Suite 150, Sacramento) – Cloned from Las Vegas and dropped in Sacramento, this steakhouse offers over 20 selections of wine by-the-glass, and they offer a ½ glass option. While heavily skewed toward CA wines, they do offer some international selections from Italy, Germany, France, Argentina and Australia. Most of the selections are from recognizable producers, but there are a few fun and unexpected choices hailing from more esoteric wineries. www.echoandrig.com
Recommended food & wine pairings: Two Hands Hopes & Dreams Barossa Valley Red Blend ($8/half-glass) paired with the Pork Belly Burnt Ends ($11.50)
Taittinger La Francaise ($23/glass) paired with Alaskan Red King Crab served cold with mustard sauce, cocktail sauce and lemon ($19).
Fizz (615 David J Stern Walk, #105, Sacramento) – Drop in to Sacramento’s first and only Champagne and bubbles bar and celebrate the day! This elegant little bar offers an extensive list of sparkling wine from around the world, and a brief, but thoughtfully considered selection of nibbles. By-the-glass prices range from $8 to $95, with most options in the mid-teens to mid-$20s. The staff is helpful and ready to recommend, and the proprietor is passionate. Check out one of their wine flights (ranging from $20 to $99 for three 3 oz. pours) and discover something new like Wassler Cremant d’Alsace 2018 Rose of Pinot ($17/glass). www.fizzinsac.com
Recommended food & wine pairing: Monthuys Brut Reserve Charley-sur Marne ($22/glass) and crispy Duck Fat Fries ($8/regular or $15/large).
Bailarin Cellars (720 K Street, Sacramento) If you need a little shot of caffeine, but you still want to taste wine, then check out Bailarin as they are a neatly packaged combination of an espresso bar, featuring Sacramento’s own Insight Coffee Roasters, and wine tasting room. At the front half of the establishment you can grab a latte and a muffin, and then head towards the back for a glass, flight or bottle of wine from Bailarin Cellars. The wines are beautifully and elegantly styled, and celebrate Sonoma County vineyards (Suacci Vineyard, Black Knight, Indian Springs Ranch) through expressions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. www.bailarincellars.com
Recommended food & wine pairing: Cheese or Charcuterie Board ($14 small, $18 large) paired with a Bailarin Tasting Flight of 5 wines ($10).
Empress Tavern (1013 K Street, Sacramento) – Ever drink wine in a basement? No? Well mark this one off your bucket list and head on down (literally) to Empress Tavern, located below the historic Crest Theater. Here you’ll find a cozy space (although it can be noisy) accented by art deco bits and a wavy open brick ceiling. The by-the-glass wine list is focused and very food friendly. Prices range from $10 – $15 per glass, and selections include such things as Spitz & Fils Alsatian Pinot Gris ($12/glass), Von Winning Pfalz Germany Rose of Pinot Noir ($13/glass), and a local favorite – Easton Cooper Ranch Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($14/glass). The food menu is limited but the selections are solid and hearty, and there are a number of vegetarian options available. www.empresstavern.com
Recommended food & wine pairing: From the lunch menu – Chicken-fried mushrooms with crystal hot sauce, “drive thru” aioli ($8) paired with Groundwork Central Coast Counoise ($10/glass).
Ella Dining Room & Bar (1131 K Street, Sacramento) – High ceilings and a refined décor welcome you at Ella, one of Sacramento’s staples for upscale dining. Grab a seat at the bar, and pour over the beautiful and thoughtfully selected wine list that showcases a wide range of wines from near and far. Most glasses range $10 – $25, but there are a few special sips topping the $35/glass price point. The food menu is creative and relies heavily on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. If you’re going to splurge, this is the place to do it. www.elladiningroomandbar.com
Recommended food & wine pairing: The menus change frequently and seasonally so we recommend striking up a conversation with your bartender or server for their favorite suggestions.
Brasserie Capitale (1201 K Street, Sacramento) – Last on the trail, but certainly not least, is Brasserie Capitale, one of our favorite hangout spots in downtown Sacramento. Your visit to Brasserie will transport you instantly to a beautiful, bright Parisian bistro on a tree-lined street. The wine list has a serious French lean and complements the fresh ingredients and French cuisine. www.brasseriecapitale.com
Recommended food & wine pairing: Moules Frites ($26) that can be shared, paired with Domaine Emmanuel Fellot Chardonnay Beaujolais-Villages Blanc ($10).
Reason #10 River City Wine Week – Beginning in 2019, Sacramento hosted its first ever wine-themed festival during the summer. If you are planning to visit the state capital during the summer, this week-long celebration takes place at the beginning of August. Restaurants, wine bars, wineries and wine shops in the region host unique wine-focused dinners, pairings, seminars and tastings. For up-to-date listings and more information, visit www.rivercitywineweek.com.
There you go! We’ve offered you ten reasons to spend your next viti-cation in Sacramento. We are waiting to welcome you and share the amazing wine regions that surround our dynamic and beautiful capital city. So, pour yourself another glass of wine and start packing! We can’t wait to see you! Cheers!
Carrie Boyle is a long-time Sacramento resident with over 20 years in the wine industry. She is a Certified Specialist of Wine, a Wine Judge, online Wine Writer for Sacramento Magazine and the co-founder of River City Wine Week.