Rich pickings in California

It's harvest time in the vineyards of the Golden State, with hundreds of activities over the coming weeks. Andy Lynes raises a glass to the best ways to experience it

What's the attraction?

From Trinity Lake in the rugged, mountainous far north, to the idyllic Ramona Valley in the south; from the spectacular scenery of the Monterey Peninsula on the central coast to the scenic backroads of Amador County in the Sierra foothills in the east, Californians make wine. In fact, they produce more wine here alone than the whole of Australia does.

September's Californian Wine Month (discovercaliforniawines.com/californiawinemonth) is a particularly good time to visit some of the 3,800 wineries – it coincides with the annual harvest and there are special tastings, events and offers throughout the state.

Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virgin holidays.co.uk) offers a week's California Wine Country trip; the price of £1,475 includes flights from Heathrow to San Francisco, car hire and B&B at the Embassy Suites Napa.

Who said that?

"California was the first place on earth to make wine comparable to some of the best Bordeaux.' Hugh Johnson, 'Wine: A Life Uncorked'

"Just when I think my interest in California is flagging, I taste a new wine like Steve Matthiasson's white blend or an old one like Araujo's 1995 Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and get excited all over again.' Jay McInerney, 'The Juice'

"Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living." Californian wine-maker Robert Mondavi

Stay in style

In the first half of the 20th century, the iconic hotel El Encanto in Santa Barbara (001 805 845 5800; elencanto.com) attracted presidents and Hollywood stars. Now restored to its full glamorous glory, it looks set to attract a new generation of celebrity guests and makes the perfect base for exploring the surrounding wine country. With views of the city and the ocean, the 92 luxurious suites and bungalows come with private terraces. Meanwhile, the restaurant features produce from the grounds. Doubles start at $506 (£337), room only.

Another luxurious option is the Calistoga Ranch (001 855 942 4220; calistogaranch.com) which has 48 individual lodges set amid a Napa Valley vineyard. Doubles from $821 (£547), room only.

Tour and taste

The beautiful stone-built O'Shaughnessy Winery (001 707 965 2898; oshaughnessywinery.com) is set in the hills above St Helena with views across the Napa Valley where they make highly acclaimed cabernet sauvignon. Tasting and tours by appointment.

If pinot noir and chardonnay are more your thing, head to the family-owned Schug Estate in Carneros in the Sonoma Valley where the tasting room is open daily 10am to 5pm ($5/£3.30 tasting fee or $10/£6.70 for a reserve tasting). A private tour and tasting costs $30 (£20) and includes the vineyard, crush pad and caves.

Food and wine pairing

If you're a keen cook, then Access Trips (001 650 492 4778; accesstrips.com) has a five-day Sonoma Culinary Tour departing 20 October; the price of $2,590 (£1,726) includes B&B, two cooking classes, two dinners and two lunches, a winery tour and tasting, cheese tasting, farmers' market visit, hiking and transfers, but not flights.

Blend right in

Become a winemaker, if only for a day, by taking a blending workshop at First Crush in Pasa Robles (001 805 434 2772; firstcrushwinemaking.com). During the three-hour session ($60/£40), you'll learn how to evaluate wines and then create your own custom blend using professional tools and techniques. The workshop also includes wine and cheese pairing.

Dining in wine country

Where there's great wine there's bound to be great food, not least because winemakers tend to be gourmets who want to enjoy the fruits of their labours with something delicious. Well-established gastronomic destinations such as The French Laundry (001 707 944 2380; frenchlaundry.com) in Yountville and Manresa (00 1 408 354 4330; manresarestaurant.com) in Los Gatos are still worth seeking out, but there are plenty of more recent openings to fuel your appetite.

Restaurant 1833 in Monterey (001 831 643 1833; restaurant1833.com) offers high-quality casual food such as whole roasted truffled chicken, served up in a 19th-century adobe house. At Chalkboard in Healdsburg (001 707 473 8030; chalkboardhealdsburg.com) chef Shane McAnelly uses produce from the restaurant's Sonoma garden to create fresh and vibrant small plates including beetroot salad with radish, pickled fennel and fried goat's cheese.

Local, seasonal and sustainable is the mantra at Julienne in Santa Barbara (001 805 845 6488; restaurantjulienne.com) where the town's fish and farmer's markets provide the ingredients for sophisticated dishes such as crispy pig's ear with grilled chicory and slow cooked egg.

Insider information

"Coombsville just east of Napa city is the newest appellation in California. I really like it because it's small and not touristy. There's a great little farmers' market and cute shops selling organic cheese and charcuterie. It's a cooler climate – you get the wind and fog from San Pablo Bay – so the grapes, mostly cabernet sauvignon, don't ripen as much as in other parts of Napa. It's right next to the river so you got a lot of alluvian soil and that makes the wines complex, with more acidity, more tannin and lighter fruit. My favourite vineyards in the area are Faust and Sodaro." Vanessa Cinti, Head Sommelier, CUT at 45 Park Lane, London (45ParkLane.com)

Hands-on harvest

There's an opportunity to get hands (and feet) on at Schweiger Vineyards' Old Fashioned Harvest Stomp in St Helena (001 707 963 4882; schweigervineyards.com) on 19 and 26 September. Guests will pick their own grapes and crush them in a wine barrel, as well as getting involved in the more technical side of things by testing the fruit's Brix level which indicates its sugar content. The $150 (£100) admission includes a catered lunch and wine tasting.

Sonoma Valley Crush takes place at dozens of the region's wineries from 27-29 September. A Crush Weekend Wine Tasting Pass costs $35 (£23) and gives access to harvest activities, including helping to stamp grapes, as well as tastings (heartofsonomavalley.com/products).

Meet the winemakers

All 35 member wineries of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association (001 951 699 3626; temeculawines.org) will be in attendance at the Crush on 14 September at Callaway Vineyard and Winery (001 951 676 4001; callawaywinery.com) where you'll be able to meet the winery owners and winemakers and sample their wines as well as food from local restaurants. Tickets $75 (£50). Temecula Creek Inn (001 877 517 1823; temeculacreekinn.com) is offering a Crush package for two people; the price of $449 (£299) includes a two-night stay and two tickets to the Crush.

In St Helena in the Napa Valley, Hall Wines (001 707 967 2626; hallwines.com) is staging a release party for its 2010 Kathryn Hall cabernet sauvignon on 21 September with live Cajun music, a crayfish boil and plenty of wine. Tickets $100 (£67).

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