Wine tours

A signpost on the road outside of Justin Vineyards & Winery near Paso Robles guides wine lovers to their next stop. (Chris Hardy)

Even if you spit, hire a designated driver and plan your route with the efficiency of a mom navigating Costco, there are only so many wineries you can visit in a day. Which is a problem in California, home to nearly 3,000 wineries. Most of them make terrific wine. And most of them are willing to pour you a taste.

This is where the three itineraries below come in. They include not only plenty of tasting but also tours that involve more than staring at fermentation tanks. And none requires spitting, unless it's your thing.

Healdsburg ( Sonoma County)

Preston Vineyards is a champ at not taking itself too seriously. It pastures pigs in the vineyard and sells underpants that say, "Laid in Preston" in the tasting room.

The pigs, along with the sheep and chickens, are Lou Preston's approach to sustainable agriculture. The underpants refer to the fresh eggs Preston sells in the tasting room. Visit on Sunday, and you can fill a jug with Guadagni red directly from the barrel. Visit any day, and you can soak up your wine with his freshly baked bread.

Seghesio Family Vineyards is all about family (the Seghesios have been making Sonoma wine for four generations) and food. Especially food. The Family Table tasting pairs Seghesio wine with Seghesio family recipes. And during events, you can learn how to make pizza or stuff your own sausage. You can also take a bottle of wine out to the boccie courts.

Ridge Vineyards makes serious wine in an unserious atmosphere. Really serious wine. Its Monte Bello Cabernet blend earned 97 points from Wine Spectator. For an extra fee, you can include it in your tasting. Ridge also has one of the most spectacular picnic spots in all Sonoma, set at the edge of rolling hills crisscrossed with vineyards.

Napa Valley

John Williams of Frog's Leap is one of Napa's organic pioneers. And how can you not love a winery whose motto is "Time's fun when you're having flies"? Visit here, and you can taste while seated inside the first LEED-certified building in the California wine industry, or outside on the porch overlooking the organic garden. Between sips of Williams' dry-farmed wine, wander through the peach orchard to see the chickens. Flies optional.

The Hall family of Long Meadow Ranch is so proud of this sustainable 650-acre property its members will drive you around it in an all-terrain Swiss army Pinzgaur to see the rammed-earth winery, grass-fed cattle and a pair of heritage breed hogs too lazy to breed. If you're feeling less adventurous, you can visit the new tasting room on California Highway 29, buy organic produce and sample the elegant wines and olive oil.

Visiting the tasting room at Cade, Napa's newest green winery, is like being in the living room of a friend with excellent taste and an unlimited Design Within Reach budget. White leather Barcelona chairs. A minimalist sofa. And floor-to-ceiling windows showing off the view of Howell Mountain. Even the caves look as if they're ready for an Architectural Digest photo shoot. Winemaker Anthony Biagi requires his workers to sand wine stains off the barrels. He's equally meticulous about the wine.

Paso Robles

Gary Eberle is the Johnny Syrah-seed of Paso Robles. In the mid-1970s, he planted the first commercial Syrah in the state, and you can still find it at Eberle Winery Vineyards, along with a T-shirt that says, "Up Shiraz." Time it right and Eberle will barbecue you duck sausage to go with one of his full-bodied reds. Both of which you can enjoy from the fabulous wrap-around deck above the vineyards.

Jeff Pipes of Pipestone Vineyards was the kind of kid who grew up watching the Farm Report. Now he plants his organic vineyard according to the principles of feng shui and cultivates it using a pair of draft horses. At Pipestone, you're welcome to wander into the vineyard and check out the goats, or just settle in at a picnic table with some wine and soak up the chi.

Justin Baldwin started out as an investment banker, but it's impossible to hold that against him once you've tried the wines at Justin Vineyards & Winery. If you want to understand why Baldwin's wines are so impressive -- Wine Spectator named his Isosceles Reserve one of the world's top 10 wines of the year -- you must take the tour, guaranteed to turn you into an expert on maceration and tank agitation. Justin is also home to the four luxurious suites of the Just Inn, and Deborah's Room, one of the more cozily romantic restaurants on the planet.

Robert Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard is a patient man. In the late 1980s, he and the Perrin family (producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape) decided to make wine exclusively from French vines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture required that the vines be quarantined for three years before spending two more years in Tablas Creek's vine nursery. The Tablas tour focuses on farming -- you even get a demonstration of the guillotine-like grafting machine. And the wine is like drinking France by way of California.

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