Forget Napa

Lodi, Winters and Murphys are your next wine-trip destinations

A gorgeous, modern wine-tasting experience two hours from Chico, at m2 Wines in Lodi.

A gorgeous, modern wine-tasting experience two hours from Chico, at m2 Wines in Lodi.


Though Napa remains a vinous paradise for sure, what was once a fairyland of rustic idealism has become a high-stakes endeavor ruled by multinational luxury corporations, where aristocratic gentility has made tasting wine a humorless act. Elsewhere in California, the wine industry has retained the qualities that once made Napa the scourge of France: experimentation, enthusiasm and dedication to the craft without the heavy weight of reputation.

Luckily, Chico is within easy daytripping distance of many of these new up-and-coming wine regions. Here are a few suggestions.

Lodi for zinfandel

The Lodi region produces 40 percent of the state’s zinfandel, grows more than 20,000 vineyard-acres of sustainable grapes, and is home to more than 80 local vintners within 15 minutes of downtown. All you really need to know is that Lodi—just 40 minutes south of Sacramento—is a zinfandel town and many wineries will be pouring you their version of an “old vine zin” made from grapes grown at area vineyards such as Soucie, where the gnarled and twisted vines were established in 1916 and have been tended to by the Soucie family for five generations.

Within the confines of Lodi and its just-north ag-burb of Acampo you’ll find wineries that span the gamut of tastes and styles. On one hand, you have spots like m2 Wines, featuring a gorgeously modern tasting room that opens up to the surrounding vineyards. On the other hand, you have mom-and-pop stops like Heritage Oak Winery, with a wine list that offers a selection of unique single-varietals, such as carignane, that are normally reserved for blending, giving tasters a rare insight into the grapes’ individual profiles.

Heritage Oak scores extra points for the hiking trails through its 100-acre property. Visitors are encouraged to explore the paths through vineyards, meadows and riparian woodlands, all the way to the loamy bank of the Mokelumne River, where picnic tables and a rope swing greet kayakers who reach the winery by river.

Wine. Cheese. Winters.

Located at the foot of the Vaca Mountains, the region around Winters experiences cold breezes from the coastal range and Lake Berryessa, making for a longer, cooler growing season and contributing to a wine scene that is small but well-defined.

Arriving in downtown Winters, you have your choice of four tasting rooms, but their limited hours means you can’t hit them all at once. Whenever you make your trip, plan to visit Turkovich Family Wines, which also houses the family’s Winters Cheese Co., and yes, your free wine tasting does come with a free cheese flight to match. Turkovich’s tasting bar offers a large collection of very good varietals, including a 2015 stainless-aged albariño that took home the double gold at the 2016 state fair competition.

A wine flight here includes five pours of your choice from the list, rounded out by a selection of sparkling wines, though the majority of these are not from the Winters area. The 2011 Sparkling Reserve is made in Mendoza, Argentina, where head winemaker Luciana Turkovich was born and raised, and where her father, also a career winemaker, still crafts excellent blends. The Sparkling Reserve tastes like honey, fresh baked bread and pears, finishing with notes of walnut—and while it is the most expensive bottle they offer, it still rings in at only $43.

Murphys: Tasting rooms for all

Settled as a mining camp in 1848, French and Italian immigrants arriving during the Gold Rush were the first to plant roots in this foothill town, capitalizing on miners’ need for drink. The region’s second wave of viticultural settlers came in the 1970s. That’s when winemakers from Napa and Sonoma migrated to the area, capitalizing on what they found to be extremely inexpensive land. Today, the town boasts a population of around 2,000 people and an astounding 24 tasting rooms.

Most tasting rooms and restaurants are located along the town’s main drag of Main Street, nestled between the occasional art gallery and trinket store.

An old stone shop, which in 1891 was a custom boot and hat store, now holds a long bar backed by a wall of pressed-tin panels: the elegant setting for Vina Moda’s tasting room. The enthusiastic and welcoming staff serves up noteworthy barbera and grenache, making it a good first stop.

Farther down the road, the airy house containing the tasting room for Hovey Winery was the childhood home of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Michelson, the first person to accurately measure the speed of light. Hovey naturally offers two blends in the scientist’s honor, the C2 White and C2 Red, though the barbera is most popular, earning double and single gold awards from the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. All of Hovey’s bottles taste best when sipped outside on the lawn.