When you hear ‘Wine Country’, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Napa, or possibly Sonoma, the two most popular winemaking regions in California. When we were planning this leg of our trip we were hit with the reality that we really couldn’t afford camping at $60 or $70 per night most campgrounds in those areas charge. Luckily, California offers a cheaper, more casual, less uptight alternative to the crowds of Napa in areas like Lodi, Merced, and Lake County.
Yeah I know I was hard on the Central Valley in my previous posts, but there is one good reason to visit. Wine. And what better way to tour California’s ‘other’ wine country than to actually stay at the winery itself? You can’t do that in Napa!
Using our Harvest Hosts member benefits, we were able to stay at four different California wineries for free. Yes, that’s right FREE! While the camping was free, the nightly expense was still about the same as we would have paid in a campground due to our wine purchases. Harvest Hosts is the ultimate win-win. Guests get free camping. Hosts get new customers, as well as some word-of-mouth advertising.
Our first stop on our Central Valley wine tour was Vista Ranch and Cellars in Merced, just off Highway 140 on the way to Yosemite. This was a unique Harvest Hosts location due to the fact that they had partial hookups (electric and water), which were much appreciated. Electric for AC was especially appreciated in the steamy Central Valley. We stopped over to the tasting room where we met Tom, our friendly Sommelier and Yosemite expert. Every winery we visited was cool with our kids being there and Vista Ranch was no exception. The boys were even provided with coloring sheets and crayons while Mom and Dad did a wine tasting.
The wines were excellent, the tasting was generous, and Tom was a great host. When our son by the same name decided to color on his chair, Tom was gracious and said not to worry about it. For the record, Jackie did successfully remove all of Thomas’s graffiti with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Not the first time the Magic Eraser saved our honkey asses, and it certainly won’t be the last. We bought a couple bottles of wine and headed back to the RV. After dinner, we took a tour around the grounds. We had the place to ourselves, a nice change of pace from the sardine can atmosphere of most other camping spots.
Our next Harvest Host would be Viaggio Estate and Winery in Lodi. For the past few years, Lodi has been gaining popularity in wine circles, with some even claiming its wines are on par with those of Napa and Sonoma. The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the scale of the estate. Viaggio’s tasting room is huge and impeccably decorated with dark wood and dark leather. Behind the tasting room is a large patio that extends into a huge open grassy area bordering the Mokelumne River.
Again, we opted for a wine tasting. Did you know the tasting charge usually gets waived with the purchase of a couple bottles? We didn’t. Again, we bought a couple bottles. After dinner, the boys ran around the grassy area, while Jackie snapped photos. Again, we enjoyed the privacy. There was one other RV spending the night as well, a friendly couple from Orange County. We enjoyed talking with them about their favorite California camping destinations.
The next night we remained in the Lodi area and stayed at Jessie’s Grove, a winery that’s been around since 1868. Jessie’s Grove features the oldest Zinfandel vines in the Lodi Appellation. These 120-year-old ‘ancient vines’ are thick and gnarled providing contrast to the taller, skinny, and well-trained vines that have been planted more recently. Jessie’s Grove is a family operation and everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming.
By now we had our routine down. First taste some wine, then buy some wine, then explore the property. This might have been the kid’s favorite Harvest Host due to the goats, cats, horses, and Tortie the tortoise. Yes, they’ve got a tortoise. Tortie’s huge, maybe 2 feet long. The boys loved him. We ended up staying two nights at Jessie’s Grove which allowed us time to travel up to Sacramento to meet an old friend of Jackie’s. Most Harvest Hosts are a one night only affair, but some including Jessie’s Grove are ok with guests staying multiple nights.
The next day we left the Central Valley and made our way towards Lake County, another wine region known for its volcanic soil and Tempranillo wines. Lake County is located just north of Napa County. On our way, we did pass through Napa wine country. It looked a little rich for our blood, and a little crowded for our introverted personalities. Our destination for the next two nights would be Six Sigma Ranch in Lower Lake, a 4300-acre cattle ranch and winery.
By now you know what we did. Tasted wine. Bought wine. Explored. The wine was excellent, and we bought some pork sausage from the ranch as well. Owner Kaj, a six sigma expert and former GE executive, greeted us personally. The campsite was spacious, and the ranch was beautiful. We camped under giant oak trees, next to a small creek. There was a pet potbelly pig that fascinated the boys, and a Pinzgauer (6×6 Austrian military vehicle) they use for winery tours. Hiking and biking trails are available for wine club members and high school mountain bike racers.
And thus concludes our foray into California wine country. Would Napa wines have been better? Possibly. Would we be able to tell? Absolutely not. Did we have a good time? Yes, and we truly appreciate the hospitality provided by all of our Harvest Hosts. As for Lodi the town, CCR was pretty much right on the money. I’ve omitted the picture of the homeless guy performing toe surgery in the park. Botched toe!