“You can’t really say harvest happens late or early,” a winery owner explained to me recently. Grapes ripen on their own schedule and need to be picked when they’re ready, not when humans plan for autumn-welcoming parties to happen. Because of summer months where more than 80 percent of California experienced exceptional drought conditions, actual picking has only just wrapped in many areas of the West, so you probably won’t experience that heady grapey aroma as you’re driving through Wine Country. That said, it’s not too late to savor the fun of fall wine harvest festivals. These events are a great way to try the character and flavor of a region, since purchasing a “passport” or “visa” sometimes allows you to taste wine and enjoy appetizers at many of the wineries in the area. When it comes to harvest festivals, it’s as if the whole region rolls out the red carpet to charm visitors — and outdo their neighbors — by showing off their best wine, food and overall good time. Here are three harvest festivals to experience out west this fall:
Santa Barbara is a magical place with heavenly ocean views and a down-to-earth vibe, even though world-class wines are never more than an arm’s reach away. Harvest was early this year for many of the 120 wineries, so you’ll able to meet more vintners than usual. New to this year’s Celebration of Harvest (October 10-13) is La Paulée de Santa Barbara, an exclusive dinner by Chef Pink of Bacon & Brine. Attendees show up with a treasured bottle from their personal cellar to share. Be sure to see the gorgeous new tasting room at Andrew Murray and visit Santa Maria to explore the up-and-coming Presqu’ile, which makes terroir-driven chardonnays and pinots in a gravity-flow winery. Whichever direction your nose takes you, just be certain to come back to Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang for the Harvest Festival Grand Tasting on October 11.
Where to Stay: Though high-end accommodations are plentiful near Santa Barbara, we suggest the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Bacara Resort & Spa, a 330-room charmer overlooking the Pacific. The resort’s signature eatery, Four-Star Miró Restaurant, has a menu full of traditional Spanish dishes that pairs wonderfully with a 12,000-bottle wine cellar.
Part of the better-known Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley is Washington State’s oldest designated wine region. And many experts consider it one of the hidden treasures of the West, with terrain and temperatures that create wines that are ripe but restrained and complex. The state’s most venerable cabernet sauvignon vines are here, and besides cabs and chardonnay, you’ll find everything from picpoul de pinet to riesling and muscat canelli to mourvèdre. Acclaimed boutique wineries to visit during Catch the Crush (October 11-12) include Kiona Vineyards and Winery, Thurston Wolfe and Kestrel Vintners. Wear old shoes in case you decide to visit Airfield Estates, owned by the Millers, a fourth-generation wine family. They’re hosting their 8th annual 5K Vineyard Run and Grape Stomp on Saturday, October 11. The latter event will be used to help create Airfield Estates’ 2014 Ruby Rosé.
Where to Stay: Yakima isn’t boutique hotel country, so head to a relaxing B&B such as the historic Rosedell Mansion. But if you have some freedom with your schedule, The Davenport Hotel and Tower is the way to go. Though the Four-Star property is in Spokane, the impeccably restored, Victorian-era hotel proves more than worth the three-hour drive from the harvest.
A ruggedly beautiful area just 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles is considered one of the hottest wine regions in the nation. The area is blessed with a climate that does wonderful things to zinfandel, Rhône varietals such as viognier and syrah as well as Bordeaux blends. More than 130 wineries are hosting separate events with different entry fees during Harvest Wine Weekend (October 17-19); keep track of all the happenings with the PasoWineApp for the iPhone. Some of the highlights include the pig roast and dancing at Cass Vineyard and Winery (October 17) or barrel sampling at Peachy Canyon Winery (October 18-19). If you’re curious about the members-only, highly allocated Bordeaux-Rhône blends crafted at The Farm Winery, Harvest Wine Weekend is the best chance for guests to taste.
Where to Stay: We suggest reserving one of three chic suites at The Just Inn at Justin Winery. Though each is named after one of their signature blends, our eye is on the Justification, with its sleek, midcentury vibe and balcony overlooking the vines.