2021’s Best California Wine Counties

Man and woman tasting wine and taking notes

California is the nation’s wine garden and wine cellar, but which counties produce the most award-winning reds and whites, host the most wine tours, and are most popular and affordable for wine connoisseurs to visit?

Is Napa County tops in all categories? Nada. Napa didn’t even produce the most award-winning wines in 2019-2020.

LawnStarter ranked California’s counties on the number of wine producers, wine tours, and award-winning wines. We also looked at wine tour reviews and the number and price ranges of hotels and B&Bs around the wineries.

Below, check out our ranking of wine counties in the Golden State, highlights and lowlights, and experts commenting on what makes California wines so special.

Table of Contents

  1. County Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Ask the Experts
  4. Methodology
  5. California’s All-Over Wine Scene

County Rankings

See how each county fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKCountyOverall ScoreAccess RankAccolades RankAccommodations RankActivities Rank
1Napa County76.11285
2Stanislaus County66.37241317
3Sonoma County58.5123147
4San Joaquin County36.63741910
5Yolo County33.92197206
6Solano County32.581222152
7San Luis Obispo County32.5536631
8Alameda County32.531516214
9Sacramento County32.511023111
10Marin County32.42272371
11Contra Costa County31.641823172
12Lake County28.95912439
13Santa Clara County27.9817132412
14Sutter County27.674623128
15Amador County27.38169522
16San Diego County26.5313142616
17El Dorado County25.791417426
18Santa Barbara County25.325104819
19Santa Cruz County25.2720232714
20San Mateo County25.2523153115
21San Benito County24.138231129
22San Francisco County24.0725234013
23Yuba County23.122923230
24Mendocino County23.02455143
25Orange County22.6738233018
26Calaveras County22.0131231627
27Placer County21.5933202920
28Los Angeles County21.4911183432
29Monterey County21.396233335
30Ventura County20.7632203521
31Riverside County20.452283638
32Shasta County19.8426233924
33Nevada County19.4835233828
34Merced County19.0242231040
35Lassen County18.2148234724
36Butte County17.914423941
37Kings County17.3848233734
38Tuolumne County16.3939235033
39Madera County15.8336182345
40Humboldt County15.8134234636
41Trinity County15.7930234439
42Mariposa County15.1141234937
43Mono County15.0148235223
44Glenn County14.8148232544
45Sierra County13.6348234542
46Tehama County12.5739231848
47Tulare County12.2745234146
48Siskiyou County12.2442231351
49San Bernardino County12.1637114251
50Imperial County11.848232847
51Kern County11.528232249
52Fresno County10.3321233250
53Modoc County3.446235351
Best California wines infographic

Highlights and Lowlights

Napa Wins by a Sommelier’s Nose

Napa County is — no surprise really — No. 1 overall on our list of California’s Best Wine Counties. Napa leads in the Access category of our rankings, meaning the number of wine producers, blenders, and AVAs, but it finishes No. 2 in the Accolades category. 

Why runner-up in Accolades? Lesser-known Stanislaus County bests Napa with more total award-winning wines produced by fewer wine producers. 

For fans of the reds, whites, and pinks, Napa — and neighboring Sonoma County, which finished No. 3 overall — have so many wine producers there’s a wine for every taste and price. And there are a lot of wine-related activities, too. Visit the wineries, tour the vineyards, or stay overnight where the grapes are pressed — for vinophiles, Napa and Sonoma will put you on cloud wine. 

A Time of Wine and Rosés 

Counties like Stanislaus (No. 2 overall), San Joaquin (No. 4), Yolo (No. 5), and Solano (No. 6) shine as hidden gems for wine aficionados. These counties are off the beaten path compared to Napa and Sonoma, meaning their wineries are less busy and nearby accommodations are more charming. 

Being off the beaten path makes for a cozy, romantic wine getaway — a time of wine and rosés — if you live near these counties in California. Lodging is more affordable than in the big wine meccas, too. 

Bigger Isn’t Better for Wine Counties

Counties home to the Golden State’s biggest cities didn’t fare well in our ranking. San Diego County (at No. 16 overall) leads the big-city counties with San Francisco and Los Angeles finishing at Nos. 22 and 28 respectively.

Why aren’t California’s more urban areas among the Best California Wine Counties? Land costs, lodging expenses, restaurants — everything costs more in bigger cities, but there’s also so much more to do in metro areas. Savoring great wines often takes a backseat to visiting theme parks, movie studios, and natural wonders like redwoods.

Ask The Experts

Why is California the wine center of the U.S. and renowned around the world? We asked experts and vinophiles what makes California’s reds and whites — and wineries — so special.

Read their comments to the following questions below:

  1. Why is California such a wine hot spot? What is it about the climate?
  2. How are California wineries adapting to changing tastes?
  3. Are California wines overrated? Why or why not?
  4. What is your favorite California winery memory? What made it so memorable?
Benoît Lecat, Ph.D.
Wine and Viticulture Department Head, Professor of Wine Business
Dr. Qun (Kristy) Sun
Assistant Professor of Enology, Department of Viticulture and Enology
Benoît Lecat, Ph.D.
Wine and Viticulture Department Head, Professor of Wine Business
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo

Why is California such a wine hot spot? What is it about the climate?

California has a fantastic Mediterranean climate for growing vines. Unlike France, where you have only several outstanding vintages per decade (Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne), California has a great vintage nearly every year. It is due to the Mediterranean climate like you have in Southern France, Italy, Greece, etc.

How are California wineries adapting to changing tastes?

I think you have two kinds of winery groups.

The first group are the ones that are rather small and selling direct-to-consumer through their tasting rooms.

In this case, the wineries have a style implemented by the winemaker, and the only way they can adapt to the consumers is to propose different wine categories: rosé, sparkling, sweet, fortified, red, or white. They can also propose different grape varieties from the local area where they are based, or, alternatively, they can also source grapes from other areas.

The second group of wineries represents the large corporations who try to target all the generations going from baby boomers to the coming Z Generation.

They can propose brands with different tastes (buttery chardonnay or stainless-steel tank chardonnay). They can also propose different packaging: wines in bottle, in pet, in cans, in tetra pack, in bag-in box, etc., or even create new categories like hard seltzer, wine with low alcohol, gluten-free/vegan-friendly wines, etc.

Those producers are selling their wines through large chains of grocery stores, liquor stores, or restaurants and have a strong sales force and marketing experts to maintain and develop new markets.

Are California wines overrated? Why or why not?

No, the wines in California are not overrated. Since the Judgement of Paris in 1976, California definitely deserves a spot on the wine world map.

You can find wines from California in all the price ranges. Let’s take an example with cabernet sauvignon. You can find a broad range price for cabernet sauvignon in a liquor store chain like Total Wine and More from $1.97 to $1,600.

Of course, depending on your taste, social status, wine exposure, drinking occasion, etc., you will buy more of a good value for money or a very luxurious wine. You can already find a great-value wine for around $13 like J. Lohr Cabernet Seven Oaks in Paso Robles, but if you want a Napa Valley wine from Carol’s Vineyard for the same brand, you will have to pay around $55.

What is your favorite California winery memory? What made it so memorable?

All of the wineries I visited are unique and give a memorable experience. When you visit their tasting rooms, they are all trying to host their clients and make them feel they are very special. I’ve been visiting more than 300 wineries in California, and all of them have their own identity.

Some examples:

  • Edna Valley Vineyard in Edna Valley/San Luis Obispo with a spectacular view while tasting in the bar
  • Justin Vineyards and Winery with their great restaurant and special releases only sold on site
  • J. Lohr in Paso Robles where the guests can bring their dogs and have them pictured in a frame
  • Duckhorn Vineyards in a quiet, friendly patio in the heart of St. Helena
  • Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena with their limited-production, estate-grown wines that honor the legacy of founder Mario Trinchero
  • Many others in different regions like Andrew Murray Vineyards in Santa Ynez, Michael David Winery in Lodi, Ancient Peaks in Santa Margarita, Ridge Vineyards in Santa Cruz, Center of Effort in Edna Valley, or the private Abreu Vineyards in St. Helena, etc.

There are so many of them, and I have probably forgotten some experiences. Being from Europe, what impressed me is that each winery is using its creativity to reflect its brand values and the history of the wine region.

Dr. Qun (Kristy) Sun
Assistant Professor of Enology, Department of Viticulture and Enology
Fresno State University

Why is California such a wine hot spot? What is it about the climate?

California makes nearly 90% of all U.S. wine and is the world’s fourth leading wine producer. It has over 635,000 acres of wine grapes and 4,200 bonded wineries.

California has a Mediterranean climate, which is ideal for grape growing. The long growing seasons can make enough sunshine to ripen the grapes. But winters in California are mild with little threat of frost damage though springtime.

California’s wines usually tend to be fruit-forward and flavorful. They are very different from wines produced in the Old World like France. Since the 1970s, the vineyard management and winemaking innovations, such as using new irrigation systems and new strains of yeast, also vastly improved the California wine quality.

California is one of the most geologically diverse regions. It varies greatly in the range of climates and soil.

The California wine region can be divided into the North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and Central Valley. Each region has its unique climate. For example, Napa Valley has a temperate climate with a long growing season. It has warm days to accumulate sugar, color, and aroma in grapes and the cool evening to preserve the acidity. The Central Valley is the largest wine region and produces three-quarters of the state’s grapes. It has a very different climate with hot summers and less rainfall. The vineyards are heavily dependent on irrigation techniques.

How are California wineries adapting to changing tastes?

Many wineries in California have survived by adapting to changing tastes. Understand that the market is very critical for them to increase sales, seek out and expand new markets.

Based on the “State of the US Wine industry 2021” report, red blends wine shows growth of 3.9%. The sales growth for specialty wines, in particular agave-based wines, is 11%.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the trend toward health and wellness. Agave wine is much lower in alcohol content and calories. Prosecco, sangria, and sauvignon blanc are other varieties getting popular among consumers.

Wineries are adjusting their strategies based on market trends to meet consumer needs.

Are California wines overrated? Why or why not?

There are so many wines in the market nowadays. Not all wines in the world are created equal. Some wines claim too much fame and get more credit than they should. It is also very easy for us to miss some hidden-gem wines. It might happen in California and also happen to other wine regions.

As a consumer, you should not just rely on price or wine score to determine a wine’s quality. The consumer study found that the correlation between price and overall rating is small, especially for individuals without wine training experience. So, high-price wine does not always mean high-quality wine. The price not only reflects the production cost, but also the rarity and prestige of wine.

What is your favorite California winery memory? What made it so memorable?

My favorite California winery memory is when I had a Napa Valley winery tour in summer of 2018. I visited several wineries, such as Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Robert Mondavi Winery.

I like Napa Valley not only because the region has beautiful vineyards, elegant wineries, high-quality wine, but also the history and spirit behind it. The efforts of pioneers during the last 50 years really put California wine on the world wine map and have been inspiring generations of people to work hard and continue to make legends.

Methodology

We ranked 53 California counties from best (No. 1) to worst (No. 53) based on their overall scores. A county’s overall score (out of 100 possible points) is the average of all of its weighted scores across the metrics listed below.

Five counties were excluded from our sample due to lack of Access and Accolades data: Alpine, Colusa, Del Norte, Inyo, and Plumas.

MetricWeightingMin. ValueMax. ValueBest
Access
Number of Wine Producers and Blenders111289Max. Value
Number of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)1019Max. Value
Accolades
Number of Gold Medals Won in Wine Competitions (2019-2020)3023Max. Value
Number of Silver Medals Won in Wine Competitions (2019-2020)20108Max. Value
Number of Bronze Medals Won in Wine Competitions (2019-2020)1045Max. Value
Total Award Score (2019-2020)30288Max. Value
Accommodations
Number of Hotels and B&Bs119481Max. Value
Average Accommodation Rating12.244.06Max. Value
Average Price Range of Accommodations ($-$$$)112Min. Value
Activities
Number of Wine Tours20241Max. Value
Average Rating of Wine Tours22.795Max. Value

Sources: Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, USA Wine Ratings, and Yelp

California’s All-Over Wine Scene

No matter where you live or whether you prefer glass, box, or can, California wines are toasted as being some of the best in the world.  

From Northern to Southern California, there are wineries where you can sip back and taste the fruits of all that sun, rich soil, and long growing season. The Golden State’s perfect climate is the reason so many grape vines and wine tours have sprouted here.

Yes, 2020’s wildfires ravaged California’s wine country and tested winery owners. Some made no wine at all last year. Months after the wildfires were doused, vintners are still assessing the damage the lingering smoke did to grapes and wines.

While some California vintners currently are making the most of the bumper crop of 2018 and 2019 wines, the key takeaway, according to Wine Spectator, is that the wines that did get made in 2020 are likely to be very good.

Check local wineries for pandemic-related safety protocols before heading out for a grape escape. 

But, no, you don’t have to live within driving distance of Napa to savor the state’s best wines. Use our LawnStarter California wine list to find some award-winning wines and popular wine tours, and pay less for your hotel or Airbnb rental in counties across the state.

Or check out LawnStarter’s wine list of Best Wine Counties Outside California. There likely are some memorable, affordable, and savorable wines and wineries near where you live.

We’ll drink to that. Responsibly, of course.

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jeff Herman

Jeff Herman

Jeff Herman, editor-in-chief of LawnStarter, mowed lawns as a teen, and his uncle owned the biggest sod business in St. Louis. Previously, Herman worked at The New York Times, CreditCards.com, and most recently at AllAboutVision.com. Now Herman is All About Lawn Care.