I have done a lot of California wine tasting through the years. Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Temecula, Paso Robles, and more. But I never realized how much great Gold Country wines and wine tasting opportunities there were until this year’s travels took me up California’s Highway 99.
This area is huge farmland for all kinds of agriculture, including table and wine grapes.
I planned to spend a month or so in the Auburn area, but to get there I used Harvest Hosts to wine-taste my way up California’s interior. And what a great time it was. I stayed at four distinctly different wineries, all part of Harvest Hosts: Vista Ranch in Merced, Jessie’s Grove in Lodi, Chateau Davell in Camino, and Field 15 in Placerville (those last two are very close to each other, but I needed a place to stay for a weekend, and there they were).
To be sure, there are many, many more Harvest Host wineries on this route, so many that it was difficult to choose. So if you have experiences at other Gold Country Harvest Hosts wineries, please drop them in the comments below.
And if you don’t already know about Harvest Hosts, it is an awesome program. For one low annual fee, you can spend the night at thousands of wineries, breweries, restaurants, farms, museums, churches, attractions, and more. Mostly it’s dry camping, but a minority of hosts offer hookups for a fee. Once you pay the fee, the camping is free, although you are expected to spend at least $20 with the host.
A nice bottle of wine and free RV parking? Count me in!
In my opinion, there is no better way to go wine tasting. You get in, you set up, and you relax. No more driving. I try to have some nice food on hand to pair with the great wines I will be tasting, unless the winery offers food. Some do, most don’t. It all makes for an amazing and relaxing day.
Gold Country Wines and Wineries with Harvest Hosts
Vista Ranch, Merced
I have been to Merced many times over the years, as a performer in my circus days, and more recently visiting USP Atwater, a maximum security penitentiary, for my work as a justice advocate. That view of this small central California town was nothing like the bucolic scenery of Vista Ranch’s 20 acres. Not surprisingly, the Ranch offers a far more relaxed vibe, too. For me, it was a whole new Merced!
Most of the ranch’s business comes from visitors going to or coming from Yosemite, as it’s right on the way.
The tasting room takes up the ground floor of a historic farmhouse from the 1800s. Surrounding the house is a beautiful event space for weddings and other private functions shaded by a canopy of old-growth trees. On Thursdays and Fridays, they serve food and there’s live music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
I was there on a Monday, so no live music. But I spent time in the tasting room chatting with my genial server.
Tastings were just $10 and the tasting fee was refunded with purchase (the way it used to be almost everywhere but now is almost nowhere). The wines were quite good, with my favorite being their Golden State Pinot Grigio, a crisp white with a nice fruit to mineral balance. The complex and jammy Base Camp Zinfandel was a close second.
RV parking was large and level in a back field. On that particular night, it was me and one other rig, but there was room for many more.
Lodi Wines at Jessie’s Grove Winery, Lodi, CA
This Lodi winery is also a gorgeous event space capable of hosting large crowds. In fact, the local country music station was sponsoring a big concert the day after I left.
I especially loved the RV parking at Jessie’s Grove. It was in a large lot in the rear of the property nestled next to an olive grove with a stream running behind, that provided croaking frogs serenading you to sleep through most of the night.
Tasting flights were $10 for whites or $15 for reds and were refunded on purchases.
The merlot was amazing and extremely complex with a flavor and finish much larger than its $24 price tag. My friend and I both went home with a bottle.
I also liked their Oak Chardonnay because there was barely any oak. Go figure, but as I detest oaky chardonnays, it worked.
Their dessert wines, something I am not normally a big fan of, were also outstanding.
I was, however, confused by their “Rosé”, which had not even the barest hint of pink to it. Oh, well. You can’t win them all.
Chateau Davell, Camino, CA
Chateau Davell is clearly a labor of love for owner Eric Hays and his family.
This family strives to live an eco-friendly lifestyle and the way they produce wines fits right in.
The wines are varied, with Eric being extremely hands-on, from growing organically and sourcing organic grapes when possible, to wine making, to working in the tasting room, to cooking up wood-fired pizzas. He even created the lovely portraits that adorn Chateau Davell’s bottles—all bear portraits of Eric’s family, who the wines are named for.
My favorite was Charlotte’s Cuvée, a heady blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc aged in French oak for 36 months.
I had an absolutely magical experience at Chateau Davell, but it was a result of various influences. Great wine and a great host started it out. But I was also there on a Friday night, when they serve wood-fired pizzas and have live music.
The band was a guitar player and a pocket trumpet player. It might sound like a strange mix but their funky ska and reggae-tinged jazz worked.
Along the way, I made friends with another RVing Harvest Hosts couple who were having as great a time as I was. They lived within two hours of Chateau Davell, but they spend every weekend exploring different wineries in their truck camper through Harvest Hosts.
After the band, for those who wanted to stay, a Summer Solstice/Midsomar ceremony, fire, and drum circle followed. We all agreed it was the perfect setting to create a magical experience.
The one area where Chateau Davell fell short was on the food, although I found that did not take away from the fabulous time I had overall.
The wood-fired pizza was OK. Barely. I have had better pizza. Heck, I make better pizza. They could seriously use a consult from my friend Ryan Mondragon of Sanctuary Pizza in Turlock. If you catch one of his pop-ups, go out of your way, for his pizza is truly outstanding.
But I digress.
I expected more creativity out of both the salad and the pizza at Chateau Davell. And I have to say for a sustainable place, it absolutely baffles me that they did not toss the salad and instead served it with disposable containers of salad dressing on the side. Really? Yes, sadly, really.
On both salad and pizza, the ingredients were definitely quality, but they were far too stingy with them. Places on my pizza inches from the edge had no toppings at all. And even though it was wood-fired (I did see the oven), there was no hint of char. How can that be? The crust was pretty lackluster too. But then, I will put in the disclaimer that I am definitely a pizza snob who used to own an Italian restaurant and even traveled to Italy to learn about making pizza.
OK, my food complaints aside, was the overall experience and parking place worth the price? Absolutely! I would just skip the food and buy more wine in the future.
Field Number Fifteen in Placerville, CA
This tiny Mom and Pop winery is also another obvious labor of love. How tiny? The wine tasting room host was hand-attaching labels to each bottle when I was there.
My favorite wine here was their Barbera Rose, a crisp rosé with a mineral finish. I am waiting to make some spicy Thai food to go with the bottle I bought.
This was the only one of the four wineries that do not refund the tasting fee on a bottle.
While there was nothing fancy about Field Number Fifteen, it was still a beautiful experience in my RV parked on the hilltop with rolling vineyards all around.
If you’re not a member of Harvest Hosts, I highly recommend trying it out. Your one-time annual membership fee buys you not only incredible places to stay around the country, but incredible experiences, too.
- Visiting California’s beautiful Paso Robles wine region with Harvest Hosts
- Mendocino County wine tasting with Harvest Hosts
- A fun, unique Harvest Hosts location: RVing at Sawdust Alpacas