Forget schlepping to Temecula or booking a room in Santa Ynez. Today you can swirl and sip in the vibrant winemaking scene that’s right under your nose. These nine Orange Country wineries—ripe with fascinating people, surprising stories, and their own tasting rooms—offer innovative wines made with grapes from Santa Barbara to Lodi to Sonoma. With the 2016 harvest just in, it’s time to pick a few tasting rooms and plan an excursion—one that’s splendidly close to home.
1.Seal Beach Winery
3387 W. Cerritos Ave., Los Alamitos, 562‑594-5800, sealbeachwinery.com
Its tidy business-park setting belies this friendly winery’s impressive range of wines at tempting prices. Owner-winemaker Michael Dawson spends long days in the Santa Barbara County vineyards that supply most of the fruit for this near-decade-old facility that produces 4,000 cases a year. At last count, it offers 12 varietals, including rousanne, a white wine outlier rarely produced locally. Dawson’s background in biochemistry and gene therapy led him to the renowned enology program at UC Davis and then to winemaking, where he could apply understanding of vine clones with his passion for wine. The intimate Los Alamitos tasting room attracts curious visitors and wine club regulars. Ask about the innovative growler program priced to make refills irresistible.
DINE NEARBY Go early—and a bit out of your way—for breakfast on the sweet patio at Crema Cafe and bakery on Seal Beach’s laid-back Main Street. Eggs Benedict? Pastries? Worth the trip.
2. Pozzuoli Vineyard & Winery
140 E. Main St., Tustin, 714-258-8817, centrotustin.com
Winemaker Enrico Pozzuoli and wife Daniela are unique in that they live in Tustin but also own and farm 12 acres northeast of Paso Robles. Despite the small yearly production of 500 cases of mainly red wines with an Italian accent, the tasting room has recently expanded to Old Town Tustin as Centro, a micro eatery with pizzas, sandwiches, and, of course, wine tasting. Beer lovers, this one’s for you, thanks to a new line of four craft brews made on-site under the Archaic brand. The original tasting room on Red Hill Avenue is now used for barrel aging and private parties.
DINE NEARBY Anything that calls to you is top-notch at Tustin freeway-handy Cream Pan, the bakery and cafe popular for bento boxes, katsu sandwiches, curry buns, and celebrated strawberry-custard croissants. First-timer? You will definitely return.
3. Orange Coast Winery
869 W. 16th St., Newport Beach, 949-645-0400, orangecoastwinery.com
Hiding in an industrial park near Hoag Hospital, this family-owned winery has a tasting room in front and a hangout for any of its 1,000-plus wine club members in the back. Proprietors Doug and Debbie Wiens call the coastal outpost their dream venue. Doug is also the winemaker and a founding partner at Wiens Family Cellars in Temecula. Orange Coast’s 21 wines are split between red and white, varietals and blends, and made with fruit from Lodi and Temecula. Bottle prices hover between $25 and $59. Labels on select wines sport the iconic poster graphic from the movie “Endless Summer,” further proof that this enterprise has its toes in the sand. Wine club members receive 20 percent off all bottles, access to the member lounge, and six parties a year.
DINE NEARBY At urban-chic Eat Chow, find tempting egg dishes, mouthwatering sandwiches, and enough south-of-the-border items to satisfy your craving for Mexican fare.
4. Newport Beach Vineyards & Winery
2128 Mesa Drive, newport beach, 949‑645-2200, nbwine.com
This is a rare local winery where you can get up close and personal with rows of vines, sometimes lush with ripening grape clusters that find their way into the only estate-bottled wine around: OC Unobtanium, a Bordeaux-style Meritage. Several additional wines use grapes sourced from Sonoma, Santa Barbara, and Santa Maria. Richard and Marilyn Moriarty’s bucolic 3.5-acre hillside estate in Upper Newport Bay is dense with one-of-a-kind elements that include exotic sculptures and a striking underground wine cave. No wonder this property is also an events venue. Visits are by appointment only for parties of eight or more, and include two hours of touring and tastings paired with cheese and charcuterie. Cost is $60 per person.
DINE NEARBY Choose from enticing salads, fresh baguettes, and napoleons from the pastry case at Moulin. Shop for French pantry items to take home, too.
5. Cowboy Canyon Winery
16162 Jackson Ranch Road, Silverado, 714-202-0212, cowboycanyonwinery.com
Wear your Western boots to this lively spot that feels tailor-made for fabled Silverado. Genial owner-partner Michael Cipolla is often present, working the rustic room and patio with down-home glee, supplying stories and answers galore. Production is a modest 1,000 cases per year of mostly red varietals, including the popular Posse, a red blend of Sierra Foothills fruit. Members of the Pardners Wine Club choose from two programs, each offering discounts on wine, merchandise, and event tickets. Cipolla and wife Donna have made personal batches of wine for more than 30 years. The tasting room opened in 2013 after their friends, owners of the neighboring Giracci Vineyards, suggested the two ventures partner up. Country music and line-dancing fans: Don’t miss next summer’s Cowboy Cookout BBQ, destined to be another sellout.
DINE NEARBY Before wine-tasting stints at Cowboy Canyon and Giracci Vineyards, lay a solid base of carbs at Cook’s Corner in Trabuco Canyon. Breakfast? Get there before 9. Weekend crowds roll in early at this historic, family-friendly biker bar.
6. Giracci Vineyards and Farms
16162 Jackson Ranch Road, Silverado, 714-602-1109, giracci.com
This bucolic compound is a short, dusty stroll from Cowboy Canyon Winery, but it feels a world away with its trickling fountain and stone entryway leading up to a grand tasting parlor. Owners Chad and Linda Kearns opened this room in 2011 to best feature wines that today include several “big red” varietals, using fruit from eight esteemed growing regions from Santa Barbara to Napa to Mendocino, plus 1 acre on-site planted with grenache, mourvedre, viognier, roussanne, and cab franc vines. Reserve cabernets are bestsellers, priced near $40. A two-tier wine club includes discounts on bottles and events, as well as invites to private release parties. Ten acres with mature oaks, streams, trails, and a handsome barn make Giracci a popular venue for weddings and events.
DINE NEARBY See Cowboy Canyon suggestion, or dine with the locals at Silverado Café, a rustic joint that looks right out of a Western movie. Pancakes, eggs, biscuits, and a range of Mexican favorites will carry you through an entire day of wine tasting.
7. Frisby Cellars
20331 Lake Forest Drive, Lake Forest, 949-243-6691, frisbycellars.com
Veteran paramedic and firefighter Josh Frisby fell hard for wine on trips to wife April’s hometown of San Luis Obispo. Figuring his odd work schedule might allow time for an all-in bet, he started making wine under the tutelage of winemakers Marsha and Jerry De Angelis, and by 2013 he launched this Lake Forest business-park tasting room, showcasing small batches of chardonnay, cabernet, syrah, and Meritage wines made from Paso Robles fruit. Frisby’s production of 1,000 cases annually sells well to enthusiastic wine club members who enjoy 25 percent off all wines including three shipments a year, plus free tastings and priority access to six parties yearly. Wines are about $25 per bottle before discount.
DINE NEARBY At Bagels & Brew, come for the photo-worthy rainbow bagels, stay for the Kean brew—and the Elvis bagel with peanut butter, banana, bacon, and honey.
Snagging nine medals at the 2016 OC Fair’s esteemed wine competition certainly brightens the spotlight on Laguna Canyon Winery. Established in 2003 by brothers Marlowe and Darren Huber, this urban winery produces an annual 5,000 cases for its deep portfolio of varietals and styles, from a 2014 Russian River Valley white blend to the gold-medal-winning 2013 Sonoma Valley late-harvest zinfandel. Shaded by canyon walls in a blink‑and-you’ll-miss-it retail center, the ingenious space handles tasting, but it’s also where each wine is pressed, fermented, barrel-aged, blended, and bottled. An innovative wine club allows members to select any wine, anytime, at a 15- to 25-percent discount for a $40 monthly fee. Pet-lovers should go for the Purple Paws red or white, since a portion of sales funds animal shelters.
DINE NEARBY Nosh on comfort classics with a modern twist at Nick’s, an urbane Coast Highway perch with a divine veggie burger and butter cake.
9. Rancho Capistrano Winery
26755 Verdugo St., san juan capistrano, 949-481-6682, ranchocapistranowinery16.squarespace.com
It looks more hacienda than winery, but this Mission-adjacent venue pours a steady stream of wine samples over its handsome tasting bar. A sprawling, pergola-shaded patio with a giant fireplace is preferred seating here, where folks wash back tasty flatbreads and small plates with wine priced between $30 and $40. Choose five pours from diverse options made with grapes from all over the world. Portuguese aragones and pinotage from South Africa are startling choices for locally made wine. Who makes 50 wines in this town? That would be Kylie Huffman, 25, a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s booming winemaking program. She has a way with whites that you can taste in her favorite, “Kylie,” made with 100 percent symphony grapes. Wines are vinted and aged in San Clemente, where owner Kyle Franson plans a second retail outlet later this year.
DINE NEARBY Charming Ramos House Café serves some of South County’s most original daytime fare. Savory breakfast scrambles, creative lunch salads, heavenly fresh biscuits, and house-churned ice cream are all served alfresco in a setting sure to make the real world vanish.