Autumn is a magical time in Napa and Sonoma counties of California. Late September and early October marks the start of harvest every year, which means it’s the time when winemakers and vineyard workers collect grapes from vines and crush them into wine. I make my home in this part of the world, and love seeing trucks (literally) overflowing with purple bunches of grapes driving around town. Another benefit: The sweet smell of fermenting grape juice emanating from wineries around town.

There are a number of different ways to experience harvest in Napa and Sonoma: formal camps, guided tours, or just by winging it. Here is a brief rundown on each.

Wine camps

There’s nothing quite like the camaraderie and excitement of camp. Just because we’re grown-ups now doesn’t mean we can recapture the fun from the younger days of our youth. Especially when wine is involved. This is what makes Wine Country’s grape camps so much fun.

On the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, there’s Sonoma County Grape Camp, during which participants become vineyard and winery workers for a weekend. The experience is hard work—participants try their hands at harvesting, sorting, de-stemming, and crushing grapes, then engage in a series of fermentation enhancement activities known as “punchdowns” and “pumpovers.”

The job is done when the vintage has been siphoned into tanks or barrels (depending on the varietal).

Sonoma’s Grape Camp includes meals, most of which are catered by food trucks and/or local chefs, and accommodations at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. It also gives participants the opportunity to work alongside some of the most famous vintners in the county (these vintners change every year).

A recent crew at Sonoma County Grape Camp

On the Napa side, the most notable experience is Fall Harvest Camp at Schramsberg, a sparkling wine house in Calistoga. This high-end experience usually begins with a sunset dinner. The next morning starts early as campers harvest grapes in the vineyards and continues with instruction and tasting at the winery.  Sessions are personally hosted by Hugh Davies, Schramsberg’s president and chief winemaker. Among the experiences: Tastings of freshly pressed grape juices and base wines, as well as riddling lessons, tours of the historic caves and of course, lots of bubbly to enjoy.

Also at the Schramsberg camp, participants enjoy interactive sessions studying the science of food and wine pairings at the Meadowood Napa Valley with chef/enologist Holly Peterson. Campers will also work together in teams planning menus using knowledge gained over the duration of the camp. The experience closes with a small graduation; participants even learn how to open sparkling wine bottles with a saber (apparently this is a big deal among fans of bubbly wine).

Winery tours

Wine camps are a commitment—both options last a minimum of 2.5 days—and they can be spendy. For a shorter, more affordable alternative to experiencing the height of harvest in Wine Country, consider taking a behind-the-scenes winery tour.

These experiences are available at dozens of wineries throughout Napa and Sonoma and usually lead visitors right through the heart of the winery operation. On most tours, you can expect to see everything from the crushpad (where the grapes originally are crushed) to the tank rooms (where the wine ferments) and the barrel cellars (where the wine ages in barrels). Many of the tours include tastings, as well.

In Sonoma County, one of my favorite tours is at Jordan, which is located just up the road from my house. On the Winery Tour & Library Tasting, tour guides lead visitors on a walk through the entire winery facility, then cap the experience with a wine-and-food pairing in a library on the top floor of a replicated French chateau. You even get to taste Jordan’s house-made olive oil.

Viewfinder Tip: Napa and Sonoma counties are adjacent to each other, but driving distances between the two vary widely. Be sure to consult a map before booking appointments in different spots.

In Napa, drive up Howell Mountain and take the tour at CADE, where the Estate Tasting and Cave Tour includes a walk around the production area and a crash-course in the winery’s history as the first organically farmed LEED Gold Certified estate facility in Napa Valley. The tasting also pairs small bites with current-release pours of a number of wines.

I suggest making reservations for these experiences (and just about any winery tour, for that matter).

Vine-seeing

The last—and the cheapest—way to experience harvest in Wine Country is simply to explore. Rent a bicycle, pedal the roads of Sonoma and Napa counties, and marvel at the grape leaves as they change colors (yes, they change colors, too). Park your car downwind of any number of wineries, roll down the windows and inhale the sweet smell of fermenting grapes. If you’re a runner, like I am, take a jog on back roads and scan the roadside brush for wild grapes.

Autumn is considered “showtime” here in California’s Wine Country. How you enjoy that show is entirely up to you.

How do you like to celebrate the return of autumn?