Picture this: You and your brand-new spouse are seated at the head table celebrating your wedding dinner in the splendor of an outdoor garden surrounded by lush grape vines – and the full moon is rising directly behind you, creating a heavenly backdrop.

It’s a magical moment, one you and your guests will never forget. And, it’s just one reason that vineyards are a prime pick for destination weddings.

“Wineries are so romantic, intimate and beautiful,” said Juli Cavanaugh, 40, a Sherman Oaks-based veterinarian, who married fellow veterinarian Morgan Cavanaugh, 41, at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma County. “We’re both wine drinkers and we love the feel of wineries. When we were dating, we’d bicycle through the wine country. It was always a nice, relaxing time for us.”

It was Juli who scheduled her winery wedding on a full moon. “It was glorious,” she said. “The ceremony and dinner were outside on the lawn surrounded by vineyards and our table was arranged so that all the guests saw the full moon rise directly over our backs.”

A winery wedding is a good balance of yin and yang, said Michele Gogliucci, director of special events at Chateau Julien Wine Estate in the Carmel Valley. “You’re in touch with both the beauty of nature and the manmade elegance of beautiful buildings.”

“A vineyard has everything you want metaphorically for your wedding day,” said Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Assn. “The richness of the soil that nourishes the fruit provides a perfect symbol of how the richness of love grows to create a family.”
How do you pick the perfect vineyard? First, it’s important to know that not every winery is available for weddings.

In the Napa Valley, very few wineries can host wedding ceremonies or receptions, said Terry Hall, communications director for the Napa Valley Vintner’s Assn. Because the Napa Valley is an agricultural preserve, only a limited number of activities are legally allowed at the wineries, Hall said. However, Napa vintners who did weddings before 1990 can continue to do so.

V. Sattui Winery (www.vsattui.com) in St. Helena is one that can. Its vine-covered stone tower with a second-story balcony has been a fairytale-like setting for wedding vows for 23 years. “We’re the only Napa vineyard that can host the actual wedding ceremony as well as the reception and parties,” said Kelly Miller, an event planner with V. Sattui.

Brides have a much wider choice in Sonoma and Monterey counties and the Central Coast.

“If you’re coming to wine country, you want a property that knocks your socks off,” said Robbin Montero, a vineyard wedding specialist and owner of A Dream Wedding, based in Sonoma County.

But the “wow” isn’t the only factor to consider, she said. Is the venue the right size for your guest list? Does the vineyard fit your personality? Do you like the wine? The wine question is one of the most important, Montero said, because it is illegal for wineries to serve hard liquor and the wineries often require that you serve only their wines.

For weddings of 150 guests or fewer, the mission-style St. Francis Winery & Vineyards (www.stfranciswine.com) is a top pick. Its sweeping lawns, cobblestone patios and cozy Cask Room were an instant hit with the Cavanaughs. “We fell in love with St. Francis immediately,” Juli Cavanaugh said. “It was perfect for our wedding of 100 guests because it felt intimate – and we like the taste of the wines. Our guests are wine enthusiasts, and we were able to pour very nice wines.”

The Chateau Julien Wine Estate (www.chateaujulien.com), wrapped in the emerald vineyards of the Carmel Valley, is a stunning setting for weddings with up to 200 guests. “Our brides and grooms and their guests can be right out in the field among the grapes,” said Gogliucci.

When the guest list hits 250, the breathtaking view of 12,000 acres of vineyards framed by mountains makes Edna Valley Vineyard (www.ednavalleyvineyard.com) an idyllic choice for trendsetting couples. “Many of our couples proposed here and return to be married,” said Tina Hoppe, events coordinator.

“We wanted an outside wedding and we and our families are into wine, so Edna Valley had the whole package,” said Jaime Dwight, 28, of Arroyo Grande. In May 2010, she and her husband, Steve Dwight, 37, were married in front of 120 guests on the back garden, overlooking the entire vineyard. The ceremony was followed by dinner inside the glass-walled banquet room and dancing inside and outside on the patio. “It’s a ‘wow’ location,” she said. “Driving up to it is so pretty – through miles of vineyards.”

The posh rose-garden setting and French country house backdrop make Chateau St. Jean (www.chateaustjean.com) in Sonoma another favorite for weddings of up to 250 guests, said Montero.

Rustic ceremonies are the newest trend for young couples, said Isabelle Adams, owner of Sonoma-based Bonjour Isabelle, which plans winery weddings and events.

A hot property for rustic romance is Boot Hill, an oak-dotted spot overlooking the vines at the Kunde Family Estate (www.kunde.com) in Sonoma Valley. The estate also offers a gorgeous wine cave and the stone ruins of the century-old Dunfillan Winery building.

Adams cautions that when you choose a rustic location you often have to bring in all your own vendors –from catering and lighting to sometimes portable toilets. This is why it’s wise to use a wedding planner who specializes in winery weddings or be sure your chosen vineyard has an in-house event planner.

Any season is perfect for vineyard vows. It just depends on what type of ambiance the couple prefers, planners said.

In June, the vines are lush and leafy. By summer, the fruit is hanging on the vines and the sunsets are soft and golden. February and March offer the contrast of bare vines in a sea of bright yellow mustard flowers. Weddings can even be performed during the “crush” in September-October, when the grapes are trucked in from the fields for processing, depending on the location of the crush pad, said Adams. “You want the crush pad some distance away, so the trucks and noise don’t distract from your special day.”

On the practical side: “You never have to spend a lot on flowers because the vineyards are naturally beautiful,” said V. Sattui’s Miller.

Barbara Beckley, Custom Publishing Writer