So you’re new to wine country? It’s never been more accessible—from scenic downtown Napa to off-the-beaten sections of Sonoma, to the wineries of Livermore that can be reached by train—the time to go is now.
When I lived in New York City after college, “wine country” seemed like an exotic, intimidating locale that I would never have the opportunity to explore. My impression couldn’t have been more off! Many years later, I live so close to Napa and Sonoma that I go about twice a month—and have explored wineries and tasting rooms all over California. What I love about it is that it offers something for everyone. Whether you’re a newbie wine connoisseur or an aficionado looking for new places to explore, I bet this wine country extravaganza has something for you.
Let’s start with Napa; since as the most famous name of California wine country, it’s a great place to begin our adventure. There’s much rivalry between those who love Napa and those who swing Sonoma. I’m here to tell you that you can like both. And with all the talk of getting off the beaten path (we’ll get there), I thought it’d be fun to start with the classics. First-time visitors to the area should start with a leisurely drive up Highway 29. Most of the wineries along that stretch don’t require reservations, and all the big names are there: Robert Mondavi, Domaine Chandon, Cakebread and Beringer. Just drive from Napa all the way to its northernmost town of Calistoga (you’ll know you’re there when you spot the castle, Castello di Amarosa—you can’t miss it), jumping out for tastings and tours as you see fit.
After you’ve gotten the lay of the land, you’re ready for some additional don’t-miss classics. Start with Napa’s PlumpJack, known for its complex cabernet sauvignon. The popular spot dates back to the 1800s and sits squarely in the famous Oakville Appelation (home to Opus One, Screaming Eagle and Joseph Phelps). Other famous names include Caymus, in Rutherford, Charles Krug in St. Helena and Chateau Montelena, which famously beat French wines in the competition made famous in the movie Bottle Shock. It’s way north in Calistoga, so save some time for the drive. (Reservations are recommended for all of these properties.) Finally, driving the Silverado Trail is a must—head for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and go from there.
One important movement in wine country is the rise in eco-friendly practices and sustainability. Benziger Family Winery (three generations of Benziger run the biz), in Sonoma, was a pioneer and still leads in organic and biodynamic farming. Its tours focus on the land, getting visitors out into the vineyards to learn about the soil and growing practices before hitting the tasting room. Also in Sonoma: Hamel Family Wines, a new destination winery organically farmed by two generations of the Hamel family. Activities include touring the caves, private dining and taking in the spectacular views of Sonoma Valley. Other popular wineries committed to sustainability include Napa’s Cade Estate, which boasts stunning views of the valley and Clif Family Farm, which uses organically grown grapes, recycled materials and a lighter glass. It runs an awesome tasting room called Velo in St. Helena. Some of Napa’s luxury properties are green as well. Yountville’s intimate Bardessono is considered by many as the ultimate eco-friendly resort and is one of only 3 LEED-certified platinum hotels in the country. Farther north, in rural Calistoga, Calistoga Ranch, whose general manager is nicknamed “Mother Nature,” is built into the trees and recycles all of its water.
People often ask me about drinking and driving in wine country. Livermore, in the Tri-Valley east of San Francisco, is the only wine region that is reachable by train from the city, so it’s a great day trip for those who don’t want to deal with a car—guests often have a limo waiting at the train station. Wente Vineyards is the biggest and most famous—make time for lunch at its gorgeous restaurant (and don’t skip its famous lamb pastrami). Another favorite is McGrail Vineyards—it has a stunning patio on which to savor your vino. I’ve also taken a few really cool small group tastings in a luxury van or limo with Beau Wine Tours, which offers both boutique and name brand all-day options. (On a recent boutique winery tour, I had an amazing day with a young honeymooning couple and two sassy sisters from Texas.) Napa also has an active über presence now, and I’ve always wanted to hop onboard the Wine Train, which I’ve heard is excellent for beginners—plus, there are often specials associated with the downtown hotels. Staying in downtown Napa, which has exploded in recent years, is actually strategic for many reasons. First, there are loads (two dozen, give or take) of tasting room options. Getaway Adventures bike tours offers a lovely excursion to the beautiful and inviting Luna Vineyards, one of my very favorites, just outside of town. I love to bring its Italian wines home, when I can drag myself away from the gorgeous Tuscan patio. The Embassy Suites offers roomy accommodations and are just a ten-minute walk to the closest tasting rooms. Or stay at River Terrace Inn or the spectacular Westin Verasa, where an enormous salt-water hot tub awaits to help you sweat out any over-indulgence. In addition to the tasting rooms, it’s also a quick walk to yummy restaurants such as locals’ favorites ABC Bakery and Norman Rose Tavern, family-friendly Azzurro Pizzeria, Oenotri’s sinful Italian and Turkish hot spot Tarla Grill. No designated driver needed! And don’t get me started on Oxbow Market. I go every single time I’m in Napa, even if it’s only a day trip. Hog Island oysters, C Casa’s delicious Latin fare (I’m partial to its breakfast), Ca Momi’s sinfully delicious pizzas and cheese plates from Oxobw Cheese & Wine Merchant, all under the same roof? Who can resist?
Speaking of food, it’s no secret that some of the best in the country is now served in Napa and Sonoma. Yountville especially has become the most famous foodie hot spot. The French Laundry is every bit as special as you’ve read—many people swear that a dinner at Thomas Keller’s institution is the best meal of their life. He also owns the more casual Ad Hoc (so good), Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery. Needless to say, Chef Keller is revered in that neck of the woods. You also can’t go wrong at Jeanty (I love sitting at the bustling bar) or Redd, which has a delicious brunch. One of my favorite meals this year was at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. The antipasti was out of this world, and included house-cured prosciutto Tuscan salumi and melt-in-your-mouth cheeses.
I also still dream about the grilled acorn-fed pork shoulder loin, ricotta gnocchi “pillows” with old hen salsa and a potato ravioli filled with spinach ricotta, farm yard egg yolk and truffle sage brown butter. Trust me—go now.
Speaking of good eats, a few wineries offer unbelievable food and wine pairings. One fun option is the Royal Tasting at Castello di Amorosa, with the high-energy Mary Davidek. She takes you on a tour of the eccentric castle before settling in at a magnificent Tuscan table for a delicious and fun tasting of cheeses, homemade Italian fare and loads of wine. Also big is B Cellars, which this year moved from Calistoga to Oakville. The new digs include an interactive demonstration kitchen, and an incredible food and wine pairing is on offer.
A favorite indulgence of mine is staying in one of the quaint cottages that are sprinkled throughout Napa. Silverado Resort & Spa is somewhat of an institution, and is great for couples. The well-known classic golf course just hosted the Frys.com Open on the PGA Tour; Relax afterwards at the spa, which offers both hard-core sports massage and a golf ball massage that uses the ball to work on knots. Nearby, The Cottages of Napa deliver a breakfast basket of Bouchon Bakery treats. And up in Calistoga, the Cottages of Grove Inn are so close to the town’s geyser you can see the steam when it goes off
Now that you’re basking in your own little cottage, and you’ve made your way through some tasting rooms and classic wineries, let’s push the envelope. Not that any of these wouldn’t be fabulous for beginners, but they’re usually not a first-timer’s immediate choice. I recently went to Newton Vineyard, which blew me away. It’s on a private estate whose neighbors limit tours to once a day, so it’s a real treat to go. The gardens are spectacular, like Alice In Wonderland, and we did a tasting on top of Spring Mountain. The stunning Pine Ridge Vineyards has a fabulous tasting at a glittery table in its caves, and there’s also a gorgeous patio for private tastings. The nearby Robinson Family Vineyards, is a charming small-lot, family-run winery that allows just one tasting at a time (make a reservation). One of my favorite varietals from California is pinot noir—specifically those from Russian River Valley of Sonoma. Healdsburg, home to that valley and Dry Creek and Alexander, is centered on a 19th Century plaza that’s absolutely adorable. Head to Jordan Winery, in Alexander Valley, which is simply stunning. Focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the winery’s estate boasts a spectacular chateau with unforgettable views of the vineyards and gardens. Take a tour and then relax over a wine and cheese pairing.
Who’s coming with me?