Known collectively as the California Wine Country (though not, by all means, the only ones in the state), the Napa & Sonoma Valleys are excellent places to do all of this…
…while you’re still alert and upright.
WHEN TO GO
Our favorite months to visit Napa & Sonoma are:
July for the soft light and green vines
November for the cool air and leaves just starting to change
WHERE TO STAY
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys, a half-hour adjacent to one another, are about an hour northeast of my mother-in-law’s home in Oakland, and we’ve always visited these areas as day trips. However, since I won’t be providing my in-laws’ address or phone number, you’ll quite possibly need to find your own place to stay.
To find local lodgings, I’d consult three links:
WHAT WE DRINK
Wine is a matter of personal taste, but knowing ours might help you more clearly consider our winery recommendations.
In Napa & Sonoma, we gravitate towards:
Cabernet Sauvignons: Full and bright, with notes of black cherry and pepper
Rieslings & Sauvignon Blancs: Crisp, medium-bodied and barely sweet
Muscats: Rich, golden dessert wines
…and away from:
Lots of oak
A very dry finish
NAPA IN PARTICULAR
We’ve found that people in Napa tend to be very kind, but the general vibe of commercial snobbitude can nonetheless be a bit off-putting. It’s very spread out, very expensive, and generally overrun with tourists…like ourselves.
All that said, it’s still a lovely place to drive around through thick, mossy woods and across gentle golden fields in search of elegant adventures.
I’ve found (thanks to my mother-in-law) no better guide to wine tasting in Napa than A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes From a Season in Napa Wine Country. Two guys from California, one a wine pro and the other barely literate on the subject, set about visiting every public tasting room in Napa in one season, and compiled their tips, impressions, and reviews on each.
You’ll need to pair it with a regional map — like this one from Napa Valley Vintners — but it’s a helpful resource for a sprawling area.
So far, our favorite Napa wineries are:
Do visit The Hess Collection for their incredible art collection — but not for their unremarkable wines. The drive up to Hess winds along a woodsy creek, and one whole room of the gallery has huge, insanely photo-realistic paintings by a Swiss artist named Franz Gertsch that will blow your mind.
Every time we go wine tasting in Napa, we have a late lunch in the town of Rutherford at Rutherford Grill, where the location is ideal (right on the main Highway 29), steak is king, booths are cushy, and dress is casual. Corkage fees here are very low, so in case you still have any desire to drink wine after a day of tasting, you can bring in a new find. Vegetables here are excellent, and the mashed potatoes are ee-vil.
On our last trip, we were tooling through the neighboring town of St. Helena (which I like to call “food porn dressed as a society lady”), and came across Woodhouse Chocolates (which I like to call “joy in a turquoise and brown box”). We compiled a small sampler of their locally-made dark, rich, not-too-sweet chocolates and then relished them slowly, in rapturous silence.
SONOMA IN PARTICULAR
We generally prefer Sonoma to Napa. Roads here are quaint and farm-peppered, prices are a scoche lower, and winery people here are enormously laid-back and welcoming.
Sonoma is sometimes considered a lower-rent version of Napa because so many of its wines are available at Trader Joe’s. Benziger, Blackstone, Clos du Bois, Ferrari-Carano, Gloria Ferrer, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Murphy-Goode and Ravenswood all offer what we like to call “Tuesday night wines,” which means simple, not too exciting, and about $10.
While traveling here, save your tasting energy for some more elegant wines that are harder to find.
In other words, head to Dry Creek Road (5 minutes outside the town of Healdsburg) and Westside Road (15 minutes away) for great country driving along small farms, fields of vines, and even the Russian River. Here’s a map of the area.
Our favorite Sonoma wineries are:
We’re fond of the dreamy view from the deck and almost entirely oak-free chardonnay at Raymond Burr Vineyards, but also recommend a morning tour of its incredible orchid greenhouse. Still owned by the longtime boyfriend of now-deceased Perry Mason star Raymond Burr, this gorgeous collection of orchids represent a passion these two men shared for 35 years.
It’s a vacation trifecta — flowers, wine and romance.