I want to make one thing very clear, I’m not a travel, food, or wine writer/blogger. However when your clients are primarily soon-to-be newlyweds or parents of young children, the subject of honeymoon and vacation spots often becomes part of the conversation.
A few months ago I posted an article on the blog describing a few of my favorite spots throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Last week Amy and I spent a few days in another of my all-time favorite destinations: northern California’s wine country. If you’ve never experienced this part of the country, it is arguably the perfect destination for a short vacation/long weekend type getaway. I don’t know if I (or my liver) could handle a full week up there, but you could easily spend a few days in San Francisco to round out a longer vacation.
I’m not going to recommend particular wineries because wine is a very personal thing, and what I like might taste like gasoline to someone else. Rather, I wanted to write this up as a type of starter guide for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of exploring this unique and incredibly sublime part of the country.
When you mention the term “California wine country” typically the name that immediately comes to mind is the Napa Valley. However the Napa Valley is one of two main wine producing regions in the area, along with the Sonoma Valley. the two valleys are very different, both in terms of geography, layout, and the types of wines featured in the local wineries and tasting rooms.
The Napa valley is probably the most famous and heavily trafficked wine producing region in the United States. The valley has two main roads, highway 29 and Silverado Trail road which run parallel to each other in a North/South direction, which are then connected by a handful of East/West roads running across the valley floor. Both the highway and Silverado trail roads are dotted with wineries running the entire length of the valley. As you move north through the valley on the highway after leaving the town of Napa, you’ll work your way through the small, quaint towns of Rutherford, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. The geography and road layout of the valley makes enjoying this area incredibly easy. Wineries are often directly next door to one another or across the street. Quite often you can leave one tasting and be at the next spot on your list within 10 minutes.
The Sonoma Valley is located just to the West of the Napa valley, the east side of the Sonoma Valley being defined by the same hillside that creates the western border of the Napa Valley. An assortment of small towns dot the valley floor, however I’ve always felt that the towns that make up the Sonoma Valley are bit more challenging to work through because they’re not laid out in a straight line the way the towns in the Napa Valley are. As you work your way north and west through the valley towards the towns of Santa Rosa, Geyersville, Healdsburg, Forestville and Windsor, the hills get steeper and the twists and turns in the road more numerous. A good GPS systems is a must-have accessory for navigating the Sonoma Valley.
The Tasting Experience
It makes no difference what type of wine you like. In fact if you start your trip with an open mind, and engage the pourers in the tasting room, quite often you may come to realize that wines you thought you’d never drink quickly become favorites. Amy is a great example: prior to our first trip, she wanted nothing to do with red wines. She always associated red wines as harsh and hard to drink, which can be characteristic of some cabernet and merlots. However after explaning to a few pourers what she didn’t like about “red wine” they suggested she try more fruit forward zinfandels and pinot noirs. Guess what, now Amy actually prefers red wine to white!
Without exception, almost everyone that works in a tasting room is not only passionate about wine, but is more than willing to share what they know and answer any questions you might have. If they mention a process or term that you’re not familiar with, simply ask them to explain it in detail and they’ll be more than happy to educate you. If you like white wines and don’t see a lot of white wine varietals on a tasting menu, simply ask and quite often your pourer will be more than happy to allow you to substitute wines in a tasting flight. I can’t quantify how many, but I’m sure we’ve purchased bottles of wine from wineries simply because the pourer was engaging and fun to chat with, regardless of how good the wine may have actually tasted.
If you don’t like my advice, here’s a few tasting room tips from a real wine blogger…..http://notesfromthecellar.com/2010/03/8-rules-for-visiting-tasting-rooms/
The geography of the two regions isn’t the only difference. In the Napa Valley, you’ll often hear the phrase “Cab is King” in reference to the abundace of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and vintages that are featured throughout the valley. You’ll still find excellent Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel wines at the Napa wineries. However it wont’ take you long to figure out that Cabernet is staple varietal of most of the wineries. If you venture over to Sonora, you’ll find a larger selection of Chardonay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. The point to remember is that regardless of what your wine preference is, you’ll find more than enough to interest you palette in either area. If you’ve never been to this area, I’d recommend spending at least one day in each area to get a feel for which valley you like.
We’ve been fortunate enough to stay at different types of lodging in each of our trips to the Napa Valley. We’ve never stayed in the Sonoma Valley, but have always made a day trip to the Sonoma Valley wineries each trip. Our first trip we stayed at a bed ‘n breakfast in the actual town of Napa called the BlackBird Inn. The inn is fantastic, however we weren’t as impressed with the actual town of Napa. The largest challenge is the fact that it’s decent drive to get up into the valley proper to begin tasting each day, and depending on which wineries you want to visit, you can easily be an hours drive away if you head all the way up to Calistoga at the far end of the valley.
Amy has stayed at a Marriot property which is a bit further up the road, and in her words was “just another Marriot.”
We’ve also stayed at a guest cottage that is part of the Dutch Henry winery in Calistoga. We had joined their wine club, and the guest cottage is an offer they extend to wine club members. While we didnt’ have the creature comforts of maid service and dining options in the hotel, there was something very hypnotic about waking up every morning looking down over the Silverado Trail and watching the sun start to light up the vineyards on the valley floor. Being at the far northern end of the valley presented some of the same challenges as staying in Napa. You’re just a bit far from certain areas.
However our last trip we stayed in St. Helena at the Harvest Inn on the recommendation of one of Amy’s colleagues, and this place was the best of everything. Located right in the middle of the valley, our room backed up to a vineyard, and included complimentary breakfast each morning. The lobby lounge also featured complimentary tastings from local wineries each night on the weekends.
Great wine and great food go hand-in-hand. Whether you decide to stay in Napa, or in one of the other towns located up the valley, there is no shortage of amazing restaurants to fit any taste or budget. Just like the wineries, you can visit the area multiple times and never eat at the same restaurant twice. A couple of great spots for lunch are the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, Ca, the TraVigne pizza place in St. Helena, or our favorite lunch joint, Taylors automatic refresher in St. Helena. It’s definitely touristy, and the line can be long, but a greasy double cheeseburger or fish taco from Taylors is a great way to take a break from tasting in the valley. For dinner we’ve eaten at Bistro Don Giovanni (italian), Fume (italian), Go Fish (american seafood and sushi), Tra Vigne (crazy good italian), and The Flatiron Grill (american steaks/chops) and the bar at Auberge de Soleil which probably has the most incredible view in the area.
If there’s one area I haven’t had the greatest luck with out there, it’s steaks. There are several fine steakhouses that have friendly service, great atmosphere, and amazing appetizers/deserts. However being from Chicago where there is no shortage of world class steakhouses such as Gibsons, Wildfire, Mortons and the Chophouse (or insert your other favorite), the steaks I’ve had in Napa are finely done, but not nearly as well rounded as what you can get back east.
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t want to recommend any specific wineries. But if you’re completely confused and looking for some places to start your search through wine country, I’ve included a list of most of the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wineries that we’ve tasted at. You’ll have to see for yourself whether any of these float your boat!
Chimney Rock, Heitz Cellars, Louis Martini, Dutch Henry, Grgich Hills, Cakebread Cellars, Elizabeth Spencer, Franciscan, V. Sattui, Hall, Duckhorn, Freemark Abbey, Merryvale, Silver Rose, Frank Family, Rombauer, Joseph Phelps, Fleury Estate, Silver Oak, Jarvis, Stags Leap, Hagafen, Del Dotto, PlumpJack, Cosentino, On the Edge,