Napa and Sonoma are kind of like Disneyland for adults – there’s almost too much to enjoy. Wineries, restaurants, museums and castles…you can’t go ten feet without tripping over some new fun thing to do. It’s a good problem to have, but you still need to make choices, and a good way to start is to find out what the locals do. There are hidden treasures all over wine country; you just have to know where to look.
There is no wine country without wineries, so let’s start there. I’m always looking for that perfect combination of great wine and beautiful surroundings. While there are many wineries in Napa and Sonoma that easily meet these requirements, here are a few I’m particularly fond of.
If you want the chateau experience but don’t want to go all the way to France, let me recommend Chateau St. Jean. This winery offers a couple of different ways to sample their excellent wines. The main tasting room, in the visitor center, offers the widest variety. However, for a little bit more, you can taste some of their reserve and limited release wines in the chateau.
Another must-see wine country vineyard is Ledson winery. Their gorgeous castle features several tasting rooms, multiple reds and whites to choose from and even a hotel.
You can book a room, set up a private tasting or attend one of their many events. This Fall will be the 6th annual Corvettes at the Castle event where you can drink wine, mingle with other Corvette lovers and enjoy a picnic under the Oak trees. Another memorable event that’s coming up is Ledson’s Holiday Open House. Cozy up to their fireplaces with your favorite glass of wine and take in the joy of season in the most royal manner.
If it’s a medieval castle you’re after, then be sure to visit Castello di Amorosa. Owner Dario Sattui spent many years researching medieval architecture, which resulted in the authentically-styled 13th century Tuscan castle and winery. Castello di Amorosa offers tours, barrel tastings and events. Have a glass while getting lost in history.
For something more rustic, but equally tasty, I recommend the Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead in St. Helena. This organic farm produces beef, eggs, honey, fruits, vegetables and, of course, wine. Dine at their restaurant, visit their farmer’s market or take advantage of one of their wine or olive oil tastings.
And remember, food and wine belong together. St Francis Vineyards offers amazing pairings, gourmet small plates with hand-picked wines. Be sure to make a reservation.
For a different experience, I recommend Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga. Their aerial tram is the only one of its kind in Napa Valley, offering stunning panoramic views as visitors are carried up 300 feet to the winery. At the top, guests are greeted with a glass of wine to enjoy while strolling through art galleries, overlooks, and elevated walkways that provide a glimpse into the winemaking process, from grape to glass.
Nothing pairs better with fine wine than fine music. Nestled at the base of the Sonoma Mountains in the heart of wine country, you’ll find The Green Music Center. This world-class complex includes famous performances by Chris Botti, Josh Groban and the San Francisco Symphony.
If visual arts and artisanal wines are more your style, be sure to visit Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley. This historic building features a rotating collection of limited-production wines from 20+ esteemed vintner partners, along with internationally renowned art and furnishings to appreciate and acquire.
History, Shopping and Food
One of the coolest things about wine country is that it’s no one-trick pony. Yes, there are amazing wineries, but there’s also excellent shopping and wonderful restaurants. One of the best places to go is Sonoma Plaza, in the town of Sonoma. At the center of the Plaza is a beautiful park, a great place to relax for a few minutes between destinations. Enjoy a romantic stroll or a family outing. The park is complete with a playground for kids, plenty of picnic benches, fountains, and a duck pond. Concerts, and festivals are also held there along with a Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays. Be sure to stop by the market for local gourmet ice cream, fresh cut flowers, hand-made Sonoma jewelry, and of course the delicious food. The Farmer’s Market runs May through the end of October.
Surrounding the park are historic buildings, and lovely boutiques - check out SummerVine and Sonoma Home. If wine is still calling your name, pop by a few of the many wine tasting rooms, I recommend Sigh champagne room, Roche winery, and Highway 12 winery. If you have a sweet tooth, you’re invited to a charming shop on the Plaza called Wine Country Chocolates, for a delightful chocolate tasting.
When you work up an appetite, stop by one of my favorite restaurants, the Sonoma-Meritage Martini Oyster Bar & Grille, owned by Executive Chef, Carlo Cavallo, for delicious pasta, fish, beef and an incredible raw bar. The restaurant is reasonably priced and open every evening for dinner. Yountville is another must-see town that offers some amazing activities for visitors. Book a hot air balloon ride, visit on of the fine art galleries, enjoy the Lincoln Theater, or simply savor a nice leisurely lunch or dinner. Yountville is a true culinary destination, with literally dozens of restaurants - from fine dining at Thoma's Keller's The French Laundry to more casual options. I recommend the food at Étoile restaurant, located at the Chandon winery, is spectacular. The heirloom tomatoes are to die for.
Relax in Your Vacation Home
The beauty of Napa and Sonoma is that you can do a little bit of everything or a lot of nothing. There are more places to see than you can possibly do in a week, a month, or even a year, so pace yourself. Sometimes it’s best to just grab a nice bottle of wine, some hors d'oeuvres and enjoy the sunset from your patio. There are a lot of beautiful condos and villas for rent that make the perfect home base, especially if traveling with friends or family. It’s nice to have a private pool or spa for soaking at the end of a long day and a kitchen to store the treasures you picked up along the way. If traveling in a group, you can even rent a villa on its own vineyard and prices are often cheaper than a hotel when you split the costs. Let wine country be your relaxing home away from home.
Jennifer Boden is a wine and travel expert. Become a fan of her facebook page by visiting California Wine and Travel.