If you are going to be in Northern California or in the San Francisco area, a trip to the wine country is certainly something to consider. Napa and Sonoma counties are, traffic permitting, only a several hour drive north from San Francisco. While this can be done as a day trip, it’s better done as a two to four day excursion. A variety of accomodations can be found in either county, and it is certainly more relaxing to not have to make a long drive after sampling wine all day.
The wineries are mostly concentrated in three areas, the Napa valley, southern Sonoma county, and the area around Healdsburg. Unfortunately, because of the mountains, it is not that easy to get from one area to the other, so its best to concentrate on only one of the areas in a day. There are plenty of wineries in each, and each region has it’s own unique character.
Wineries offer a wide variety of facilities for visitors, ranging from simple tasting rooms in converted agricultural buildings to grand chateaus. Some of the larger wineries have extensive grounds open to visitors and can provide a complete wine experience including tram rides over the vineyards.
If you’ve never been to wine country, you should plan to make a stop at one or more of the larger facilities in the Napa valley such as Coppola’s, Beringer, or Sterling. In addition to the tasting room, these have tours and educational exhibits for those unfamiliar with wine making. Beringer has an extensive garden and the tasting room is in an elegant Victorian mansion. Sterling offers a tram ride up to the tasting room. If you’ve done the winery tour thing before and are more interested in the wine, then you can visit any of the numerous tasting rooms.
Many of the major wineries in Napa valley are right along the main highway, 29. A few miles to the east lies the Silverado Trail which has it’s share of wineries, many of which produce excellent wines, while providing a less touristy wine experience. Side roads connect the two highways every few miles, making it easy to get back and forth.
In southern Sonoma County many of the wineries lie along Highway 12. The area around Healdsburg has a large number of wineries with tasting rooms right in town or within a short drive. This clustering of wineries makes it easy to visit a number of wineries without having to spend a lot of time driving.
A typical tasting room will offer tastes of up to a half dozen wines. There is usually a small charge of $5-$15 depending on the quality of the wines. A souvenier glass is sometimes included in the tasting fee. Some wineries will also offer a special or reserve tasting at around $20 that feature some of their more expensive or older wines. This can be a good deal if you are really interested in good wine. Most tasting rooms will allow for the purchase of wine. Arrangements can usually be made for shipping wine back which is a good idea if you are looking at more than one or two bottles. It only makes sense to buy wine at the winery if you are interested in a limited release or something that is not normally available locally as the price will be about the same as in a liquor store.
It is a good idea to have a game plan before a days tasting. There are numerous guides, maps, web sites, etc. that provide information. Most hotels in the region will have maps available at the front desk. Four or five wineries a day is probably the optimum number. I’ve done more, but you tend to lose focus by the end of the day.
Another thing to consider is lunch. This can provide a welcome break between tastings. Wine country is largely rural and land is valuable so there aren’t that many places to have a modest lunch. The best idea is to purchase a loaf of bread and some cheese and cold cuts for a picnic lunch. Don’t forget the bottled water and a corkscrew. A number of the wineries provide a picnic area but you should plan ahead so you hit them at the right time of day.
There are some good dining opportunities in some of the towns. Calistoga has several nice restaurants and Healdsburg has a good selection of bistros and restaurants clustered around the town center. There are also a number of well regarded fine dining establishements throughout the area. Needless to say, these offer a selection of locally produced wines.
Weekends and any time in the summer can be pretty busy. This is particularly true of Napa valley. Going during the off season, particularly during the week can be more relaxing. During the harvest, there will be lots of large trucks hauling trailers taking up most of the roads. The best time is probably in October when the weather is still good and the vines haven’t been trimmed. Late spring is also a good time.
If you are going to be in the area for an extended stay, there are other attractions besides the wineries. There are a number of historic sites and state parks. The coast is only a short distance away with a scenic drive up Highway 1. Whether for a day trip or a longer stay a trip to wine country will be an enjoyable experience.