Everything you need to know about visiting Wine Country.
The feature film Bottle Shock chronicles the “Judgment of Paris,” a 1976 blind wine tasting. The stunning win by Chateau Montelena Chardonnay with “buttery notes and a Smithsonian finish” from an unknown Napa winery put Northern California next to France on the world’s wine map and America’s Wine Country was born.
Napa: Today, though it’s only 70 miles northeast of San Francisco and 789 square miles, the fertile, warmer Napa Valley boasts more than 400 wineries, another 100 urban tasting rooms and over 1,000 brands. Because 95 percent are family-owned, you’ll be warmly welcomed for a half- or full-day visit.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are the most popular, but many varietals from A (Albariño) to Z (Zinfandel) can be sampled throughout 18 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). Tastings can be range from $10 to $50 per person, typically discounted or waived if you buy.
We recommend hiring a limo, taking a tour, or choosing a designated driver for your trip along Highway 29 and The Silverado Trail. It’s not as crowded in May and the “Crush” typically takes place in late fall.
The trendiest stops include Hog Island Oyster Co. at Oxbow Public Market as well as Silverado Resort for golf, tennis and spas (both in Napa); the always-crowded Oakville Grocery; Castello di Amorosa, a 13th-century-style castle (Calistoga); and hot air balloon rides (Napa and Yountville).
Plus, The French Laundry with three Michelin Stars provides an unparalleled culinary experience.
Sonoma: Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County covers more than 1,750 square miles, from the rugged Pacific Coast to vineyard-covered rolling hills for over 1,100 growers and more than 350 wineries.
With another 18 approved AVAs, California’s largest wine producer creates Pinot Noirs, Merlots, Zinfandels, Chardonnays, Sparkling Wines and more. Because of a friendly rivalry with its better-known neighbor, local shops’ T-shirts state, “Sonoma makes wine. Napa makes auto parts.”
Sonoma is a charming town with an historic square surrounded by restaurants, tasting rooms, galleries, shops, a California state mission from Mexican heritage days, and an acclaimed international film festival.
North is Healdsburg, featuring a similarly charming town square. A visitor favorite, this hamlet is nestled between the Alexander, Russian River, and Dry Creek Valleys — all with tasting rooms. The meandering Russian River offers canoes, kayak and stand up paddleboards — great ways to beat the summer heat. Montage is a fabulous new hotel and spa. Hotel Trio promotes a room service robot name Rosé. The Quail and Condor is a great new bakery. The Matheson houses three restaurants under one roof. The Harmon House has a roof terrace. And Revelshine produces premium wines packaged in recyclable bottles — brilliant!
Bodega Bay, better known from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, lies along the ruggedly attractive Sonoma Coast.
History: The oldest premium winery in Sonoma County is Buena Vista, founded in 1857, though grapes were planted as early as 1812 in Russian-settled Fort Ross. Like Sonoma, Napa County has a strong viticultural past dating back to 1864 by two founding families, whose names begat the towns of Yountville and Rutherford.
Featured Photo: Gil Zeimer
What to Do in Wine Country
JANUARY: Check out a stunning walking path of artwork as light displays that are projected onto a variety of buildings throughout Downtown Napa at the Napa Lighted Art Festival.
FEBRUARY: The annual Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival features family fun and a chance for adults and children to enjoy tours of the hatchery and watch one of nature’s most fascinating species, the Steelhead, pushing upstream and leaping out of the water as they climb the fish ladder.
MARCH: Four days devoted to exclusive musical performances, exquisite cuisines, and a unique variety of Napa Valley’s wineries, beers and spirits available at Yountville Live.
APRIL: At the Passport to Dry Creek Valley, many wineries create themes around which they showcase wine paired with food, and entertainment. All showcase the best current releases, library wines, and special bottlings only available during Passport.
MAY: BottleRock Napa Valley is a three-day music, wine, food and craft brew festival taking place in the heart of the City of Napa at the Napa Valley Expo.
JUNE: Country Summer Music Festival is Northern California’s biggest country music festival and features three days of top country artists, as well as Western-themed attractions, country-inspired foods, and libations for every palate.
JULY: World-class performances paired with culinary and wine pursuits staged in iconic wine country settings come together at Festival Napa Valley.
AUGUST: Showcasing the best in arts, crafts, food, wines and brews, games, entertainment and farm life activities, the Gravenstein Apple Fair celebrates the eponymous apple.
SEPTEMBER: Enjoy the finest in Sonoma County wine and food at the annual showcase event Taste of Sonoma. Purveyors gather on the gorgeous grounds of the Green Music Center for a day of tastings and entertainment.
OCTOBER: Sample limited-production West Coast Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling Wines, and a few longtime favorites at Healdsburg Crush. The event also features a silent auction boasting a large collection of locally produced Pinot Noir, as well as raffles for instant wine cellars and premium large-format bottles.
NOVEMBER: Check out premieres of films ranging from small indies to potential Oscar nominees at the Napa Valley Film Festival.
DECEMBER: The Calistoga Lighted Tractor Display is ultimate small-town holiday parade in celebration of Calistoga’s agricultural heritage.
*Things change, so please check in with the organizers of these events for details.