Beginner's Guide to Napa & Sonoma Wine Country
Originally published on BedandBreakfast.com.
It's Indian summer in wine country now. Sometimes the skies challenge that idea with gray morning cover, but we trust by midday we'll be roaming sleeveless in the sunshine. The harvest came early this year because of the drought, but this is not a bad thing for many wine makers, as less water leads to more concentrated fruit. You'll learn about this and more firsthand on your visit to California wine country.
The wine region of the Northwest stretches far beyond the confines of Napa and Sonoma County, but let's focus on these counties—which comprise California's most-visited destination.
What's the Difference Between Sonoma and Napa?
Sonoma County was California's first wine country, but Napa County earned the AVA appellation (American Viticulture Area) first, and Sonoma followed shortly after. Napa seems to have gained world reclaim sooner and demonstrates more wealth when you consider current property values. But that doesn't mean the wine is better or the countryside any more beautiful. Napa is very condensed, whereas Sonoma sprawls through hills and redwoods, all the way to the rocky coast.
The occasional local encounter clues visitors in on a subtle sibling rivalry between the two. Most will agree that comparing Napa and Sonoma is pitting apples to oranges, but the proximity and prestige of both destinations makes competition inevitable.
Locals use metaphors like these: Napa wears a button down and heels, whereas Sonoma lets its hair loose in jeans. Napa is like martinis at a flashy Miami beach resort, whereas Sonoma is the perfect pint at your favorite old Irish pub. Napa is the place to visit; Sonoma is the place to live. But never fear—you'll be sipping great wines in both, and there's a plethora of beautiful places to stay throughout.
Know Before You Go
Even though the sun still hangs late in the sky on fall evenings, keep in mind many wineries and shops close at 4 or 5 p.m., so plan to get an early start.
Napa's Highway 29, the main artery that gets you through the heart of the valley, can be bad if you hit it at the end of the day or on a Sunday evening. Highway 12 in Sonoma can be crowded as well, but the back roads here are worth getting lost on, so enjoy the detours to stay off the main drag during peak hours.
Wine memberships and tastings are the tourist economy's bread and butter here. Keep in mind that the goal of creating these naturally decadent environments is to seduce you into sticking around and spending money. But the courtship is also part of the fun. If you plan to spend some time enjoying the sights, it's customary to buy a glass of wine to pay your respects. If you really fall in love with a place, becoming a member can have great perks; think of it as a new home away from home, where the tastings are free and you can bring unlimited guests and enjoy sweet discounts on wine.
Enjoy finding your favorite stops in California wine country. We recommend spending at least one long weekend to get your first taste of Napa and Sonoma Counties.
What to See and Where to Stay
It's not easy to decide where to stop in wine country as you drive through Napa or Sonoma counties—you may have to simply call it adventure. Here's a short list of some spots I've vetted. (My criteria: beauty of landscape and quality of experience.)
The Small-Winery Experience
There are dozens of small family-owned estates throughout Sonoma and Napa. Visits to their vineyards are particularly charming—these folks love to share their passion.
In Napa, not far from Silverado Trail, Seavey Vineyard vintners make handcrafted wines with a strong sense of place. Wine makers provide access to library wines (wines that are part of a collection) or a vintage that is being cellared away. Tasting experiences here bring guests a deep wine education, directly from the family.
Stay nearby: Just over ten minutes' drive from Seavey, you'll find Wine Country Inn, a pretty countryside property with plenty of vineyard views.
At family owned and operated A. Rafanelli in Sonoma, you'll meet fourth-generation wine makers (originally from Italy). Founder Alberto Rafanelli started growing grapes in the early 1900s. The property is studded with beautiful olive trees, a pond, and picnic tables for lunching. The olive oil they produce on site is fantastic. Tastings are by appointment only; be sure to call ahead.
Stay nearby: Bella Luna Inn is a small property with a sweeping saltwater pool in downtown Healdsburg.
The Biodynamic Experience
For a foray into a larger winery setting, one with a keen eye toward harmony with nature, and some incredible scenery, try Benziger. Knowledgeable guides take visitors on a bevvy of different tour choices for private or large groups. Wine tastings in the vineyards make a great daytime experience. This is a good place to learn the basics on biodynamics, after which you may want to hunt for more. Benziger is certainly not the only place. In Napa, consider Raymond Vineyards, whose owner Jean-Charles Boisset is cuckoo in love with biodynamic growing practices.
Stay nearby: Try Olea Hotel, a hillside boutique property set less than five minutes from Benziger.
For the Sake of Gorgeous Gardens
In Sonoma, Matanzas Creek Estate is a prime stop for its glorious lavender gardens. The soil, with its exceptional drainage, and the estate's particular climate are ideal for growing lavender. Every part of the fragrant plant is used to create products for cooking and spa treatments. Make the most of the bucolic ambiance with a game of bocce or a picnic on the grounds.
Stay nearby: The Gables Wine Country Inn, a lovingly restored Victorian mansion, is about 10 minutes' drive from Matanzas Creek Estate.
A weekend in wine country doesn't have to be all wine all the time. Quarry Hill Botanical Garden, in Sonoma, is a 25-acre botanical garden with a focus on plants from Asia. Think magnolias, maples, birches, lilies, and rhododendrons. Beautiful views, hidden corners, ponds and waterfalls make for the perfect afternoon setting.