One hit of wine country and your addiction will surpass Amy Winehouse’s. I still recall the emotional rush the first time I glimpsed the undulating hills and illustrious wineries on Napa’s Highway 29. Tingly, my fresh newbie-ness bubbled with fervor and newfound pleasure. It felt good — alluring and bewitching, with a heroin-like efficacy. Join me on the dark side of the vine while I provide a guide to Napa and Sonoma wine countries.
When to go
It’s tempting to travel during the heady harvest days (late August-early October), but don’t. Massive traffic and crowds quickly quell romance. Cheapest time to go: January-March. Naturally, there’s a reason for the reduced rates: rain, which is great for grapes but not tourists. It falls often during winter, and the damp, barren landscape isn’t exactly picturesque. During summer, however, the verdant vines soak up sunshine, and baby grape clusters begin to appear. The crowds and expenses grow, too. Hot during the day and cooler at night, it’s a great place to hang if you can afford the buzz. Be sure your visit coincides with one of the many wine events between January and August.
Where to go
Synonymous with American wine, Napa Valley offers a siren-like attraction. But don’t assume it’s your ideal partner. Quick litmus test — do you prefer Chicago or New York? Los Angeles or San Francisco? If New York and L.A. hold appeal, start in Napa; if Chicago and San Francisco, then Sonoma Valley. Napa offers wine glitz, money and business. Sonoma is down-to-earth with farming and tradition (with cheaper tasting room fees). If choosing seems pointless, it’s easy to visit both in a week.
The town of Napa is about one hour north of Oakland Airport. Charming St. Helena sits in a convenient spot to explore Napa Valley, and if cash isn’t an issue, stay at the luxuriant Inn at Southbridge on Highway 29. Be sure to grab lunch at celebrated Taylor’s Refresher drive-in across the street — a priceless (yet low-priced) experience.
Wineries to visit
No guide to Napa and Sonoma is complete without wineries recommendations. Napa (in no particular order): Clos du Val, Ceja, Domaine Carneros (worth even a drive-by to gawk at the chateau), Pine Ridge, Tres Sabores, Folio Winemaker’s Studio (tasting room for smaller, Mondavi family projects), Flora Springs, Folie à Deux, Merryvale, Benessere, Schramsberg, Miner and Honig.
If you’re headed to Sonoma, fly into San Francisco Airport and traverse the Golden Gate Bridge. Gaze and gush — it’s a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive to southern Sonoma. If time permits, stop at Muir Woods and marvel at the ancient redwood trees, fat and gigantic enough to leave you in awe. Stay in or near Santa Rosa, since virtually all destinations are within a 20-minute drive.
Sonoma (in no particular order): Hanna, Iron Horse, Kendall Jackson Wine Center (walk the sensory garden), Ridge, Preston Vineyards (bring a picnic lunch or buy some delicious cheese and bread there), Rosenblum Cellars, Pellegrini, Family Wineries of Healdsburg or “Locals” in Geyserville (two tasting room co-ops of smaller wineries), Simi, Murphy Goode, BR Cohn (snag some olive oil, too), Ferrari Carano, Sbragia Family Vineyards and Benziger (be sure to ride the cheesy tram).
A few insights
1. Consider hiring a driver (hotel should know), since getting sauced in wine country is not only a foregone conclusion, it’s encouraged; 2. Cattle car “wine tours” — never done one, but never heard a rave, either; 3. Visiting more than five wineries in a day is pushing it; 4. If special treatment is what you seek (tours, barrel tastings, etc.), many wineries are amenable to requests — check their websites; and 5. Keep in mind you’re entering into a lifelong addiction and plan accordingly.
(Wine trippin’ — part two)
Last week, I plotted a wine trek through the Napa and Sonoma valleys, but now we go where many haven’t ventured: Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties and Willamette Valley, Ore. Cheaper, less crowded and more tranquil, these hypnotic destinations reflect a pace of life that seems unattainable given my manic machinations. But a serene sojourn to wine country at least provides a desired dose of peace.
One and a half hours north of Los Angeles lies Santa Barbara County: quaint towns; friendly, fun wineries and a smattering of Sideways-inspired glitz. This county’s coastal wine region has three appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Santa Maria profits from the east-to-west mountains that funnel natural air-conditioning over the vines (and results in nipple-hardening mornings even in the summer). It’s here that Bien Nacido Vineyards — a sprawling, coveted 90-acre plot of land — births some of my favorite chardonnays and pinot noirs. In this valley, you’ll find Au Bon Climat, Foxen and Qupé — three stellar wineries. Santa Rita Hills, the newest and smallest region, has the one of the most anal-retentively maintained wineries I’ve ever toured: Melville Vineyards. Its amazing estate pinots prove cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.
Where to go
The Santa Ynez Valley, the hottest region that ripens robust Rhône grape varieties such as syrah and grenache, hosts the majority of the wineries. For prime location, stay in or around Los Olivos and avoid Solvang, unless you prefer cheesiness with your brats in a German Disneyesque town. Outside Solvang, however, is the Hitching Post, a carnivore’s dream restaurant. If your pilgrimage is during the summer (recommended) bring a picnic, grab a bottle of chilled viognier at Zaca Mesa Winery and soak up atmosphere that purifies the soul.
Mendocino County, which thrives on two different crops — the legal and illegal — grew organic before organic was cool. And not the hairy-armpit-chick-from-your-woman’s-lit-class organic. It grows good grapes. Mendocino evokes idyllic vineyard landscapes: agrestic, rolling hills covered in meticulous rows of vines and peaceful mountains that keep the grapes blanketed with nurturing warm air. You won’t find ostentatious, affluence-ridden wineries, though; the attitude here is “we’re all about the land.” The place feels genuine — untouched by the effete commercialism that has permeated, and in some aspects spoiled, Sonoma and Napa valleys. It’s as close to heaven as this heathen will ever get.
Stay in Ukiah and sample its microbreweries for a change from a wine-stained day. From this liftoff, visit Roederer Estate, the American home of its French Champagne parent, then Husch, Navarro and Yorkville Cellars. If time permits, travel east to Lake County and check out the biodynamically farmed Ceago Vinegarden.
Fifteen years ago, Oregon wine conjured up hillbillies with bathtubs, but they’ve matured. Their pinot noirs, and its cousin, pinot gris, are made with love and lots of money and have become the new VIP of American pinots. Fly into Portland and drive one hour south to Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) Valley. A central place to stay is Newburg (cheaper) or Dundee (more scenic). Good eats in the ‘hood: Tina’s and Dundee Bistro.
Wineries to visit
(Limiting my choices proved excruciating): Adelsheim, Benton Lane, Bethel Heights (pack a picnic to park next to the vineyards), Carlton Winemaker’s Studio, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, Lemelson, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser and Witness Tree. And for the sake of novelty, take a tour of America’s only rice wine producer, Sake One, in Forest Grove to the west of Portland.
If you’ve ever thought about visiting wine country, don’t hesitate. With everything attacking our spirit these days, we deserve a respite. Go — you and your soul will embrace it.