Northern California Wine Tasting
Nearly perfect year-round weather, picturesque scenery, an amazing array of dining options, and wine to suit anyone's palate. Whether you are an experienced wine connoisseur and collector, or just discovering wine for the first time, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wine regions offer something for just about everyone. While the two valleys share a geographical border, and are located only miles apart, the differences in the two are striking. Both produce world-class wine, however each has it's own unique characteristics, and present the traveler with a slightly different, but no less rewarding experience.
The Napa valley is probably the most famous and heavily trafficked wine producing region in the United States. It's also the first term that comes to mind when anyone brings up the topic of California wine in casual conversation. The valley is comprised of two main roads, highway 29 and Silverado Trail road which run parallel to each other in a North/South direction. These two main arteries are then connected by a handful of East/West roads running across the valley floor. Both main roads are littered with wineries, often requiring little more than pulling out onto the shoulder of the road to move from one tasting room to the next. As you move north through the valley on the highway after leaving the town of Napa, you'll work your way through the small, quaint towns of Rutherford, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. The geography and road layout of the valley makes enjoying this area incredibly easy.
The Sonoma Valley is located just to the West of the Napa valley, the east side of the Sonoma Valley being defined by the same hillside that creates the western border of the Napa Valley. For me the term "Sonoma" has always been a bit misleading. The town of Sonoma itself is located at the southern end of the valley. And while there are a large number of wineries and tasting rooms in and around the town itself, the real gems are located further north in Sonoma County, such as Santa Rosa, Geyserville, Healdsburg, and Forestville. Sonoma's layout is in contrast to Napa's grid system. Rather than two main roads connected by crossings, your drive through Sonoma will encounter twists, turns, hills, valleys, and wineries and tasting rooms that are much more "off-the-beaten-path" than their Napa counterparts. While this does nothing to diminish the quality of the wine or the tasting experience, it contributes to the overall attitude of Sonoma as being more rustic, earthy, and somewhat more laid-back.
When To Visit
I'm biased, we live in the midwest, which only has favorable weather about 1/3 of the year. While the summer months in northern California can be very hot during the day, nights are more than comfortable. Spring can lead to more rain, and in the winter months there have been reports of snow and frost on the valley floor, wreaking havoc with the grape vines. Late September is a unique time of the year because this is when both valley's are in full swing with the annual harvest. Often the wineries feature special dinners, tasting menus, and tours that showcase the winery operation at full capacity as truck loads of freshly harvested grapes are brought to the "crush-pads" for processing from a simple fruit, into the fine wine that you will sample in the tasting rooms.
The Tasting Experience
While each valley is known for producing a particular type of wine, cabernet in the case of Napa and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma, there is no reason to limit your experience to those varietals in those areas. Almost every winery in Napa also produces a chardonnay, and many also produce Pinot Noir. Many, if not all, also produce zinfandel, merlot, petite syrah, and even sangiovese. There's something for everyone. In fact, the ability to compare different types of wine that are produced in two geographically distinct areas is one of the appeals of the region. Chardonnay produced from a Napa winery, is often quite different from a winery located in Sonoma. While the underlying ingredient, the grape, is the same, the climate, geography, and wine-making styles all differ, creating stylistic differences.
Wine enthusiasts are not unlike the "ski-bum" who moves to Aspen to live a mountain lifestyle, or the "beach-bum" who move to Hawaii to become one with wind and wave. Without exception, almost everyone that works in a tasting room is not only passionate about wine, but is more than willing to share what they know and answer any questions you might have. If they mention a process or term that you're not familiar with, simply ask them to explain it in detail and they'll be more than happy to educate you. If a particular tasting menu does not feature the types of wines you typically like, simply ask and quite often your pourer will be more than happy to allow you to substitute wines in a tasting flight. I can't quantify how many, but I'm sure we've purchased bottles of wine from wineries simply because the pourer was engaging and fun to chat with, regardless of how good the wine may have actually tasted.
The geography of the two regions isn't the only difference. In the Napa Valley, you'll often hear the phrase "Cab is King" in reference to the abundace of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and vintages that are featured throughout the valley. You'll still find excellent Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel wines at the Napa wineries. However it wont' take you long to figure out that Cabernet is staple varietal of most of the wineries. If you venture over to Sonoma, you'll find a larger selection of Chardonay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. The point to remember is that regardless of what your wine preference is, you'll find more than enough to interest you palette in either area. I'd recommend spending at least one day in each area to get a feel for which valley you like, then re-focussing your attention on specific areas and wineries on subsequent visits. Nobody said you can only make one trip!
Where to Stay
Lodging options are as abundant as the endless rows of grapevines, however where you stay can affect your experience. The two valleys are close enough that regardless of where you stay, you can easily spend a day on either side, experiencing everything each valley has to offer. Large, resort style hotels are not as common, however if you've never taken the chance to experience true Bed 'n Breakfast lodging, there is no better place. Start your day waking up to the smell of a home-cooked breakfast and fresh fruit picked from a garden in the inn's back yard. Upon returning after a day of tasting, often many of the innkeepers arrange additional wine tastings specifically for their guests in their lobby or living rooms.
Another type of lodging, which takes the bed 'n breakfast model to even greater heights is the winery guest cottage. For example, at Dutch Henry winery in Calistoga, available as a perk to wine club members of select wineries, these small cottages are located on the grounds of the winery. While they don't feature the creature comforts of maid service and dining options in the hotel or inn, there is something very hypnotic about waking up every morning looking down over the Silverado Trail and watching the sun start to light up the vineyards on the valley floor.
If you're looking for the best of both worlds, the Harvest Inn in St. Helena may be your best bet. Located right in the middle of the valley, it's a short drive to start your tasting each day, as well as a short and convenient drive to the numerous restaurants in Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga for dinner. Many of the rooms back up to a vineyard, and all include complimentary breakfast each morning. The lobby lounge also featured complimentary tastings from local wineries each night on the weekends. Beautifully manicured and landscaped grounds create a quaint and idyllic atmosphere in the middle of what some would call "ground-zero" of the Napa Valley.
Where to Eat
Ask any "foodie" about the role wine contributes to a meal, and you shouldn't be surprised to hear that great wine and great food go hand-in-hand. Napa and Sonoma are becoming equally synonymous with world-class cuisine as they are with world-class wine. Whether you decide to stay in Napa, or in one of the other towns located up the valley, there is no shortage of amazing restaurants to fit any taste or budget. Just like the wineries, you can visit the area multiple times and never eat at the same restaurant twice. A couple of great spots for lunch are the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, Ca, the TraVigne pizza place in St. Helena, or our favorite lunch joint, Taylors automatic refresher in St. Helena. It's definitely touristy, and the line can be long, but a greasy double cheeseburger or fish taco from Taylors is a great way to take a break from tasting in the valley. For dinner we've eaten at Bistro Don Giovanni (italian), Fume (italian), Go Fish (american seafood and sushi), Tra Vigne (crazy good italian), and The Flatiron Grill (american steaks/chops) and the bar at Auberge de Soleil which probably has the most incredible view in the area.
Someone once asked me "what's the point of traveling across the country to taste wine in California, when you can just go to a tasting at your local wine shop and taste the same wine"
First, many of the wines poured in winery tasting rooms are not available at your local retail outlet. Second, but more important, wine has always held a certain amount of romanticism with me. The ability to make the connection in my head between the label on the bottle, and picturing the exact vineyard that wine came from, is much more alluring than simply guzzling a beer and picturing a field of wheat and barley somewhere in the middle of Kansas.