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California wine country: Places in Napa and Sonoma that blew my mind.

Updated on October 20, 2015

California wine country

Vineyards | Source
The vines....
The vines.... | Source

Overwhelming and euphoric

*[My heart goes out to Napa residents and business owners hit hard by the earthquake. Some say while the damage was extensive it was in a relatively small area and Napa is already in full-on recovery.]

After years of me going on and on about wine country, my husband and I finally visited Napa and Sonoma this summer. We started off visiting family in San Francisco which was chillier than I expected but a nice climate break from our Florida steam bath. After Alcatraz, scanning the waterfront and the Golden Gates (bridge and park), Andy and I dropped our teen daughter with relatives and headed towards the vineyards.

From what I could scan from Napa and Sonoma maps, the regions looked geographically more manageable than places we've conquered in the past, but the vast number of wineries and culinary stops I needed to cram into four days sent me into my usual planning overload.

I am as any honest Type A traveler admits, too rigidly tied to the Plan. I demand too much from too many places until sites I hoped to savor blur from my overly ambitious check list. A 20 foot bronze monument of a fallen Colonel that overlooks a spectacular glassy lake, rapids that snake through layered Terra Cotta canyons or a historical marker with beloved meaning to local citizens, all of it reduced to a scavenger hunt find unless I knock myself out of auto-pilot.

I vowed to my husband who travels as the healthy type B (less is more), I would try to stay in the moment in wine country and God forbid maybe even accept Plan C. As it turns out, Napa and Sonoma's sun-drenched vines, carpeted hills, fascinating wine education and stark contrasts across the wineries drew me into a kind of euphoric storybook state while I sipped and savored. I had no choice but to pause.

Sonoma wine regions
Sonoma wine regions | Source
Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg.
Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. | Source

Napa or Sonoma

Years back when the thought of going to Napa and Sonoma was still percolating I read a few articles that described Sonoma as the more laid back rustic of the two regions.

"It's about the 'feel' of things," writes Tom Warg in his article Top 10 Differences Between Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley." "Napa is far more sophisticated a feel than in Sonoma, Yet Sonoma provides the visitor with the sense that they are wandering through an authentic and more rustic environment. To each their own... Sonoma Valley is bucolic, rustic and inviting while Napa Valley is sophisticated, well-appointed and business-like."

Comparing Napa to Sonoma might be similar I'd guess, to comparing Vail and Telluride. Although I've never been to Vail, Telluride is vivid in my mind twenty years later. Both (I'd guess) are breathtaking, both offer plenty of lodging and dining options for mid-plus size budgets and tastes, yet Napa like Vail might be as much about the place to be seen as it is noted for its award-winning fine wines. "That primary difference," writes Warg, "is that the winemaking and grapegrowing work in Napa is done with an eye equally trained on appealing to visitors. Sonoma Valley's winemaking and grapegrowing is done only a wink at tourism.

Napa vs. Sonoma food fights? Not likely.

*Napa was at one time (some might argue) more likely to entice food enthusiasts (French Laundry has a 3 star Michelin rating). However, our experience in Sonoma Valley at the Glen Ellen Inn , the down home eclectic Glen Ellen Star, and north at Healdsburg's fine-dining Dry Creek Kitchen served the best I've tasted anywhere with farm fresh creative plates.

(The Star waitress was however, utterly bored with my husband and I, biding her time until her shift was over. The Dry Creek Kitchen waiter was by contrast, warm and professionally flawless yet over the top, as if he was playing a white-glove Disney character on stage, "Well sir I'm terribly sorry you didn't like the Rose but I respect your courage to try something new.")

I haven't earned the right to compare Napa and Sonoma in any regard, after visiting a whopping three wineries and one tasting room in Napa and eleven wineries and one tasting room in Sonoma. I will say however, the center of Napa just didn't do it for us (to be fair, I only saw the center of town). Besides Oxbow Market, a lively indoor array of unique food and drink artisans (cheeses, a charcuterie, an oyster bar, a gluten free bakery, a spirits distillery etc), the town felt a bit sanitized. But wineries and town centers aren't on parallel planes and Napa's Raymond and Rutherford Grove, the first stops on our Napa Wine Trolley tour blew my newcomer's mind.

Ferrari-Carano wine caves
Ferrari-Carano wine caves | Source
Rutherford Grove, Napa
Rutherford Grove, Napa | Source

The call (and call back) of wine country

Among the many destinations I've mentioned to friends over the years, few evoked more "been there, need to go, or have to go back" comments than Napa and Sonoma. Accessible and affordable (with planning), wine country with its beautiful vineyards, eclectic tasting rooms, award winning wines, extraordinary dining and fascinating wine and estate educators, offers an infinite combination of sensory overloads.

I was however, primed to be wooed. Raised by parents who appreciated food and wine, my father was a culinary master in our kitchen and long time wine collector. He loved to share his passion with family and friends but he never tried to trump the neophyte. Wine for my father was never about showing off, price or pretense, it was about appreciating the vintage, a French Bordeaux or Burgundy he said for a decade then savored, and for what wine added to a spectacular dish he spent hours preparing.

Wine culture is a family affair in some nations but in the United States, family friendly amounts to the fascinating tours, to teaching kids about the viticulture and chemistry of winemaking. Before we went a close friend urged me to bring our teen daughter "She'll love it, our kids did" (years before she and her husband brought their three older school age kids but they only visited a couple wineries). Sipping wine for days while breathing in intoxicating vineyard horizons doesn't mix with a teen who after one our two tours won't be excited about what she can't taste. Beyond a day, wine country is to immerse yourself in viticulture and to blissfully (and hedonistically I might add) stoke your coupledom.

High on wine country

From the moment I toured wineries my senses were aroused but not just from the unaccustomed soft buzz at 2 o'clock or the farm to table culinary mind-blows, I was under the influence of wine country's natural and man-made beauty, mesmerized by the soothing symmetrical rows of lovingly tended vines that bear each season's prized fruit.

Standing in sun-drenched vineyards starkly contrasted when moments later our guide led us into dimly lit cool caves lined with French or American barrels that like teabags steeped twice, infuse their flavors until neutrality, an aging process dating back two millennia that despite advances in the chemistry of winemaking remain irreproducible.

At Rutherford Grove in Napa our tasting was at an elegant rustic long picnic table stretched under an ivy-covered pergola. Nearby a bright green manicured lawn expanded to a perimeter of lavender bushes and the vineyards that surrounded the estate. New to wine country my husband and I listened to the tourists and guides until wine gave me enough courage to ask pointed questions there, and at every winery thereafter.

Our estate educators were warm and highly knowledgeable. They encouraged interaction and coaxed shy visitors to ask the obvious as they poured and demystified the art and chemistry of wine, a world-wide interest that's unfortunately sometimes tainted by the vinophile snob. The staff's reverence for the sacrificial mother vines (some 80 to 90 years old) that produce each season's harvest and their passion for every vintage possibility was nearly palpable.

Wine country in its innumerable ancient and modern sensations simply can't disappoint unless you're one of the impossible to please.

Benziger tour

Have you ever been to Napa and/or Sonoma?

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Tours, sometimes worth the small crowd.

In Orlando where I live we're hands down the mecca of tourism (Vegas might disagree). Orlando sells and sells well I might add, tourist packages to please. Packaged tours, pre-made experiences are wise budgetary moves and an ideal first layer visit for couples and families. But for couples bound for memorable moments in wine country, I'd suggest keeping large tours to a minimum.

Napa Wine Trolley: Touristy ride, unique experience

On our first day in wine country my husband and I drove from San Fran to Napa. With an hour or so before the Wine Trolley was scheduled to arrive we grabbed a cup of coffee at a small cafe and walked around town.

At 10:15 about a dozen people met at Oxbow Market where our ride to four wineries was an open-air (covered seating available) authentic San Fran trolley manned by a 20-something 1940s dressed conductor who entertained with canned jokes and recorded big band music (My husband and I live to laugh but aren't so big on dinner club and Disney humor).

"Mike" was a pleasant driver but more skilled at stand-up comedy than imparting impassioned wine country knowledge which was hard to hear anyway over the rush of the highway. Traveling 65 mph (Hold your hat and forget your pretty hair or sit in the covered area), wineries with names I excitedly recognized whizzed by our window. The trolley was an exhilarating fun first step into wine country and although a bit on the schmaltzy side, the wineries were anything but.

Since my husband and I opted for only one day in Napa the trolley gave us a wide sampling of wines and wineries and avoided drinking and driving (in unfamiliar land) from point A to point Z. By our third stop (Cornerstone tasting room) we split a tasting and at Bell winery we opted out altogether and sipped water under a breezy pergola that overlooked the vineyards.Wine weary we discreetly eavesdropped on a private tasting for a young couple sitting a few tables away (I vowed to never be the couple who enjoyed vicariously through other table conversations and yet too tired to talk, I found the private tasting peripheral entertainment)

Lunch (included in the Wine Trolley price) was al fresco at a restaurant-deli near Cornerstone tasting room. Served on a quiet picturesque foliage-covered patio the buffet, like all food we tasted in wine country, was fresh and flavorful.

(When I bought our tickets online I called to ask if they could accommodate gluten-free. I was assured they could and would. When we arrived however, besides a side salad, the closest gluten-free option I could forage was to take the bread off my sandwich).

As expected the tour was on a tight time schedule and while I never felt rushed (an hour at each winery) I felt the squeeze when I was the only one in the tour still browsing the gift shop at Cornerstone except for a woman with limited mobility who needed a little help getting back to the Trolley.

Sonoma Valley: Glen Ellen: Benizger Tour, Imagery Winery

Our first morning after a restful night at Hotel Olea in Glen Ellen we met our Destination Driver Tom in the hotel lobby (Destination Drivers save money over black car services because the driver takes your car. Uber is also an option). Tom subbed that day for his wife Laurie who usually did the driving but was out of town. He was a gracious, fascinating man (retired corporate lawyer who used to live in Japan) who did a fine job answering our wine country questions and accommodating our needs (gluten free snack for me) and plan B wishes.

A month or so before our trip I emailed Laurie and she and I spoke. We narrowed down wineries to four or five based on our varietal preferences, how much time (and money) we wanted to spend and the feel we hoped to experience. Except for one winery Laurie suggested that sounded too touristy I thought her choices were spot on.

We started the day at Benziger, a mid-size production winery (every winery we visited was small to mid-size production except for Ferrari-Carano). Benziger has one of California's highest rated wine tours and is one of the few with Demeter certification. It's a biodynamic, organic and sustainable farm and winery.(many wineries in Napa and Sonoma are organic and/or biodynamic, few are Demeter certified. (Biodynamic refers to both the agricultural methods and the handling and processing of the fruit after harvest).

As you wait at Benziger's tree-covered tram depot with about twenty other people you might think you've stepped into touristy but this was, as the Sonoma Valley Tourism Bureau agent promised, more than worthwhile.

As our guide drove the tractor-pulled tram to the peak of the hilltop vineyards I sat back and breathed in Benziger's beautiful and vast property. The smiling high-energy twenty-something guide seemed like part of the Benzinger family (he wasn't), intimately knowledgeable of the workings, proud of his winery and vested in its success. The stop at the insectary where we sampled (wine not insects) was a must-not-miss and the production education about white vs red was a fascinating first look into the wine-making process.

When we finished at Benziger Tom suggested my husband and I check out but not necessarily commit to VJB Cellars. As I suspected VJB felt like a bit like Epcot Center's Italian "piazza," crowded and canned, perfect for a faux Italy feel but not necessarily the vibe I wanted in California wine country.

The attractive recently renovated Mediterranean complex at VJB offers large patio seating which when we arrived was filled with people listening to the weekend tenors singing "Volare." Ricardo Montablan might have walked in wearing his signature white suit and handed us a (no doubt spectacular) Chianti. We opted instead to pick up some of VBJ's delicious homemade deli and headed to Imagery winery instead.

At Imagery (sister winery to Benziger) we opted out of wine and sopped up some needed food, picnicking on the lawn under umbrella-covered tables. After lunch I walked a few yards a way and discovered Imagery's quiet and (blissfully empty) ivy-covered "Varietal Lane," two walls lined with plaques describing several varietals and their historical origin.

Hotel Olea
Hotel Olea | Source
Hotel Olea 12 rooms of tranquil in Glen Ellen.
Hotel Olea 12 rooms of tranquil in Glen Ellen. | Source

Finding the unique in the small or spectacular

After the Wine Trolley and downing a double espresso at Oxbow Market we drove to Sonoma Valley to Hotel Olea in the small, charming town of Glen Ellen (recommended by the agent at the tourism bureau).

A twelve room New England style porched inn, Hotel Olea is perched on the side of a small hill and backs to private woods and faces distant hills across the horizon. Olea offered quiet simple luxe amenties (heated bathroom floors, no phone or alarm), an intimate retreat with the privacy of an inn and personal family touch of a B&B. Each breakfast the chef prepared a delectable local farm to table gourmet breakfast (different each day) served on a small sun porch by one of the hotel's family members who went out of his way to make us feel welcome (the family who owns/runs Olea lives next door).

Our relaxed but well-appointed room and private first floor porch and side patio gave us a no "neighbor" feel unless we felt friendly and wanted to join others on the flagstone patio above the reception area. Comfortable rattan circle seating and a nightly burning fire welcomed us home every night and the lobby offered complimentary wine, tea and coffee around the clock.

Repris: A must not miss experience

Our grand finale in Sonoma Valley (after Benziger and Imagery wineries) was a private (to our surprise) 90 minute tour at Repris Vineyards, a spectacular 300 acre property located on top of Moon Mountain (by appointment only).

Our estate guide Skip handed us two glasses and led us into Repris's wine caves where the beautiful entrance was two facing rows of oak barrels, each illuminated by a single candle. As we walked Skip detailed the story behind the making of modern wine caves, stopping every few minutes to siphon for us a sample in varying stages. Next we jumped on an ATV drove to the top of one of the vineyards where Skip explained the history of the winery and the estate's ancient vines.

As we toasted and sipped a white poured into two glasses perched on an oak barrel, from our vantage point we scanned the vast estate below. We looked across the horizon and saw what Skip explained no other winery in the area can boast, the distant outline of the San Francisco skyline and a hint of the Golden Gate bridge with its recognizable fog. The moment felt sublime.


Wineries: Surreal, sublime or farmhouse simple.

What struck me most about touring wineries was the stark contrast, the variety of visceral reactions the owners clearly want visitors to take from their experience.

After four days of tastings the novelty of exploring every unique winery never got old but drinking wine for hours in the afternoon then trying to decide if I preferred the red Zin over the balanced Bordeaux once my tongue ran purple and grape saturated, did.

There's something stirring and almost unsettling about moving by foot or ATV from a hot sunlit vineyard into to a dimly lit cool windowless cave, to a populated or private tasting room, where primed with wine by one o'clock, our guide gently (and skillfully) presented not available-in-stores wine membership plans. Plied with gratitude and grape, plenty of people from our groups easily signed the expensive paperwork.

My husband I had resolved to remain strong against signing up for wine-mind memberships, the amicable soft guilt the guides and pourers hand people while we exchange wine stories is hard to resist. We held strong until Repris, where our private tour, faster than usual pour by Skip, gorgeous high-low landscape and the fact that Skip handed us crackers, cheese, wine and paperwork as he strategically "gave us time alone," to enjoy the view, weakened our interest to say no. When our case arrived months later the Red Zin we remembered loving was thin and unfinished.

I quickly understood why friends asked if we planned to buy wine while in wine country which I thought was ludicrous (why pay shipping?).

Wine club courtships are seductive, brief and intense. Sipping tourists are impressionable to small production impossible to find wines, and so are likely to open their wallet when the club options slide across the tasting bar. My husband and I politely declined every offer except at Repris and at Benziger where we bought a few special bottles to bring home (Benziger's 2011 Tribute, a Bordeaux blend, both spectacular).

Raymond winery: Moulin Rouge meets Salvador Dali

Raymond winery was a flamboyant creative over-the-top Alice in Wonderland imagined by Jean-Charles Boisset's vision of "elegant whimsicality." Crystal chandeliers, mirrors attached to steel wine barrels, unapologetic Opium Den imagination. Glistening metal catwalks dotted with "strutting" female mannequins dressed in barely-there Cabaret costumes, Cirque du Soleil plastic acrobats were posed in permanent upside down spins, ballasted to the catwalk by draped sheers. I could imagine Jay Gatsby pouring champagne with Salvador Dali. Near the public tasting bar and cashier, a tall well-lit glass etagere stood filled with Baccarat crystal pieces for last minute interested buyers.

Moments before our tour group walked into the Raymond caves and semi-private tasting area our guide directed us to the outside "Theatre of Nature," a laundry line of empty ornate picture frames hung to capture the sunlit vineyard in the background. Below the frames in the grass were two over-sized Dr. Seuss looking white clay-concrete armchairs. I envisioned myself sipping wine like Cat in the Hat with the Theatre of Nature as my backdrop.

Preston: Calm, down home country farm

Days later the surreal contrasted with the very real Preston winery, an organic vineyard and farm in Healdsburg with a casual tasting room and lazy indifferent cat stretched on the front porch. Yards away was a small one room farm store with a screen door and "Help yourself honor system" sign on the windowsill where I bought a $1.00's worth of mammoth sunflower seeds from a wicker basket and drooled over the basket of fresh eggs I couldn't pack in my suitcase.

A pleasant twenty-something farm hand sat on a small stool behind the general store in a shaded picnic area contentedly sorting (what I think) were recently pulled garlic stalks. Mellow and smiling up at us, she answered my questions with ease. Despite what looked (to me) like monotonous work I sensed she loved her job, and as with many staff at their winery homes, Preston. (One pourer told us she has the best job in the world because everyone at 4pm comes in in a good mood).

Behind her a few visitors sat at picnic tables housed in rustic gazebos that backed to the vineyards and crops. Preston's earthy, organic family farm feel held against Raymond's Alice in Wonderland whimsical opulence, neither better, both intensely memorable.

Truett-Hurst: Artsy wine cafe. Adirondacks by the river.

On our first day in northern Sonoma in Healdsburg my husband and I visited theTruett-Hurst winery where we were greeted in the tasting room by a smiling laid back middle-aged salt and pepper-beared man. In the corner an impressive Van Morrison-like musician sang while my husband bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and I wandered art lined walls.

Soon after we walked the estate, vineyards and open gardens on our way to a shady picnic area along the Dry Creek River. We were lucky to grab a couple bright and coveted bright red Adirondack chairs (I noticed reservation cards set for later that day on top of our oak barrel table). I set out my salads and sandwiches, deli I bought early that day from a specialty grocer in Healdsburg.

The quiet river flowed while we sipped wine and balanced our glass tumblers on the barrel between our chairs. Several yards to our left a pale-skinned thin forty-something man with his t-shirt trailing from his jean's backpocket stood painting on a small canvas the image of a woman napping next to him, her body stretched and blissed in an Adirondack, neither seemed to notice others existed. If not the oceans, original romance must have been born among the vineyards.

Resources for planning a trip to wine country

Mention wine country to friends and family and prepare for an exhaustive list of wineries and restaurants you "have" to see which of course makes the task of sifting and sorting that much harder.

Narrow your playing field by of course budget, but also by the feel you want to take away from wine country. Elegant or rustic. Earthy or contemporary. Private or group tours. Or as my husband and I decided, a bit of both.

Do you want to free wheel it and drive yourselves (not such a hot idea after multiple wine tastings unless you pass on too much sipping or split tastings) or do you want to hire a black car driver, tour bus, destination driver or Uber?

It turns out I took nearly all my chiropractor's northern Sonoma (Healdsburg) suggestions after he was kind enough to email me in descriptive detail, exactly why he loved x, y and z winery. I emailed the concierge at our hotel in Healdsburg (Hotel Healdsburg) my chiropractor's suggestions and she gave all of them a thumbs up, added a few of her own and told me not to bother buying a Wine Road pass because she had free tasting passes. And in the case of her suggestion Lambert Ridge, a spectacular all Redwood tasting room where the concierge on duty when we arrived at Hotel Healdsburg told us to simply mention the hotel and we'd be upgraded to the private tasting room, which I will say was beautiful in its all encompassing wood warmth).

I hoped to visit Shannon Ridge, one of my favorite exceptional-for-the-price wines and a must-see suggestion from my gracious and highly knowledgeable ABC wine consultant Carl but it was too far way to cram into our itinerary.

(Every wine lover needs a Carl. Carl has this gift for making customers feel that whatever wine they put in their cart is exactly right even though inside he might be thinking "You actually want to buy THAT schlock?" as my father used to refer to bad wine, which in his view was never about the price and always about the wine. Carl gently steers customers to "A surprisingly full-bodied-for-the-price Sauvignon Blanc you might like a little better").

After you put together your pile of must-not-miss suggestions from friends and family, let the experts weigh in (industry experts and the well-traveled):

  • Expert and traveler sites. I begin by reading area summaries on online travel sites such as Frommers and Fodors. Next, I scan rankings and traveler reviews on TripAdvisor, (area overview, restaurants, lodging and activities). I note common praise and frequent complaints. (Of course one traveler's A+ is another person's D- which is why I use expert reviews and industry articles as the deciding vote).

  • Industry periodicals. I never rely solely on expert advice. One travel writer or wine critic's opinion of a region or winery is as debatable as wine ratings. I did however, scan Wine Spectator, Food and Wine and Travel and Leisure online articles and from a few articles that sold me (more) on Sonoma, narrowed our itinerary to a half day in Napa and four full days in Sonoma (Two days in the Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen, and two days in northern Sonoma in Healdsburg).

  • Tourism Bureau. I called the The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. and a friendly helpful agent asked me three questions:

    1) Our budget (modest, medium, high or money-no-object)
    2) The number of days we wanted to spend in wine country
    3) Our varietal preferences. (Me: Red Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Husband: Red Zin, Petite Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Both: Sauvignon Blanc)

    As with all tourism-visitor centers, the agent sent me a packet stuffed with maps and travel guides and added me to their email blast. Based on my lodging criteria, she suggested a number of smaller boutique hotels (that I cross referenced with expert sites and TripAdvisor), gave me suggestions to save money on tours, tastings and drivers. Ultimately given our brief time in Napa she recommended we do the half day Napa Wine Trolley.

(Note: Visitor centers are a gold mine of free tips and resources and talking to an actual person on the phone to help you with your travel is a nice personal touch in our age of online everything. Tourism offices however, may have a vested interest in recommending a particular business so cross-reference referrals.)

And finally, the end.

My husband and I have always maintained a close connection even after our daughter was born and romance amounted to wiping green baby food off each other's shirt. And yet that 90 minute private tour at Repris winery where we toasted on the top of Moon Mountain, where we breathed in the deep green vine valleys below and the ghostly silhouette of the Golden Gate arches in the distance felt for a moment, like a romantic recoupling.

I was immersed into the sun-drenched beauty of wine country, drawn without knowing why to the symmetrical and soothing rows. As I learned how the climate-stressed grape leaves seasonally sacrifice their nutrients to bear fruit I sensed an ancient heartbeat in this land, a call forth to our primal selves. Yet wine country is also seeped in man-made permissible daytime indulgences, a buzz-tinged journey led by impassioned and knowledgeable winery guides who struck me as deeply soul-vested in their culture.

Napa and Sonoma left me with surreal memories, as if my experiences were wine-filled dreamy anecdotes pulled from a colorful storybook, a sensory fantasia where the moment I returned home unlike any trip before, I was ready to return.


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