Wine Country, California: Off the Beaten Path in Napa and Sonoma
Just north of San Francisco sits the premier United States wine producing region. This area, known as "wine country", is the combined counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino in California. The wine country's climate is tempered by its proximity to several major bodies of water making this the perfect place to grow the best grapes for wine production.
Visitors to the area usually come to visit the wineries either during growing season or the late summer "crush" when the grapes are harvested. But they generally leave having fallen in love with the region's rich arts, entertainment, culture, cuisine and the laid-back demeanor of its citizens.
When you arrive, however, be prepared to spend some quality time in your car, as most of the roads are two-lanes only. And remember what I said about the laid back demeanor? Let's just say that you'll be doing quite a bit of driving. Fortunately, as you meander Highway 29, you will pass miles and miles of spectacular scenery consisting of precision-like rows of grapevines and spectacular homes and wineries.
Be sure to stop in at the wineries that you pass, as most have a tasting room where, for a few dollars (some at no charge) you can sample some of the most exquisite wines produced in the country. If you're driving, however, don't forget to take advantage of the strategically-placed spit bowls.
While wine connoisseurs visiting wine country head right for the wineries that make the highest quality wines, and average tourists generally head for wineries that have names they are familiar with, I prefer destinations with ambiance, character and history to them.
Wine Country: Calistoga's Sterling Vineyards
Located in Calistoga, Sterling Vineyards has been producing superior wines for 40 years. Perched atop a hill, its mission-style buildings do not do the winery justice. Inside, you will find it filled with 1960's memorabilia, and the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows are absolutely breathtaking. What makes Sterling Vineyards unique is the aerial tram that you need to take to reach the winery. Each gondola gives its riders 360 degree views of the countryside, and if I had to find a downside to this, I would have to say that the ride is just too short.
Word of warning -- If you are slim, pick similar friends to ride with as the gondola feels much more precarious than it really is.
A little trivia on the history for you. Until approximately 2000, Sterling Vineyards was owned by Seagrams which also owned Perrier-Jouet, Mumm and Chivas Regal.
Wine Country: Rutherford's Beaulieu Gardens and the Rutherford House
Beaulieu Vineyards is located on St. Helena Highway in Rutherford, and has been producing wonderful wines since 1900. The public wine tasting building is small, modern and minimalist -- a complete yawn. But do whatever you can to get a pass to visit Beaulieu Gardens, one of the most spectacular horticultural experiences in the area. There, acres and acres of every flower you can imagine, puncuated by buildings dating back to the late 1800's will take your breath away. Just a few minutes on the grounds and you will swear that Tinkerbell is standing by with a remote control to switch on the hummingbirds as you walk by -- it's simply that perfect.
Rutherford House is located in Beaulieu Garden and is typically reserved for use by visiting corporate
dignitaries and industry folk. But wheel and deal to get a pass. It
will be well worth it. Oh, and don't forget to try their Georges de Latour and Beauzeaux wines while you're there. They are two of my favorites.
Wine Country: Napa's Inglenook Winery
The cavernous stone buildings on this property and the stone archway that greets you upon entry bely the history of the Inglenook winery, now the Rubicon Estate Winery. Gustave Niebaum passed through San Francisco for the first time in 1868. He settled there, married and established the Inglenook winery. Niebaum was Finnish and was an avid sailor. Inglenook, loosely translated, means 'seat by the hearth' where undoubtedly his wife waited for him as he was out on his seafaring adventures.
Cut to modern day where, although Inglenook has passed through various corporate hands and the wine itself has, disappointingly, become almost synonymous with 'jug wine', the winery itself is astonishing and filled with history.
In 1975, famous movie director Francis Ford-Coppola purchased Niebaum's Victorian home, its olive groves and 120 acres of surrounding vineyards. Not only is it a sublime experience to stroll through the olive groves overlooking the vineyards and Coppola's spectacular home, but tasting the co-produced Niebaum-Coppola wines is well worth the experience.
Wine Country's Other Great Things To Do
- Hot air balloon rides over the vineyards: Very touristy, I know. But breathtaking nonetheless. Be forewarned, the locals will scoff at you for having done this, but your photos will blow your friends away.
- Napa Valley Mustard Festival: Originally designed to boost tourism during the off season when wild mustard was in bloom and the vineyards were resting, this festival has become a celebration of wine country cuisine, arts, culture and entertainment. Check their calendar for events running from January through March. Depending on when you visit, you may also want to check out the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival, the Russian River Winter Wonderland, Mendocino's Crab and Wine Days, and the Yountville Festival of Lights.
- Jellybeans anyone? No ambiance here, but a lot of character and history. The Jelly Belly factory is open for tours to the public. Jelly Belly was founded in 1869, and was known as the Herman Goelitz Candy Co.until 1976 when a Los Angeles candy distributor had an idea about making jelly beans with unique and natural flavorings. They contacted Goelitz, and the Jelly Belly was born. The first factory is located a mere 20 miles outside of Napa, so make the detour. You will enjoy the sugar rush.
- Outpost Winery: If you're looking for spectacular views of Napa and exquisite Zinfandal, you've found it in the Outpost Winery. Outpost is located off the Silverado Trail and is a gem in the world of boutique wines. They are definitely into quality more than quantity and have even been written up the the Wine Spectator magazine. And when you're there, be sure to ask for Frank.
- Restaurants: My personal favorites: Solbar in Calistoga, offering California cuisine and an unbelievable dining room situated under solar panels and Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena offering a California twist on the burger. Here, you can watch the sun set over the vineyards while you munch on an ahi burger with wasabi-ginger mayo.
- Anyone for Spelunking? Just kidding. The Jarvis Winery is unique in that the owners, William and Leticia Jarvis, built the winery inside of a cave to ensure consistent temperatures. The result? Ultra-premium, must-try wines, and an experience you will remember for a lifetime.